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Anti-Heroes and Sociopathy


Whatever Happened to Superman?

A few questions to ponder: Are the growing number of anti-hero protagonists in


television dramas a direct result of the average American television viewers infatuation with the
qualities of a sociopath? Could the prominence of sociopathic anti-heroes in American
television dramas be playing a role in the social behaviors of these viewers? Or is the reason that
we see more Anti-hero protagonists on our television screens because we feel that we need to
connect to characters that resemble what we feel is quintessential? More importantly, however,
When did everyone in America become a sociopath?
The anti-hero has been a compelling icon in literature since the beginnings of Greek
theatre. A common character archetype for either a protagonist or an antagonist, the anti-hero
breaks the code of the traditional hero by adhering to a disorderly and ambiguous morality.
Where the traditional hero is often deemed as the Ultimate Good, the moral compromises that
the anti-hero makes can often be seen as Chaotic Neutral, where there is typically an
unpleasant means to an end for any conflict. Dexter Morgan, televisions most beloved vigilante
serial killer, often finds the need to jeopardize his established moral code in order to prevent
being discovered for who he is. This includes eliminating those that pose a threat to keeping his
secret safe. For one reason or another, there is now an abundance of these anti-hero protagonists
populating Americas most watched television dramas in this decade. And this is why I make
the claim that we are currently in something of a stasis in American television: our dramas are
primarily focused on these ethically flawed characters that we title anti-heroes. Much of
televisions most popular programs in the last ten years have portrayed the darkest and most

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morally ambiguous characters that humanity can offer, and the average American television
viewer seems to love it. Observe the most recent Primetime Emmy Award events in the last
decade and a half: Of the last fourteen Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series awards,
twelve have been given to actors that have portrayed characters that have been associated with
the characteristics of the anti-hero.
Dating back to 2000, the winners have been as follows: James Gandolfini won three
Emmys as Tony Soprano, Michael Chiklis won one as Vic Mackey in The Shield, James
Spader won three as Alan Shoreone for The Practice and two for Boston Legal
Kiefer Sutherland won once as 24s Jack Bauer, Bryan Cranston has hoisted three as
Walter White on Breaking Bad and Damien Lewis garnered one last year playing
Nicholas Brody on Homeland. (Hajducky).

By popular demand, we are stagnant in the middle of an anti-hero era where the admiration for
this particular archetype is louder than the admiration for the clear good guy.
But, whatever happened to Superman? Well, characters that shine as morally pure and
upright dont resonate with us anymore because the concept is no longer logical: We have been
shown what television and film can bring to us in the realm of broken, realistic protagonists and
we seem to relate better to them because this is exactly who we interact with in nearly every
casual encounter that we have in our everyday lives. The driver that cut you off on the thruway,
the coffee shop clerk that served you less than what you paid for, or the friend that has just
demeaned you behind your back: each of these characters hold realistic representations of human
interaction. However, we are not at fault for admiring the sociopathic behaviors of our favorite
television anti-heroes; we have been spoiled by the glorification of the morally unethical through
American media. Terror and greed flourishes in this century so much to the point where anyone
with an observable agenda is accused of some sort of malfeasance by the American populace.
Take for example Barack Obamas more recent support of wiretapping American citizens: there

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is no definitive proof that the reasoning behind it is to spy on his own people for nonsensical and
invasive purposes, yet he receives backlash for it. The 21st century so far has given us plenty of
reason to distrust our neighbor: 9/11 terrorist attacks, Iraq War, The Boston Marathon Attacks,
Al Qaeda Conspiracy, Egyptian Revolution, and Syrian Conflict are a small few. At home, we
live in an age of divorce, economic disparity, and bigotry. An obsession with circumstances that
affect others lives in the most negative manner has manifested, but who is really to blame for
this? Was the obsession conceived through the glorification of negativity? Or were we simply
looking for a way to express our innate desire for malevolence? The question, like whether the
chicken or the egg came first, cannot be answered. Whats certain though, is that no one is
perfect. And watching someone perfect has finally become dissatisfying to the average
American viewer. Our collective faith in humanity is being challenged through the persistent
and never ending civil war of our species.
However, having a familiar morality isnt exactly what makes the anti-hero so enticing,
although it is a strong basis for why we relate to them. If realistic characteristics and origins
were enough on their own to hold the attention of the American audience, we would be more
entertained by looking at our own reflection. What truly guides our interests towards these
characters is the fantasy of living beyond the restrictions of society. The fantasy sociopath is
consistently outside social norms largely bereft of human sympathy, but simultaneously a
master manipulator, instrumentalizing social norms to get what he or she wants (Kotsko). Not a
single feeling of social mortality was able to deny Nancy Botwin of Weeds her self-given right to
sell drugs at her sons soccer game. And it is the irony that these sociopaths are more in control
of their lives than we are of ours that makes the relationship between the television drama anti-

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hero and the viewer symbiotic in nature. We feed on their character traits just as much as they
feed on our attention and admiration.
Anti-heroes liberate us. They reject all social norms, pressures, and expectations that
have been imposed on us since before we were able to comprehend the difference between good
and bad behavior. In this respect, they do things that we are either afraid to do or are not capable
of and we live vicariously through them for hours at a time. Watching Tony Soprano on The
Sopranos allows the television audience to experience true social control, while simultaneously
giving us a desire to become threatening and unpredictable. Now, what does this do to the
average television viewer over a long period of time? The anti-hero era has spawned much of
the cult fandom that is currently active online through blogs and dedicated forums. Much of the
obsessive fan base for shows such as Dexter, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men attempt to implement
characteristics of their favorite sociopathic anti-heroes into their own personalities because the
lives of these characters are deemed by the viewer as more interesting than their meaningless
daily operations. The influence that these types of characters have on the fans of these shows is
now so strong that there is an even greater blur between what is fiction and non-fiction. Walter
White, the sociopathic protagonist anti-hero of Breaking Bad (Which has won 95 separate
awards through the Primetime Emmys, Creative Arts Emmys, Golden Globes, and more), was
honored by his fans with an obituary in the Albuquerque newspaper following the series finale.
The fans giving a fictional character a real obituary in a local newspaper as a form of closure?
Thats nothing to laugh about. According to the network, AMC: 10.3 million viewers tuned in to
watch the end of Walter Whites story, and 1.24 million tweets from over 601,000 different users
referenced the show while the finale was being broadcast in the United States (Bishop). These

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numbers alone show how significant this series became in American television history, and how
many people (mainly Americans) have been effected by Mr. White himself.
There is credible evidence that some cultures contain higher concentrations of sociopathy
than others. Sociopathy appears to be relatively rare in certain East Asia countries, notably
Japan and China. Whereas in the West, one in twenty-five people are likely to show some form
of antisocial personality disorder (Stout). The 1991 Epidemiologic Catchment Area Study,
sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health, reported that in the fifteen years preceding
the study, the prevalence of antisocial personality disorder had nearly doubled among the youth
in America (Stout). And apparently, cultural influences play a very important role in the
development of sociopathy in any given population. So whos to say that our recent addiction to
the fantasy sociopath in our favorite television programs hasnt distressed the mental health of
the average American viewer? Perhaps the popular new activity known as binge-watching is
affecting our psyches more than we had already anticipated and observed. Long periods of
exposure to anything can have lasting effects on your person, but if we really take a look at
sociopaths and how we reward them in our entertainment, we could soon see detrimental
changes to the overall attitudes and behaviors of the television audiences if the aforementioned
trend continues.
So, when did everyone in America become a sociopath? Theres really no answer.
Whether the average American has always been a sociopath or has adopted sociopathy through
our most recent obsession with the television anti-hero is something that cant be analyzed
thoroughly. What is noted, however, is that we have potentially trapped ourselves in a vicious
cycle of specific social behavior that has only recently begun to exist with the dawning of the
21st centurys popular television dramas. Now that we have seen what television and film

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dramas can offer with this interesting type of protagonist, will we ever escape the trend and
move past the anti-hero? Or will we continue to desire the characteristics of the social jester?

Works Cited
Bender, H. Eric, M.D. "Rise of the Antihero." Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, 29 Sept.
2013. Web. 04 Apr. 2014.
Bishop, Bryan. "'Breaking Bad' Series Finale Breaks Records for Ratings and Piracy." The Verge.
Vox Media, 30 Sept. 2013. Web. 21 Apr. 2014.
Hajducky, Dan. "The Anti-Hero Era: Why Do the Bad Guys Rule TV?" Den of Geek. Den of Geek
US, 2 Oct. 2013. Web. 04 Apr. 2014.
Michael, Jonathan. "The Rise of the Anti-Hero." RELEVANT Magazine. RELEVANT Media Group,
26 Apr. 2013. Web. 04 Apr. 2014.
Stout, Martha. "Culture." The Sociopath next Door: The Ruthless versus the Rest of Us. New
York: Broadway, 2005. N. pag. Print.