The Antihero: Cultural Enemy Number 1

As an extension of postmodernism, the antihero has taken hold in storytelling with disastrous consequences. More often than not, this is a character who achieves greatness by violating social norms. In fact, the antihero often presents more of an obstacle to him- or herself than any outside antagonist — think Dexter, Tony Soprano, or Walter White. While literature of antiquity presents characters like Odysseus who were strong, clever, and courageous, modern heroes typically have glaring faults and succeed only through coincidence, luck, or traditionally immoral means.

Newsweek’s Jeff Giles describes the state-of-the-art antihero as “afraid of everything and unequal to every challenge.” As an extreme example, look no further than Samuel Beckett’s character Malloy, who, for 300 pages, is tied to a chair and accomplishes nothing. Other authors like James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon, Joseph Heller, and Kurt Vonnegut all tell stories of antiheroes who have no real goals and accomplish little based on their own merit, all of which created a literary foundation for the modern antihero as seen in Pop Culture. Film has followed the same lead. Thus, as the definition of heroism remains under attack, cultural symptoms of heroism — morality, freedom of speech, virtue, justice, and more — remain in a state of perpetual uncertainty.

The consequences are self-evident. George Roche notes, “We have been living in the age of the antihero for far too long. . . . Every index of our society shows the terrible price we have paid,” to include failing schools and ever-burgeoning criminal behavior, all due to “the failure of the antiheroic vision.” While those who recklessly propagated postmodernism may not have intended this extension of their ideas, the cynical deconstruction of truth allows for no other outcome. I, for one, don’t care that Luke Skywalker or Frodo Baggins is a purely good character fighting a purely evil foe; the nuances in the stories can take place through Han Solo and Gollum while the overall theme acknowledges the truth that good guys are nonviolent, humble, self-sacrificing, and clever, and bad guys are aggressive, arrogant, power hungry, and myopic. Why does that dichotomy need to be blurred?