TW: sexual assault
Everyone loves a villain, supposedly. I think it’s more to do with loving something to throw your hate at. We like our heroes too, perhaps a bit too much, and like anyone we love in real life we’ll keep ourselves in denial of their true character.
I’ve noticed something recently about fictional men, the ones that we like and love, that disturbs me a little. Specifically I’m disturbed by the way we alter male characters when adapting them from book to screen. A lot of things change when a novel becomes televisual, but repeatedly the behaviour of male characters seems to be watered down so an audience is happy to live and laugh with them. Again, like any person in real life that we love, we want to ignore their bad qualities so we can admire them comfortably.
Robert Baratheon in Game of Thrones is a prime example of this. In the novels he is loud, witty, boisterous, likable and at the same time a drunken, wife-beating rapist. Cersei’s marriage to King Robert is a living nightmare – enough to make you pity her wicked heart. By the time Baratheon has filtered through to our television screens, the darker side of his personality is hard to trace. He is comedic relief – a quotable fan favourite. Compare this to Ramsay Snow: an obvious villain whose mistreatment of women is carried unfiltered through to television. We’re meant to hate Ramsay, he’s our token misogynist brute. I’m not objecting to changes in character that come through adaptation, just common changes that reflect our discomfort with the reality of human behaviour.
Another example – Ross Poldark of Winston Graham to BBC fame. His liberal compassion makes him a community hero, but in his personal life he becomes hot-headed, selfish and possessive. In the novels Ross becomes enraged at the prospect of his former sweetheart, Elizabeth, marrying his rival George Warleggan. His response is to confront her, only then to drag her off screaming and force himself upon her. In series two of the television series, this event was horribly adjusted into one of those ‘ambiguous’ sexual encounters where a woman’s initial rejection is persuaded in the other direction.
It’s very simple – we don’t want our hero, Ross, to be a rapist. Quite understandably we find it hard to stay on a character’s side once they do something like that. The solution shouldn’t be creating bullshit, ‘persuaded consent’ scenarios but they are sickeningly common in television dramas (see Jaime & Cersei, GoT season 5).
The trouble here is that we’re diluting the experiences of women to protect the likability of men on our screens. We’re also perpetuating the harmful, misleading idea that rape and sexual assault are only committed by concrete villains. On the contrary, whether we like it or not, ordinary or even likable people can commit sex crimes. I remember when rape allegations first came out against Julian Assange, I was in my teens, and many refused to accept the accusations on the basis of his whistleblowing martyrdom. He was a good man, ‘someone must be entrapping him.’ He has never stood trial for these allegations. The same goes for figures like Rolf Harris, Bill Cosby etcetera etcetera, whose loyal fans decried any attempt to sully their character.
As per usual I haven’t got the solution hidden up my sleeve, but it’s time we thought a bit more carefully about what happens when we put people (real and fictional) on pedestals.