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06/08/2020 The Communication Science magazine

The Brutally Feminine Murder of the Anti-Hero

We all love a hero, but sometimes, an anti-hero is even better. This article explores moral ambiguity and why we are attracted to it.


If you have ever consumed any type of entertainment, ranging from books and graphic novels to movies and TV-shows, you will have almost undoubtedly ran into a character with blurry morals. Maybe he was what Shafer and Raney called an anti-hero, and acted in morally ambiguous ways to reach sometimes noble goals. Maybe it was more akin to what Brett Martin called a difficult man, or “a person who we root and care for despite their monstrosity”. Most likely, you have rooted for a character that you should have not rooted for; and even more so, this character was most likely a man.

Characters such as Walter White from Breaking Bad and Dexter from, well, Dexter, have long been used to describe antiheroes. More recently, shows such as the overly popular Game of Thrones, have challenged the notion of a black-and-white hero. They test viewers moral stances by making characters constantly jump from heroes to villains and letting them sit in between. However, while some people may have found themselves rooting and liking the villainous queen Cersei, this may be more easily related to the concept of a bad fan rather than an anti-hero. These types of fans, according to critic Emily Nussbaum, especially the feminine ones, tend to root for strong female characters regardless or because of their morally “bad” actions.  

On a more general stance, Shafer and Raney (as students of Entertainment Communication should know), associate the enjoyment of antihero narratives with cues that allow for moral disengagement, essentially excusing antisocial behavior. It is on this note that the British-Canadian TV Show “Killing Eve” subverts standards and previously maintained notions, getting close to refuting most theories on the subject. The show follows a story line that is quite commonly known as “spy thriller”.

Following the lower-tier governmental official Eve Polastri as she is recruited to hunt down the international serial killer Villanelle. The show bends the genre by executing known story lines and characters in the most extravagant way possible. The killer herself, Villanelle, is a character that I suspect has never been shown on television. She is peculiarly unpredictable, portraying a charming child-like attitude alongside a barbarically murderous one. She is a difficult woman to be sure, a hit-woman whose main wishes in life are “normal stuff, nice life, cool flat, fun job”. While she appears relatable in the most basic of ways, she is never shown to be anything but a horrible person.

While male antiheroes are often seen to struggle with the bad things they have done, Villanelle is impolitely shown to find delight in seeing the life drain from her victims’ eyes. The show laughs in the face of our desire to understand and justify her actions. Continuing over and over to cross the line that we thought would make us stop liking her. On a note, the show never did try to make her morally ambiguous, as in the first episode alone she kills 6 people, using a child as an accessory to his grandpa’s death and purposely spilling ice cream onto the lap of a little girl.

She leverages her beauty, uses tampons and hugs as subterfuges and takes great pleasure in dressing up.

However, the main and gigantic difference between Villanelle and the previously mentioned antiheroes is, of course, that she is a woman. We have seen difficult women on television before but it has almost exclusively been women channeling men to execute their actions. Women written as men, often expressing a typically masculine rage and aggressiveness. Villanelle does not do any of that. She leverages her beauty, uses tampons and hugs as subterfuges and takes great pleasure in dressing up. She sits in a huge pink tulle gown, laughing at a picture of a dead dog. Another important side to the character is her relationship with Eve Polatstri, as they slowly develop obsessive behaviour towards each other.

The main theme of the show is then shown to be obsession, as Villanelle develops an obsessive crush on Eve. The latter becomes a surrogate for TV audiences as large, admiring and respecting the mastery of Villanelle’s work. Feeling both disgusted by her ruthlessness and desperately in love with her.

Knowing all this, it is impossible to find cues that allow us as viewers to disengage our morality from Villanelle’s actions. There is no tragic backstory, no justification, no way to save her. As she walks amongst carnage and observes the artistry of it with teary eyes, there are no cues to cheer for her. And yet, we do. We may just have been conditioned to root for protagonists or just expressing our deviant inner desires. However, what the show really manifests, in my opinion, is how complex the human moral and emotional system is and how hard it is to define.

Final Editor: Mana Reed Stutchbury
Unsplash:
Sofia Sorza

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