One thing that has stumped me lately about pop culture (among most things about pop culture) is the rise in fictional depictions of the bleakest / most disgusting / criminal / evil aspects of humanity. Dexter, Hannibal, GoT, The Walking Dead, Weeds, Orange Is the New Black, Breaking Bad… and that’s just off the top of my head. I don’t even follow any TV shows.
We’re even beginning to pit our superheroes against each other – formerly the apotheosis of popular culture’s fictional depictions of the superego. They were supposed to be goody-goodies. That was the point. They were superheroes not only because they had powers but because they could wield those powers more virtuously than us mortals. They were supposed to be noble. Selfless. Brave. And now, for the first time since superhero movies began, we make one that focuses on conflict – not just conflict, all-out war – between our heroes.
This is the first generation that disavowed Superman as the ultimate hero. They’ll say it’s because he’s not cool enough, but the truth is that he’s too good. He was raised by loving (granted, foster) parents who imbued him with morals of kindness and righteousness. He is not driven by a painful, unresolved trauma (such as Batman’s orphanhood, Spiderman’s guilt). He’s not even the same species as the people he saves, for God’s sakes. He does the right thing for no other reason than it’s the right thing. And most of the time he seems happy and secure.
All that gets on the nerves of a generation that feels that the chance for such a life has passed them by. It is taunting them to see a portrayal of something they can never have.
I think all this focus on crime and negativity is partly sour-graping. “Oh, I guess I can’t be moral and strong and good. I didn’t have parents who raised me that way. Well, I never wanted that anyway.”
Partly spite. “So I’m part of the generation that ruined the world. You think I’m a bad person? You have no idea how bad I can be.” Oh, now I’m scared. No really, I am. Not because of what you’ll do to me, but because of the kind of world you’re going to leave to my children.
Today I met a guy who said his role model was The Joker. He was completely sane, which is the worrying part. Why does a guy, faced with a vast wealth of fictional and actual people to model himself after, choose somebody like The Joker? Specifically, Jared Leto’s Joker. I already said he was sane, so the answer is more complex than it appears.
First, let’s go back to the definition of the narcissist as I reposted from The Last Psychiatrist:
The narcissist is a character: an invented but well-scripted identity. The narcissist is trying to be something – which already has a model. Perhaps she thinks herself a bohemian artist type, or a tough chick, or the type interested in spiritualism, or like Zooey Deschanel in, well, every Zooey Deschanel movie. Types, characters. Accordingly, the narcissist has external markings of identity: tattoos, changing hair colors, clothes.
Subscribing to this definition, choosing The Joker as a role model, with some emphasis on The Joker’s external markings of identity (he wanted a neon-green streak in his hair also) is a manifestation of narcissism. Which is not a personal judgment; in this society, I would no sooner condemn narcissism than I would condemn somebody for having soot in their lungs. (See: environment.)
But, given that it’s a narcissistic choice, why specifically The Joker? Why not Batman, also tragic, also complex? Why not Ironman, the rich playboy? Why not Jared Leto himself, whose real-life identity in/forms a large part of his character’s fictional identity?
It ties in with the reasons I’ve posited above (II) for this generation’s new and strange cultural fascination with darkness, plus:
This generation knows it’s in The Matrix. However, it doesn’t understand what The Matrix actually is. It’s only aware of the meaninglessness of the things it is being told to want; a dim awareness, but one that persists, one that troubled much fewer of the previous generations that lived in The Matrix. (Different Matrices, sure.)
Lacking a Morpheus to pull the plug and usher them into a more real existence, the kids of this generation are rebelling against what they think are the sacrosanct values of the system that oppresses them. It is like a vague and ineffectual thrashing within the liquid of the pod / prison / womb. They have a dim, numb feeling that this isn’t what life is supposed to be like, but they have no idea either what it is supposed to be like.
As part of this amorphous, nascent rebellion, they consume these dark things for entertainment. The main characters in GoT, barbaric as their world may be, still mostly hold their own fates in their hands. Dexter is a murderer, but he practices vigilante justice. There’s a longing for something real: real danger, the taste of blood, instead of the dull terror of looming deadlines. And a life of freedom, lived vicariously through these characters: who, despite the bleakness of their worlds, can move with agency within those worlds.
Instead of their own lives: surrounded by plenty, and unable to derive lasting enjoyment from any of it.
Obviously I didn’t engage the guy in a detailed discussion of his own narcissism. So this is just a safe guess: Wanting to rebel against a straitlaced society, someone like The Joker is the most subversive, dangerous character he could probably think of emulating. But who created The Joker? Who produced that movie? Who’s making the money from his, and millions of others’, narcissistic fulfillment? As fast as this generation begins to rebel, the media co-opts that rebellion, holds it upside down and shakes it until all its money falls out.
And this generation is excited by the prospect of that. Every time.