Thursday, July 24, 2014

(TV) Why Do We Hate Powerless Characters?

Walter White was a bastard beyond repute. From watching someone die have could have saved to poisoning a child and worst of all, being able to justify it all with a straight face. Walt's pride and ego destroyed just about everybody he came across, friend and foe alike however, many fans of the show were able to root for him till the very end while harboring a deep hate for his compromised wife Skylar which points to a central problem in modern television and increasingly in wider society.

The hate was so virulent for Walt's better half that Anna Gunn (who played Sklyar White) wrote an article in the New York Times addressing it.  There are a number of reasons you could point to as why she was so hated from her being the most consistent obstacle throughout the run of Breaking Bad in Walt's way realizing his inner badass or the criminal lack of character development of Skylar arguably up until the last two seasons to offset the more unlikable traits of her character but the real reason is that if there one thing a modern TV watcher can't stand is characters who are powerless.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not talking about a pathological hate for characters on the lower rungs of the social ladder or an institution otherwise large chunks of The Wire would be unwatchable but a real disdain for a character who fails again and again, even in a favorable position to do so, to exercise moral agency. People have many reasons why they love a character but what is consistent among them is a character ability to exercise moral agency and Skylar, throughout the run of Breaking Bad, failed spectacularly to exercise hers. 

Even when she had the whip hand over Walt when she cornered Walt into admitting his meth cooking activities, she failed, even under advisement, to take control of the situation as Walt, a character with real moral agency, was able to circumvent every measure Skylar laid in his path to the point that Skylar gave up and became even more complicit in his crimes. Walt, as we were to find out, didn't have a moral bone in his body but he was always able to exercise moral agency even if he did err on the side monstrous evil nine times of out ten.   

Another example of audiences reacting badly to characters with little or no moral agency is Sansa in Game of Thrones which is made worse by the fact that many of the young and female characters in the piece have no problem exercising their moral agency. For example, Sansa's younger sister Arya, who is arguably in a more perilous position than her older sister, is perfectly capable of exercising moral agency arguably better than some of the older characters in GOT universe which only serves to amplify Sansa's perennial victimhood as she encounters one tormentor to the next.

Even in this season's run of the show when we see Sansa show her capacity to knowingly lie to authority figures when testifying in Peter Baelish's trail in front of the high lords of The Vale, it was act of loyalty or allegiance to Peter Baelish , once again another person with true moral agency, who so far has proven himself as a man not to be trusted on numerous occasions.

The Show is littered with psychopaths cold blooded killers, manipulative and cold blooded political operators and just genuinely unlikable people you thank the gods that you'll never met in person yet, somehow, a young innocent girl who watched her father lose his head, suffered sustained abuse and humiliation at the hands of her hosts/captors who also devised the wholesale murder of her mother, older brother and sister in law is the object of much hate and derision by many fans of the show shows either how important moral agency is in character development or serious deficiency in empathy in postmodern TV viewership.

Sure it can and will argued that Skylar and Sansa are both works of fiction and whether we love or hate them is inconsequential or that we watch TV to be entertained and characters who do not service this need are likely to feel the audiences' wrath but the almost pathological hate for powerless characters is telling and often spills over into in the real world The most poignant examples of this strange dichotomy are found in  rape cases such as the Steubenville rape case where the moral agency of the victim, instead of the perpetrators, become the subject of debate.   

However, getting your capacity for moral agency questioned in the public is much better than being rendered invisible like most us are as real life human beings are often out in positions where our moral agency is compromised on a daily basis. Perhaps this is why we hate powerless characters as they reflect a certain truth about ourselves we don't like and like even less when made to confront it in our fiction, the one place we can escape it. 

In sum, whether it's the lack of moral agency or an unthinking dislike for human weakness, powerless characters are going nowhere in fiction as they are in society and indeed many of us who make up the numbers in the real world are more powerless than we'll like to admit. The Skyar's and Sansa's of modern fiction may have their moral agency tested but it's the real world where we must be careful of  imitating our ambivalence towards powerless as that's when things get complicated.   

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