Why do we love villains?

Posted: June 5, 2014 in reading, watching
Tags: , ,

There’s no getting away from it, we love a good villain these days. Whether it’s the obsession among some Star Wars fans with the relatively minor character Boba Fett, the cult status of Tony Soprano, or the massive fanning out that takes place over Loki – bad is the new good.

It’s something I’m so used to that I’ve never really questioned it. But this video made me think again about why we love villains and what that means for us as a society:


Honestly, I’m not sure whether an obsession with villains makes us less idealistic or just more varied in our tastes. I think its relevance is a very big question with all sorts of interpretations. Anything that makes us less condemnatory is good, but that doesn’t mean it’s not also problematic.

What do you think? Why all the villain fandom? What does it mean, if anything at all?

  1. Lynda says:

    Gah! Jung?! Jung pronounced Yung! German name damnit! (That’s not the point, just – gah!)

  2. Lynda says:

    More on the point, it;s something American Gothic explicitly explored with Sheriff Buck and I found it very stressful at the time, as a teenager, to feel drawn in by a character I also loathed and wanted to see get his commupance. But don’t feel the same about Jaime Lannister, who rather than being a complex bad guy, is a selfish ruthless person who has come through a baptism of pain and torture and is a better person now. I don’t look at him and see the man who tried to kill a child; I do still think of Buck as a man who raped a woman and later murdered her husband (right? Or did he kill the sister?) and who just happens to also punish other bad people too.

    • Sheriff Buck is why I still have such fond feelings towards American Gothic. I’d never had such mixed feelings about a character and it fascinated me. I can see why many viewers would find it stressful, but for me it was half the appeal of the show.

      As you say, there’s a difference between this and someone like Jaime Lannister. It feels like with Jaime we’re having a whole and coherent personality slowly revealed, so that our feelings change but remain fairly consistent within themselves, whereas with Buck we’re constantly dragged back and forth across a jagged line between sympathy and hatred, forced to face our own contradictory impulses. I had similar feelings watching The Shield, which has several compellingly Buck-like characters, though without the hints of literal devilry.

      • Lynda says:

        I came back to this in my mind today, because I was wondering about attractiveness (which obviously, I do every day in a professional capacity, but specifically in relation to villains today) – as she says, do we like Loki because he’s played by Tom Headleston, is Cersei Lannister (to continue the theme) considerably more sympathetic on screen than on paper because Lena Headley is beautiful to look at? Casting possibly the hottest woman in America as MAleficent has a real impact on how she’s seen. Sheriff Buck was better looking than Dr Matt.

        Which then lead me indirectly onto villains who aren’t straight up hot. President Snow – unpleasant but also kinda possible to admire him as an authoritarian dictator (although I’m going to contradict myself and say this is another character I liked slightly better on screen). I always had a similar reaction to Edward I as an historical figure too. These villains are all very very good at what they do.

        So – good looks, competence, power. These are all things humans have a deep seated tendancy to admire. And now I’m back to thinking about this in my professional capacity…

        • That connection between what we find appealing in a villain and what we find attractive in a partner is an interesting insight. What we like in characters and what we like in people inevitably have links, but its easy to forget them at times.

  3. Didn’t watch the video, but I know that some of the fanning of Loki has to do with the fact that he’s been put into a very greyscale position (mostly due to Marvel’s Odin being a horrible father). Loki does the same kinds of things Thor does, but gets smacked down for them while Thor is praised (or at least smacked down less). Here’s a tumblr discussion I found notable: http://thoki4ever.tumblr.com/post/80573191910/dont-include-fantastic-genocide-in-your-story

    I can’t say I like every villain, but I do find myself drawn to characters who have been wounded and don’t know how to respond to that except vindictively….. And yet my hope is rarely that they’ll win (unless the hero is awful) but that they’ll realize they’re broken and live long enough to fix themselves.

    • Thanks for the link – it made for some interesting reading, and I’m now reflecting on those films in a different way. Your point about shades of grey in the portrayal of villains is a good one – more sympathetic, realistic and nuanced portrayal of villains makes it harder to just hate on them.

  4. […] which the first fragile seeds of our modern society emerged. I love it in the same way that I love villains and traitors – it’s a great subject for stories, but I’m bloody glad I […]

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