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The Protagonists

Living in a world built by years and years of stories about white men who take whatever they want.

Christina Animashaun/Vox
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The boy meets the girl, just like he always does. He falls in love with her, and after a brief and frenzied courtship, she falls in love with him too. There are setbacks and hardships, but the story is headed where you expect: toward bliss. Toward an easy, uncomplicated love. Toward marriage and family, even.

This is the framework for a million, million stories, throughout human history. It is also the framework for Lifetime’s new drama You, based on the novel by Caroline Kepnes and adapted for TV by Sera Gamble and Greg Berlanti. The brilliance of You (my favorite new series of the fall) comes from how relentlessly it grounds you, the viewer, in the age-old story you already know, in order to tell you a different but related one that has been happening all around you for ages, maybe without you even noticing it.

The boy who meets the girl in You is Joe, played by Penn Badgley; the girl is Beck, played by Elizabeth Lail. And even their casting is primed to help you understand what the show is attempting to subvert. Badgley is well-known to TV fans for his six seasons on Gossip Girl (his character Dan was eventually revealed, believe it or not, to be the titular character). Lail, meanwhile, isn’t exactly a newcomer — she had a stint on Once Upon a Time — but she’s not the face you recognize in the cast, not the person Lifetime built the ad campaign around.

The resulting disparity in who we instinctively trust, as viewers, is part of what makes You so devilish and terrific. Joe reveals himself (to the audience, at least) as a stalker at his earliest opportunity, first invading Beck’s life to find out what she wants in a guy and then turning himself into that very guy. And if he can slowly isolate her from the rest of her support network at the same time, well, that too could serve his purpose.

Again and again, You demonstrates the monstrousness of Joe’s reasonable nature. He cannot understand Beck as anything other than an adjunct to his story, because stories where men are the focus and women mostly exist to support them are the stories he’s been told his whole life. And because You situates us firmly in Joe’s point of view, via narration and other tricks, it leaves us no real exit from that perspective.

Joe wants so badly to make Beck’s life perfect and to make himself perfect for her that he fails to recognize that even her bad choices are her choices, her questionable taste is her taste, her two-faced friends are still her friends. He tries to rob her of the luxury of making her own mistakes, of the ability to have a story that is not his.

By the time we finally get to see this story through Beck’s point of view, we’re so desperate to escape Joe’s toxicity that it’s almost a relief — but we can still feel his poisonous attraction all the same. He’s right there, and he smiles so kindly. What could go wrong?

I’ve thought about Joe a lot these past few weeks.

The angry behavior of Les Moonves (left) and Brett Kavanaugh made headlines over the last several weeks.
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Outwardly, former CBS head Les Moonves and newly confirmed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh don’t have all that much in common. Kavanaugh is a prep school alumnus and an Ivy Leaguer and a die-hard conservative jurist. Moonves attended the small Pennsylvania college Bucknell University and later became a massively powerful entertainment executive who occasionally gave money to Democratic political candidates. They operated in entirely different worlds, at least superficially.

But what links Kavanaugh and Moonves, for me, is their belligerence, their obvious inability to understand what it means that others have accused them of terrible things. The accusations of sexual misconduct leveled against Kavanaugh have been national news for the past several weeks, while those made against Moonves are already slipping into our collective memories. But the acts that men both have been accused of — and which both men have roundly denied — involve women and sexual misconduct and an abuse of privilege and power. This is America, 2018. You already know the rest of the story.

But I’m not here to adjudicate what these men might have done all those years ago. Instead, what I’m interested in is the similar fury that both men displayed upon having to deal with an adversity they hadn’t expected. Moonves angrily denounced the investigations into him, saying that the numerous accusations of sexual misconduct against him, reported in the pages of the New Yorker, simply didn’t happen. Kavanaugh effectively threw a temper tantrum in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, as the whole country watched.

Both men were used to thinking of themselves as protagonists, not just of their own stories but of the stories involving everyone else they came in contact with. They had such tremendous power and privilege that they could ruin lives in a fit of pique — and they were part of entire systems that were set up not only to protect them by default, but to reward them for having done it.

This inability of rich, usually white, usually straight men to see that there are stories beyond their own has been at the center of the #MeToo movement more broadly. Rather than seeing the world as a series of interlocking tales that occasionally feature them in a major role but mostly feature them as extras (if at all), they are primed to see it as a series of stories about them, moving forward through their lives, attaining their goals, crushing those who would oppose them. #MeToo has complicated that narrative for at least some men, but one needs only to read news reports of Louis C.K.’s comeback standup sets to understand that many of these figures will come to see the revelation of their misconduct as a minor adversity to overcome, not something that shattered their entire lives.

Straight white men in America are taught that they are the protagonist of the story from birth. Their number includes me — I’ve always intuitively understood myself as the protagonist too. And this mindset has only become more ingrained in the past 20 years. Under Moonves, CBS became America’s most powerful network, but also went from broadcasting shows like Murphy Brown and Designing Women to mostly being a place where women were corpses, whose murders were solved largely by steely, determined men, with occasional help from quippy female sidekicks.

What is the fallout of this? What does it mean to have an entire class of people, already clothed in power and privilege, understand themselves primarily as the center of every story? How much of the turmoil of the past 10 years can be understood through this lens — from men who get furious at the thought of having women generals in their video games to a president who openly brags about committing sexual assault?

We have problems with power and privilege in America, 2018 — that’s to be sure. But we also have problems with our protagonists.

Criminal Minds
The cast of Criminal Minds awaits its summer TCA press tour session in 2005.
Frederick Brown/Getty Images

In July 2005, journalists who attended the Television Critics Association summer press tour had one major, pressing question for the producers of that year’s new fall dramas: What was with all the violence against women?

It was an odd moment for TV drama, split between three major movements. The first, represented by ABC’s Lost and Desperate Housewives (which were then at the end of their first seasons), suggested that what viewers wanted were buzzy serialized shows about colorful characters in unusual situations. The second, represented by pretty much everything on CBS at the time, suggested that viewers wanted grim, “realistic” crime dramas. And the third, represented by HBO’s The Sopranos and FX’s The Shield, suggested that viewers wanted dark stories about antiheroes who indulged viewers’ vicarious appetites for horrible deeds performed with ruthless efficiency.

None of these trends was the “correct” one; TV audiences have always wanted shows that break new ground, but not too much of it. Yet of the three, the one that broadcast networks could most easily grasp was the one that suggested gritty crime procedurals, often with violence directed toward women, was what viewers were most drawn to. And looking at the hits of the era — which included the CSI franchise and Law & Order: SVU (still on the air today) — it’s pretty easy to see why they drew that conclusion.

Things came to a head at the press tour, however, as multiple reporters kept asking why so many of the networks’ new shows featured graphic scenes of women being tortured and abused, often right alongside the objectification of nubile bodies. The worst offender was Fox’s Killer Instinct, which featured a woman being paralyzed by spider poison and then raped by an intruder before the poison finally killed her. The show was ultimately canceled after just nine episodes.

But another new show that critics pointed to at that 2005 press tour as an example of this dark trend is still on the air today, and entering its 14th season: CBS’s Criminal Minds, whose pilot saw a woman get abducted and imprisoned in a cage, then raped and murdered. Journalists wanted to know: Why?

In response, the show’s producers and creator Jeff Davis mostly hemmed and hawed about how the story was based on a real case, and how the most horrifying thing viewers actually saw in the episode involved the woman’s fingernails being clipped. But instead of meaningfully answering the question, executive producer Mark Gordon offered a sarcastic quip that felt like an irritating brush-off in 2005 and feels slightly more telling today.

“There was actually a mandate from the network saying we want only shows that perpetrate violence against women. We’re just trying to get on the air. We’re doing the best we can,” Gordon snarked at the press conference. (Reporters pushed back on his comment, saying the topic wasn’t a joke to them, but Gordon’s response was the best anyone was going to get.)

I’m not dredging up this old quote this to attack Gordon. He’s just one of those producers who looks at what’s popular and develops programming accordingly. But I do think it’s notable that Criminal Minds aired on a network built by Les Moonves, who saw how popular CSI became and then filled his lineup with near carbon copies, consistently pushing the darkness and violence — especially against women — to further and further limits.

Viewers eventually got tired of the darkest of these shows, gravitating instead to slightly lighter fare like NCIS. But even then, popular CBS series like Blue Bloods were advancing a stalwart belief in the primacy and supremacy of white cops when it came to matters of police brutality, as Laura Hudson (now of Vox sister site The Verge) pointed out at Slate in 2014. And it wasn’t as if NCIS was free of stories that positioned women primarily as victims, and where at best, a woman could be the second or third lead, backing up a stoic, stalwart man who was brave and bold enough to stare into the face of darkness until it blinked.

How much of this programming was driven by what viewers wanted to watch in the wake of 9/11, when television took a darker turn in general? And how much of it was driven by what executives like Moonves cynically believed the audience wanted?

To be fair, there’s a cyclical element here — CSI was a surprise hit, after all, and surprise hits almost always get copied across the dial. But to become a surprise hit, you first have to make it to the air. And over the past 20 years, no network has had a worse record of telling stories centered on characters who aren’t straight white men than CBS, a trend the network has only finally broken this fall. What does it say about a culture when by far its most popular television network is dominated by shows where women serve primarily as support systems, quirky comic relief, and victims?

The specter of Tony Soprano looms large.

All of the above is an indictment of how much of America’s recent pop culture has been rooted in the behavior of toxic men. Whether you want to point to the numerous Oscar-winning movies produced by Harvey Weinstein, or the TV series that Les Moonves greenlit, or the toxic attitudes toward women that Kevin Spacey made seem almost reasonable in American Beauty, you’ll find ample evidence that it’s a prevailing theme.

But it’s not like American culture’s fascination with toxic men is new. Indeed, it dates back to the inception of the nation, though it really took root in the 20th century and later. Many of our finest novels are about white male asshole protagonists, and most of the great films of the 1970s — often thought of as the single best decade for American moviemaking — are about troubled white men in tight spots, who fight their way out of those spots.

Some of those films are about the complicated relationship of assorted white ethnic groups to the larger American mainstream (The Godfather being the most obvious example), while others are notably troubled by their male characters’ dark and violent tendencies (Taxi Driver, for instance). But taken together, they presented an unmistakable trend toward grim violence being more “realistic.”

Even in cases where they offered nuanced takes on these tricky topics, it’s not as though they haven’t been stripped of context and filtered throughout the culture as something else entirely. Think, for instance, of how the one thing most people know about Taxi Driver is the “You talking to me?” scene, which is presented as a kind of lonely ritual in the film itself and has mostly become something vaguely “cool” since being removed of its context by the culture at large. (Critic Amy Nicholson and Taxi Driver writer Paul Schrader reflected on the ways that film has warped and changed in this 2018 interview.)

But what I keep coming back to again and again as I think about what our most popular art says about our culture is TV’s antihero era, which began in earnest with 1999’s The Sopranos. It featured lots and lots of stories of white guys who took what they wanted, at any cost, with very little thought for how others might react to their all-consuming appetites.

These series are among the best in TV history. They include shows like The Sopranos and The Shield and Breaking Bad and Mad Men. They marked a shift in the cultural conversation, where TV came to occupy the prestigious position that film had once enjoyed, where television seemed to have surpassed movies in its ability to tell compelling stories aimed at adults. My life as a TV viewer would be vastly poorer if they didn’t exist.

And yet since the election of President Donald Trump, I can’t look at them without thinking of him.

This is an incredibly difficult topic to discuss, because of course The Sopranos didn’t create Donald Trump any more than Criminal Minds did. The HBO series, rich and evocative, was always at least partially about how much Tony Soprano’s appetites and behaviors were causing the ruination of his very soul.

The best antihero dramas of the early 2000s, like the best great films of the ’70s, were cautionary tales, deeply moral stories about how, in some ways, the men at the center of them stood in for an America — or at least a white male America — that couldn’t stop gobbling up everything it saw. The shows suggested, always, that even if their protagonists didn’t get their comeuppance onscreen, it was coming, unless they could change their ways. Only a handful of those protagonists, most notably Mad Men’s Don Draper, eventually came close to doing so.

But even now, these shows leave open the question of just how we’re supposed to grapple with the idea that many viewers will always see them as instruction manuals, or as validation of dangerous ideals. What are the takeaways for an audience that doesn’t want to dig into the moral and ethical nuance of The Sopranos and just wants to see Tony whack more enemies, or that believes Skyler White is the true villain of Breaking Bad?

This divide is not unique to our era — it’s as old as any art that depicts protagonists who don’t always do the right thing, which is to say it’s as old as fiction itself. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we’ve capped an era full of white male antihero protagonists with a president who feels like he might as well be the main character of an antihero drama in some other universe, where viewers thrill at how he always dances one step ahead of the forces that would bring him down, cheered on by toadies and sycophants who eagerly abandon principle in the face of finally grasping power.

This is also a delicate dynamic to talk about because the surest path toward boring, bland art is to insist that it be morally, ethically, socially, and politically palatable. We need shows like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad to help us ponder the darkness within humanity, and within ourselves as individuals. To insist that art conform to some code of righteousness is a shortcut to making art that’s not worth thinking about.

Plus, I should note that as a critic, I’m part of a community that has been hugely responsible for the rise of white male antihero dramas — praising them to excess, hailing them as bold storytelling, building up an idea that a “good” TV show too often features a damaged guy who makes tough, dark choices and somehow escapes the consequences.

But at the same time, there’s been a bland sameness to so many of these shows for a decade now. Few of them still actively try to tell stories about what it means to give in to the darkness, to embrace the most selfish aspects of one’s inner being at the expense of others. And yet they keep getting made, and some of them even become minor hits (like Showtime’s Ray Donovan).

They continue to code what’s desirable in life as accumulating more things, more money, more enemies ruined, rather than trying to build something sustainable. They are stories of late capitalism — of a nation, an economic system, and a world unmoored. They reflect our culture’s shriveled soul, sure, but in consuming them, we also start to reflect them. They tell us who the protagonists are, and we’re only too happy to accept what they say, even when those protagonists keep wrecking everything.

When HBO picked up The Sopranos in 1997, it chose between that series and another, created by My So-Called Life creator Winnie Holzman, that centered on a woman business executive (as recounted in Alan Sepinwall’s history of the era, The Revolution Was Televised). And I note that here because the major executive in charge of making the final call on that decision was Chris Albrecht, now of Starz, who exited HBO in 2007.

He was asked to resign from the company after he was arrested for domestic violence.

Better Call Saul
Better Call Saul might show a better way forward.

I’m not connecting these dots to suggest that any of our current culture is a conscious creation on the part of the TV industry, or pop culture, or the country. I’m also not suggesting that you should stop enjoying The Sopranos or Criminal Minds or any other dark dramas. (If I were saying that, I’d be a hypocrite; the complete series Blu-ray of The Sopranos is a centerpiece of my personal collection.)

What I am suggesting is that advocating for representation on TV and in films is not merely about painting an accurate, inclusive picture of the world we live in. Yes, we need more women antiheroes, more antiheroes of color, and so on — but we also need to think about how the stories we tell create long grooves in our culture, grooves that eventually crystallize into reflexive beliefs about who gets to be the protagonist and how they go about being that protagonist.

When the sorts of prestige TV shows and movies celebrated in our culture are, 99 times out of 100, stories of white male protagonists and accumulation, rather than stories of more varied protagonists and connection, it’s no great effort to see how they might set us on a path toward living those same stories ourselves.

The situation is not hopeless. Cheesy as it is, NBC’s This Is Us is a huge hit, and it’s all about building connections. The same goes for something like the 2016 Best Picture winner Moonlight, a film about what happens when you let the tough facade slip just a little to embrace the vulnerability underneath. Ditto for TV shows as disparate as AMC’s Better Call Saul, NBC’s The Good Place, and AMC’s The Terror.

And through its own protagonist, Lifetime’s You forces the audience to question why the stories we tell so often center on the viewpoints they position as the most important ones. Joe is both an avatar for our era and someone his TV show actively questions, over and over again, in its text and in its subtext. His mere existence forces viewers to rethink everything from the heroes of romantic comedies to the frequent depiction of women as helpless victims.

But we also have to ask why we aren’t telling more stories that don’t reflect this value system, that actively challenge capitalist greed, patriarchy, racism, homophobia, and other prejudices without becoming preachy and didactic. What would it look like to tackle these systems forthrightly, rather than with a sidelong wink? What would be the effect of presenting reality not as it is but as how it could be?

Utopias are always harder to tell stories about than dystopias, because dystopias can be fought against while utopias invite us to sink into their comforting excesses. But we’ve paid so much attention to stories where the greatest enemy is ourselves that it’s time to step beyond that framework, and to write new stories where the greatest enemy is a long history of systems designed to let those who have all the power maintain it at all costs.

As a critic and as a storyteller, I don’t pretend to know the answers, but these questions are worth struggling with, now and on into the future. If we’re going to make the world a better place, we have to imagine what that better place looks like. We have to imagine what it looks like when systems crumble, when connections and community come first, when we’re all aware that anybody, at any time, is the protagonist of their own story, not just riding alongside our own.


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