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Against Antiheroes

It's time to retire television's most overused buzzword

I recently received an email from the publicist for Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her declaring that “The protagonist, Yunior, is also a bit of an anti-hero, which makes these topics all the more interesting and relatable.” There it was again: antihero, that vague and fashionable word, with its connotation of middle-aged family men and their shadowy consciences. To be clear, Diaz’s Yunior is not an antihero. He is a vulnerable, likeable protagonist with human flaws, as most every protagonist in the history of literature has been. But it was hardly surprising that a publicist, in search of an easy toehold on the zeitgeist, would deploy the word. Somehow “antihero” has come to represent an impossibly broad characterological range: from psychopathic drug lords to well-meaning serial killers to wayward Dominican kids who sometimes mistreat women because of culturally-ingrained misogyny.

More than a decade after Tony Soprano cried about ducks and several weeks before Walter White completes his infernal transformation, this is perhaps the most overused term in all of pop culture. I should clarify that I also say this in response to myself, as I recently wrote an essay about “Breaking Bad” that featured “antihero” in the headline. And granted, the TV obsession with troubled bad boys borders on self-parody. AMC teased its new drama, “Low Winter Sun,” in ways that felt like a comically transparent attempt to get in on the antihero hype: “Good man. Cop. Killer,” the ads proclaimed. But the sheer volume of antihero references over the past few months seems like evidence of a current tendency in cultural criticism to rely too heavily on pre-established archetypes. At this point, “antihero” barely means anything at all.

The recent books Difficult Men by Brett Martin and The Revolution Was Televised by Alan Sepinwall, which both chart the golden age of TV drama, have launched countless essays about our era of antiheroes; TV showrunners themselves have even been characterized as the antiheroes of showbiz. An article in The American Spectator was titled “In Defense of the Antihero,” though today’s antiheroes scarcely need defending. The Global Post weighed in on  “Snowden, Manning, and the Rise of the American Antihero.” Amazon lists some three hundred titles containing the word over the past few years alone.

What, exactly, does “antihero” mean? Merriam-Webster traces its first appearance back to 1714 and murkily defines it as “a protagonist or notable figure who is considerably lacking in heroic qualities.” Some books on the subject claim that the term has its roots in the idea of the Byronic hero, though this is a far more concrete and specific type: Byron’s leading men are melancholic loners with a distaste for authority, struggling to overcome their own dark pasts. In Hollywood, the concept has been around at least since films of the '40s and '50s began exploring the new post-war cynicism, and an action film actually titled "Anti-hero" appeared in 1999. Britannica cites as some early antiheroes Satan in Paradise Lost, Heathcliffe in Wuthering Heights, and Don Quijote, none of whom are particularly useful analogues for the wretched, morally bankrupt leading men of cable drama. And the men of HBO and AMC are not as similar in their sinfulness as they have been made out to be. Walter White is by now less an antihero than a straightforward villain, a macho foil for Hank. "Antihero" implies that a character encourages a conflicted sympathy; Walt forfeited our sympathy long ago. 

Even Emily Nussbaum—who it should be said, is singularly skilled at inventing her own critical archetypes, a la the “Hummingbird theory”—wrote a piece on “Sex and the City” that identified Carrie as the “first female antihero,” the one frustrating bit of an otherwise lovely essay. Carrie could be irksome as a character, but “Sex and the City” was defensive of its protagonist in a way that “Breaking Bad” and “The Sopranos” never were, permitting Carrie to be abrasive and vain only to rein her in at the last minute with a pat, chastened ending; the other shows pushed us to see just what it would take to sever our emotional attachment to their protagonists, while Carrie’s reprehensibility was always a learning experience. It is hard to deny that seeing “antihero” applied to Carrie provides a quick, simple thrill of analytical recognition. But in the end, it confuses more than it reveals. 

Over-reliance on buzzwords is not specific to pop culture—academia is an echo chamber of scholars responding to and recasting each others’ jargon—but the world of online cultural coverage is so breakneck and ephemeral that the pressure to find quick reference points is particularly intense. So instead of describing a phenomenon on its own terms, the impulse is to locate it in relation to some other, louder phenomenon, to riff on an old paradigm instead of devising a new one. Another similarly abused term is “manic pixie dream girl,” coined by Nathan Rabin in an 2007 AV Club essay, which has had an absurdly long half-life, applied to every female, free-spirited weirdo to cavort across our screens.

This one even engendered spin-off archetypes: A lengthy essay in Grantland identified the new trend of the “manic pixie dream guy.” (To name a few: the boys of One Direction, Ben Wyatt of "Parks and Recreation," Joseph Gordon Levitt, and Ryan Gosling.) An article in Flavorwire announced the arrival of the “nerdy doormat dream girl.” It’s hard to blame critics for feverishly trying to come up with formulations that stick, an impulse rooted in the sorry Internet-age assumption that every concept must be crammed into some neat, buzzy category in order to be understood amid a sea of fruit-fly attention spans. But the result is a narrowness of interpretation, a critical culture of shortcuts. If Yunior is an antihero and Ryan Gosling is a manic pixie dream guy, it’s probably time to retire these phrases for good.

Follow @lbennett.