I have been told that in the world of professional wrestling, popular villains are known as “cool heels.” Professional wrestling hardly is on the cutting edge of moral theory or even trends in popular culture. But its inclusion of “cool” bad guys into its violent morality plays is an indication, I think, of how far we have travelled along the road toward cultural nihilism. More and more movies and television shows, not to mention rappers and even sports figures, seem intent on capturing the cache of cool evil. More and more Americans are buying the pre-packaged nihilism, apparently reveling in the feeling of superiority one can gain from the illusion of beingbeyond good and evil.
I certainly would not want to imply that the attractive villain is a new thing. Classic literature is full of villains we love to watch on stage or read about in books. Actors often say that the best part in any production will be the villain, not the saccharin heroic lead. Nor would I want to imply that villains have, until recent decades, been unattractive, or even relegated to supporting roles. Films of the 1960s and 1970s were full of “anti-heroes,” and the baby boomers lapped it up like feral dogs.
But it does seem that the last couple of decades have produced more than the usual proportion of villains who are “cool,” that an increasing number of movies and especially cable television series present unrelenting evil as normal and “sexy,” and that the drive for “street cred” among various “famous” people has served to muddy such moral lines as mass audiences remain capable of recognizing.
When asked to reprise his role in the original, British cynical-political drama “House of Cards,” Ian Richardson, who played the anti-hero Francis Urquhart, is said to have refused until it was agreed that his character would be killed off. Richardson retained enough moral sense to recognize that his character, while delightful to play, simply made evil too attractive. This is in part because of the way the characters are drawn, but then that is nothing all that new; it is a rather old saying that “the Devil is a handsome man.” The attractiveness of evil also comes from the increasing extent to which it seems to “pay” in contemporary fiction. Increasingly, our villains do not “get theirs” in the end. Poetic justice on the page, stage, or screen now is seen as “unrealistic” and even childish. In former times, of course, it was seen as absolutely necessary for maintenance of people’s moral sense, and people in fact had enough moral sense to demand it.
Sadly, that moral sense seems to have about died out. One certainly cannot see it affecting Kevin Spacey, who plays the anti-hero in the American adaptation of “House of Cards” with such malevolent glee, and who has made a career out of making villains seem worthy of some form of admiration and such few heroes as he plays (as in his movie “Pay it Forward”) seem like simpletons.
Then there is the “fantasy” series “Game of Thrones.” In this carnival of relentless degradation, adapted from George R.R. Martin’s equally reprehensible set of novels, we are “treated” to scenes of torture, sexual violence, and oppressive depravity which form the core of a series centered on the lust for power in a mythical medieval-style world.
It would be easy to point to a number of sources of this recent upsurge of cool evil. The decline of standards in broadcast media, following on the spread of cable, with its utter lack of self-regulation, and the competitive desire to shock one’s way to higher ratings, made torture the stuff of normal evenings at home (on shows from “Lost” to “24”) years ago. Before that, the drive for “street cred” among rappers so well parodied by Chris Rock in the film “CB4” (the “CB” stands for “Cell Block”) fed on as it in turn fed a culture of violence sadly widespread in our urban areas. Rural violence, of course, has long had its representations in the mass media, though generally in a manner clearly intended to engender disgust for its portrayals of racism and domestic violence. Yet even such portrayals have lost their sting as small town America (“Sons of Anarchy”) the suburbs (“Breaking Bad”) and even the old West (“Deadwood”) get the “realism” treatment that throws blood and gore on everything to show how “sophisticated” both makers and viewers have become.
One might have predicted this latest development as the inevitable extension of the de-moralizing of public entertainment. We have moved from “Leave it to Beaver” with its false images of suburban bliss, through childish sex comedies like “Three’s Company,” with its predictable coda, “Three’s a Crowd,” an unwatched sequel featuring a cohabiting couple sharing living quarters with the female’s father. Sexual morality soon became a thing of the past, even as parental groups and educrats criticized the rather moralistic violence one often saw on both the large and the small screen. Of course, by now the anti-hero movement in film had been a mass movement for decades, though perhaps best summed up in the hero of “Midnight Cowboy,” a mindless hick whose goal in life was to become a male prostitute.
Sexual libertines always insist that their form of liberation will bring peace and love. But it never does, instead opening to further depredations in a world of increasing moral disorder. The sexual “liberation” of the airwaves went hand in hand with the increasing marginalization of religious themes and figures, as well as morality, from popular media. “M*A*S*H” may have portrayed its military chaplain as feckless, but at least the show recognized that they exist—something all but unheard of today.
Where does all this leave us? Certainly not beyond good and evil. Rather, it leaves us with too many of our fellows enamored of evil. This is not to say that anyone who watches “Breaking Bad” will immediately see the life of a drug dealer as a good way to pay for quality medical care. But cool evil is an active part of the continuing degradation of our public square, which means it is far from irrelevant to our private characters, as well as our character as a people.
The early modern Florentine political thinker Niccolo Machiavelli was recognized as a teacher of evil because he preached the need for a Prince who would do the dirty work necessary to reunite Italy against the barbarians. It is all too common today among those “in the know” about politics to say that the abuse Machiavelli suffered was mere hypocrisy, that everyone in politics acts as Machiavelli said they did, but wants to be seen as virtuous. Not only is this bit of “sophistication” factually incorrect—many people in public life sacrifice their own wants for the public good and do so in a manner intended to practice as well as uphold virtue—it also is wrong-headed. The cynicism that says “everybody does it” leads to the self-indulgence of vice. No one television series, movie, or entertainment figure can create a vicious culture. But too much and too complacent flirtation with evil will, in fact, render it “cool” in the public mind. And the result will be further degradation of a public morality already far gone.
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