Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

A man in a suit stares dejectedly at a slightly disheveled woman sitting on a bed.

What Should We Do About Problematic Characters and Their Bad Fans?

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A man in a suit stares dejectedly at a slightly disheveled woman sitting on a bed.
Don and Betty Draper in Madmen

What follows is a guest post by Gabriel Thomas Tugendstein (Florida State University).

In a recent episode of HBO’s Barry, Fuches’s caretaker Ana attempts to convince him to forgo his vengeful plans. She relays “the tale of the Bolam-Deela,” a fable about murdered souls who are offered the chance to forgive or haunt their murderer. All but one choose revenge, take on the form of a panther to attack their killer, and eventually find their souls stuck at the bottom of the ocean. The boy who chooses forgiveness is sent to heaven.

Fuches seems distracted. “The vengeance-army-panther thing. How long did it take him to put that together?” he asks. “It didn’t really happen,” Ana tells him, “It’s a morality story. It’s not real.” He looks off to the side, plotting. “But it could be.”

In his radical misinterpretation of the moral lesson of the fable, Fuches is what The New Yorker’s television critic Emily Nussbaum would call a “bad fan.” Introduced in 2013, the term applies well beyond the current, antihero-obsessed era of television (she cites All in the Family as its origin and Archie Bunker as its patron saint), though this era has proven to be especially fertile soil for its growth. In a follow-up article, she expanded on the bad fan’s perspective:

As anyone who has ever read the comments on a recap can tell you, there has always been a less ambivalent way of regarding an antihero: as a hero. Some of the most passionate fans of “The Sopranos” fast-forwarded through Carmela and Dr. Melfi to freeze-frame Tony strangling a snitch with electrical wire. […] More recently, a subset of viewers cheered for Walter White on “Breaking Bad,” growling threats at anyone who nagged him to stop selling meth.

A show like The Sopranos or Breaking Bad will condemn characters, perhaps by calling attention to the pain they’ve caused or by showing them getting their comeuppance. The bad fan, like Fuches, ignores or misinterprets signals that indicate a character is worthy of being condemned, seeing the character as straightforwardly admirable. The “vengeance-army-panther thing” is not a cautionary tale for Fuches, but a pretty good idea.

Fuches is, to put it bluntly, a fool. His misunderstanding of the fable is so deep that we have to assume that he’s either misheard something or isn’t really paying attention. No one listening to the story in good faith could make that error. It’d be equivalent to watching Barry and, well, not recognizing that Fuches is supposed to be a fool.

Most bad fans are not as easy to spot as Fuches. Where Ana’s fable depicts obvious heroes and villains, most good shows today depict characters in between. So bad fandom has less to do with confusing the heroes and the villains, and more to do with not recognizing that the hero is the villain. Classic cases here are Tony Soprano and Don Draper, whose professional badassery was contrasted with their domestic assholery. The obvious bad fan just doesn’t get that Tony and Don are awful husbands and fathers (among other things). The subtler bad fan gets it, but feels that it doesn’t take anything away from their badassery being awesome, missing the fact that the very same traits are responsible for both the badass and the asshole. “The hyper-masculine-daddy-issues-hide-all-emotions thing,” Fuches might have wondered of Soprano and Draper, “How long did it take him to put that together?”

The idea that these bad fans exist, and that they really are bad, goes down pretty easy. Of course, many of us post-whatevers prickle at the claim that one is watching or listening or reading some artwork wrong. Now what could that mean? There can’t be only one or a few right ways to experience an artwork. Who’s to tell us what we should “get out of it”? Surely not the author! 

Still, no matter my mood, I can’t help but take issue with someone watching Mad Men and seeing a badass Don Draper hindered by a world of prudes and squares. It seems bad. Bad in its reflection of the viewer’s character; bad in its manifestation of their moral perception; bad in its potential consequences for their behavior.

A man sits in a chair. Dialogue reads "I'm a miserable prick. I've said this since day one."
Tony Soprano from The Sopranos

* * * * * * * * * *

But there are a lot of ways to be bad. The bad fans Nussbaum describes are just plain wrong. They are presented with a tricky, possibly unsolvable, moral conflict and see a simple story of heroes versus villains. Or, like Fuches, they are presented with corrupted souls, those whose goals are built atop perverse values, and they root for them to achieve those goals. This dichotomy, between fans that correctly interpret a show’s moral insinuations and those who don’t, is worth talking about. What’s odd to me, though, is that many fans are actually right about the matters that Nussbaum’s bad fan gets wrong, yet still seem to miss something vital in the show’s moral lessons. So I want to talk about another type of good fan/bad fan dichotomy, all taking place within the space Nussbaum carves out for good fans. 

Consider the words of a cab driver, relayed by Nussbaum, who says of Breaking Bad’s Walter White, “Walt could sometimes do bad things, but he was really a good family man underneath, and I really related to him. He was kind of a great hero, in that way.” So far, we still have a standard bad fan: when he says that Walter White is a hero, he’s just plain wrong. The good fan recognizes that White’s heinous acts more than compensate for his being a “good family man” (even when his dedication to his family was sincere, and not just an attempt to rationalize his cruelty). At the least, they disqualify him from being a “hero.” To the cab driver, White’s love of his family outweighs his heinous acts. 

But why? Is it because his love of his family is that important, or because his bad acts aren’t really all that heinous? On some level, of course, it’s probably a bit of both. Yet the second option seems more in line with the idea of bad fandom. To let a character off the hook for his assholery — to see irredeemable acts as redeemable, or unjustified cruelty as justified, or legitimate victims as mere whiners — more often than not comes down to missing just how much of an asshole he really is.

This mistake, of failing to grasp just how much of an asshole a character is, is not unique to Nussbaum’s bad fan. A different, to my mind more common, viewer of Breaking Bad recognizes that Walter’s moral accounting is in the red. Nevertheless, they don’t feel it. They know that White is an asshole, but, like the cab driver, they still don’t fully get it. This fan is right, but still bad. Here, we have a second type of bad fan, left cold by their recognition that a character has done something awful. Call them the “cold fan.” 

To understand why the cold fan misses something vital in the show’s moral lessons, we have to understand that these moral lessons are “hot.” The reality is that, generally, good art has fairly little to offer in the way of direct moral messages. At best, it can act as a megaphone for moral messages that already seem correct. If you’re looking for moral lessons that you can coldy, clinically fit into a proverb or paragraph, you might do well to look elsewhere. This art’s real bread-and-butter is a kind of sentimental education — training a viewer to feel different things and sympathize with different kinds of people, just by putting them in situations to feel those things and sympathize with those people. You can’t really put that into words, and you certainly can’t experience it and be left cold.

The most radical, game-changing moral wisdom that a show has to offer may have no effect at all on what types of actions or people you think are right or wrong. Instead, it might get you to notice the importance in things you’d previously dismissed as frivolous, build a voice in the back of your head that represents a perspective you’d previously ignored, or lead you to question who you’re rooting for and against. It is one thing to watch Mad Men and recognize that Don is an awful husband. It’s another to appreciate the depth of the pain that he’s caused his wife Betty such that, when she invariably acts out in a repulsive, embarrassing manner, we react similarly to when Don himself acts out in repulsive, embarrassing manner: with some amount of sympathy, forgiveness, and self-recognition. When Don acts out, good fans don’t let him off the hook, but they feel an impulse to cite past traumas and desire future improvement. They don’t want to see him be crushed, they want to see him be better, because his cruelty is born from pain. The viewer who leaves Mad Men having gained that kind of sympathy for Betty has gained moral wisdom more valuable than “Don isn’t actually cool, he’s kind of mean” and “Betty’s also kind of a victim.”

The badness of cold fandom, then, is that it misses much of this sentimental education. The show can at best be a source of amoral entertainment with some acceptable but often unsophisticated moral messages appended to it. A friend once criticized the movie Uncut Gems to me, asking, “What’s the message of the movie? That gambling is bad?” If the visceral anxiety involved in watching the film is detached from any deeper understanding of the motivations and ethics of the characters involved, the only thing you get out of it is a banal PSA about gambling (and maybe a need for some deep breathing and hot bath). Uncut Gems provided me little precise, definable knowledge. Nevertheless, the viewing experience was still illuminating. I left it knowing something new: what it felt like to experience and interact with the world in the way Howard Ratner does, which, alongside his shady behavior and ignominious end, makes for a potent, if hard to describe, lesson.

* * * * * * * * *

So we have a second type of bad fan. But maybe it’s unfair to pin this all on the viewer. When it comes to Nussbaum’s bad fan, it’s pretty clear where the responsibility lies. So long as the show seems to grasp what makes for a badass and what makes for an asshole, the show is off the hook. It’s the bad fan’s fault for confusing the two. But for the cold fan, keeping the two straight isn’t enough. 

Here we have a new responsibility for the artist, one which they do not always live up to. They might let us viewers easily understand what’s good or bad by invoking stereotypically bad actions (the drug dealer, the murderer, the liar, the adulterer) or by showing the good being rewarded and the bad being punished. Comeuppance is often proposed to be the final word on the matter. The vengeful souls in Ana’s fable are bad because they got condemned in the end. But this is not a true sentimental education. While Fuches’s misinterpretation is absurd, I could forgive him for staying cold to the fable’s plot twist. Who really cares about these people who were murdered? The whole story has the emotional impact of simply saying, “forgiveness is better than vengeance.” The bad fan sees a picture of the sun and thinks it’s the moon. Can’t blame the artist for that. The cold fan recognizes that it’s a picture of the sun but doesn’t get any warmer. Well, no wonder!

There are many ways that an artist can come up short on this front. For instance, if we haven’t had the opportunity to develop a proper connection to a bad man’s victims, seeing them only as annoying intrusions into a show’s main plot, then the repulsion of his comeuppance does little to offset the attraction of his prior success. Or if a character’s past trauma is presented lazily and without proper sensitivity (this includes over-sentimentally), then understanding that it helps explain his bad actions does little to reduce the disgust we feel when seeing him on screen.

In the end, whether these should be thought of as cases of bad fans or bad artists is tough to untangle. A scene that left you cold a month ago may now deeply move you, leaving you unable to see a certain character without feeling disgusted. A sterile, awkward scene that leaves everyone else cold may perfectly replicate a personal experience of yours, leaving you deeply moved. Whose fault is it when these scenes fall short? I’m of the opinion that pinning down blame is less important than recognizing that there is a problem in the first place.

Splitting the “good” fan into the “cold” fan and the “hot” fan allows us to be more sensitive to just how edifying art can be—and the multitude of ways that it can fail to deliver. There is a lot to gain from a show beyond simple entertainment and explicit moral lessons about who’s right and who’s wrong. Fuches may have been a really, really bad fan, but at least he can’t be blamed for being cold. The “vengeance-army-panther thing” really gets his blood boiling, and inspires him to feel and act, not just know. In that way at least (and perhaps that way alone), we would benefit from being a bit more like him.


Gabriel Thomas Tugendstein is a PhD student in philosophy at Florida State University. He constantly blows off his philosophical work to read novels with very long sentences in them and watch movies with very few words in them, then feels guilty about it. He can be reached at gtugendstein@fsu.edu or via gabetug.com

One Comment

  1. I don’t know that there is much to do about the fans as a totality. We can do something about the characters: pay them no attention; don’t watch their shows or listen to their rhetoric and buffoonery. Withhold both adoration and vilification. By doing so, you cease to confer legitimacy open what they do and say. Words are powerful. So are actions—consistently applied.

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