Saturday, January 31, 2015

What Makes a Bad Guy Bad?

The Good, the Bad, and the Violence

A few weeks ago I finally got around to watching the movie The Equalizer. In it, Denzel Washington plays a construction store worker (think Home Depot) who lives a mysterious life (I'm going to spoil some stuff, so if you haven't seen the movie, you might want to stop now).

We find Denzel sleepless and a regular at an all-night diner frequented by him and a young prostitute with ambitions of becoming a singer. When the prostitute is hit by a john, she fights back. When her pimp finds out, he puts her in the hospital. Denzel's character tries to buy her out of slavery, but is turned down by the Russian Maffia.

So far, so good. The script hit all the right notes and set up for some cool (if gory) action. But when the thugs decline the offer to buy the girl out of slavery, Denzel ruthlessly murders them all (I think there were six people in the room).

In response, the Russians send over their best hitman to find Denzel and end him.

Here's where the writers of the movie faced a problem. Denzel was meant to be the good guy, but he committed premeditated murder on more than one occasion in the film (as opposed to killing in self defense). They needed a villain who was worse than that so their Russian hitman is seen at one point killing one of the other prostitutes for no reason.

In order to set up a situation in which Denzel is the "good guy" the "bad guy" has to be significantly worse. If Denzel is a murder, then the hitman has to murder women.

How Good is Good? 

There's a code of violence in fiction that tells us where the characters are on the good-bad scale. A white-hat, pure-good hero doesn't kill. The cowboy shoots the guns out of the hands of the bad guys. But some violence is always to be expected from the hero. The good hero with the truly evil villain will usually see the bad guy die without the hero committing the act. It might be falling off a cliff or crashing in a helicopter while making an escape, but the hero's hands are (technically) clean. The farthest end of the pure-good hero is someone like Batman who refuses to kill, but uses fear and violence with abandon.

Heroes that kill are the majority of the action heroes in fiction. The last-resort killing is the most mild end of the spectrum (like Superman in Man of Steel). The middle of the killers spectrum is those who kill out of self-defense. The bad guys are attacking and the hero won't survive if he (let's be honest, these are mostly men) won't kill them back. War heroes are usually in this segment. We also have the anti-hero who kills wantonly, but according to a strict code. The Punisher or John McClane would be at this end of the spectrum where they kill a lot of people, but only those clearly identified as bad guys.

Gender, Age, and Killing

Heroes are never allowed to kill women or children. That's just too evil for people to stomach. Even the darkest, most anti-hero of heroes can't kill anyone but men. So if we want to show that a villain is truly villainous he'll kill women and/or children, because that's a line that no hero would ever cross.

Male heroes can only kill other men, otherwise they cease to be good. Female heroes (when they exist), can kill both men and women and still remain heroic. Child heroes (e.g. Hit-Girl in Kick Ass), can kill men, women, and children. Child heroes cannot, under any circumstances, kill someone who appears younger than them. So Katniss can't kill the younger kids in The Hunger Games and still be good, but she can kill the kids who are her age or older.

Torture and the Justification of the Means

Jack Bauer is a patriot for beating up a bad guy until he reveals the secret location of the bomb. But Nazi overlord is evil for torturing one of the members of the underground in The Man in the High Castle (which, if you haven't seen it, you should watch immediately).

The means -- torture -- is only justified if the end is good. So Jack Bauer is a hero for torturing someone for the purpose of saving lives, but the Nazi is evil for torturing to try to take lives.

Stories and Reality

All of this makes for a fun examination of fiction tropes, but beyond that it also explains a lot about the shape of our society. Fiction both reflects and refines what's happening in society. 

The spectrum of violence speaks to our need to see morality as relative rather than absolute. We consider a person good if they are relatively better than the person who is bad, not because they hold to an unwavering ideal of ultimate goodness. We also have the need to categorize conflict as between good and bad, right and wrong -- even when neither side is objectively right or good. We simply make the opposition worse so that, by default, our side becomes good. 

The gender and age rules of violence are steeped in our gender and age rolls. For all of the movement toward gender and age equality it's still expected that when a ship is sinking the women and children will escape first. Conversely, it's still expected that a good man will not harm a woman or a child. However, as we have made strides in our society toward greater equality we find that both women and children can become the aggressors in conflict. While we're okay with "strong female leads" kicking butt and killing men as they fight through the hordes of foes, the death of a woman or child in fiction is always a rare and special thing holding to their status as the parties that good men ought to protect. 

Finally, torture in fiction informs our view of torture in reality in chilling ways. Though there is no evidence that information obtained through torture is accurate, we still persist in using torture as a nation (the United States), and many people are okay with that torture because it is for the ostensible purpose of saving lives. 

As an author I struggle with these things regularly. For example, I want to write about women who are equal to men. But then I have to allow women to both kill and be killed by women and men. That breaks the unwritten rules of violence in stories, but it's for the purpose of promoting true equality. 

Is that okay? Am I using the ends to justify the means? 


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