Whether we want it or not, each of us is influenced heavily by what we see happening in the world around us. This ‘property’ of sorts is more pronounced amongst the very young, and it is not uncommon to see infants and toddlers imbibe characteristic mannerisms of their parents into their own repertoire. As we grow older and our ‘network of acquaintances’ expands, we begin to extend this honor to others, including fictional characters we identify with, and also to copy character traits, as opposed to mere affectations. Once ingrained, these can be notoriously hard to get rid of, requiring a concerted effort to rub out.
There have been many studies focusing on the effect of aggression and violence in the visual media on the behaviour of those exposed to such, and ‘TV-bashing’ has become the favorite pastime of many around the world. However, we may be guilty of ignoring, or at least not paying sufficient attention to, the set of values we acquire from what we watch. Those of us who have grown up with Captain Planet and Optimus Prime, few as that may be, will not deny semi-idolizing the shows’ protagonist(s). In all probability, this applies to other people and for other series too, and works out just fine when the characters in question possess some degree of honesty, integrity, valor, and other qualities desirable in human beings: such personae teach us to be better than we are and to aspire for more than we have.
But, recent times have seen the meteoric rise in popularity of the ‘anti-hero’. This archetype, conspicuously different from the usual protagonist, is represented as lacking one or more ‘heroic’ traits. He is morally ambiguous and short-tempered at the best of times, and at worst, engages in violence vindicated by an ‘end justifies the means’ rationale. The novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand famously denounced this type of character as someone whose “distinction is that he possesses no distinction–no virtues, no values, no goals, no character, no significance–yet who occupies, in plays and novels, the position formerly held by a hero, with the story centered on his actions, even though he does nothing and gets nowhere”.
While we should refrain from unconditionally dismissing the anti-heroes we all secretly admire as worthless, one must wonder why we have chosen to replace the perfect hero with a flawed one. Admittedly few would identify well nowadays with a character that single-handedly saves a great number of people from harm, a la Superman; the religious-extremism-inspired violence we have experienced this very decade has left us all too aware of our own, very human inadequacies. This does not, however, explain the massive popularity of such antiheroes as Wolverine (from the X-Men), who is brash, violent, and generally unsociable.
As our tastes have evolved, we have seen more and more models emerge from the ‘anti-hero’ mold at the expense of those of the other, more ‘noble’ type. What is this reflective of? While it should be said of anti-heroes that they generally make for more interesting, multi-dimensional characters, whether it right to idolize them, with all their vices, their repeated transgressions, and their glaringly obvious faults of character remains, for now, an open ended question.