The Problem with Idolizing Toxic Male Characters in Media


Keegan Jack

Anti-heroes are often misjudged by audiences, who believe them to be heroes instead.

Some of my favorite TV shows and movies are those that feature the anti-hero: an unconventional and unheroic protagonist. This character is intended to be enjoyed, but not necessarily rooted for by the audience. But what happens when the intentions of these characters are misinterpreted? What happens when this “anti-hero” is believed to be a hero?

My questioning towards this subject began after the 2019 release of The Joker, which surrounds the infamous DC villain’s descent into evil. This film soon became one of the most popular movies of 2019, gathering box-office earnings of over one billion dollars, as well as numerous Academy Award nominations. The Joker is a character not meant to be idolized, as explained by star Joaquin Phoenix. The intention behind the movie’s portrayal of the joker was to simply be a “character study.” The response to The Joker was not as intended, as the murderous villain became somewhat of an idol to some viewers. The character’s experience with rejection and failure unfortunately resonated with self-pitying and emotionally unstable men. I feel that film critic David Ehrlich said it best in his review of the film: “That perspective allows Phillips to feign an apolitical stance and speak to the people in our world who are predisposed to think of Arthur as a role model: lonely, creatively impotent white men who are drawn to hateful ideologies because of the angry communities that foment around them.”

Additionally, a similar reaction was met surrounding the Netflix Original Series Bojack Horseman. Unlike The Joker (sorry, guys), I thoroughly enjoyed this six-season animated series. This show surrounds a washed-up, Hollywood D-lister trying to navigate life after fame while battling addiction and mental illness. This adult-animation sitcom was created as a critique of Hollywood, mocking the idea of stardom and acknowledging flaws in the industry. Creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg chose to include topics such as the #MeToo movement, addiction and forgiveness. Bojack, our protagonist, is not made to be a likable character; he ruins the lives of everyone around him and is a selfish narcissist. However, similarly to The Joker, certain viewers saw Bojack as a good, relatable character. He is said to have Borderline Personality Disorder, a mental illness highlighted by patterns of sharply varying moods and self-image. To some, Bojak was seen as a healthy example of dealing with mental illness—which he definitely is not.  The unrelated toxicity of his character not only further stigmatizes this disorder, but it makes those certain viewers believe that his actions are justified. With the justification of Bojack’s life-ruining actions, his character is seen as a role-model, and the true intentions behind the series are completely disregarded.

Unfortunately, with the accessibility of media and the constant progression of technology, shows and movies like these are accessible for almost anyone. Although they’re made for mature and responsible audiences, they can easily fall into the wrong hands. Even with well-made and introspective pieces such as the ones I mentioned, as well as many more, no one can control how they can be interpreted. The only thing I can advise is to separate fictional characters from reality, and to all the guys who have told me that they look up to The Wolf of Wall Street’s portrayal of Jordan Belfort (who is a real person who received real consequences): please stay away from me.