I want to approach this blog post as carefully as I can. There’s a high chance of my offending somebody, and I honestly have no intention of doing so. If you disagree with something I write here, that’s fine; I make no claim to authority on this subject, but rather wish to explore a question that has occurred to me recently with the help of my readers.
So what I want to explore the is the question of authorial intention. That doesn’t sound very scandalous, does it. When an author writes a novel or short story, one can assume that what is written was purposeful. The author meant to write the story they wrote, though of course nobody can control the manner in which it is received. Thus when the author creates a villain, we are meant to understand that certain aspects of that character are to be considered bad. This is easy when the villain is black and white, such as a depraved serial killer or a Dark Lord like Sauron. We can all nod our heads and feel comfortable in condemning said villain to his well-deserved fate at the hands of the hero.
What if it’s not black and white, however? People state that they love to explore shades of gray, but I find that in practice few actually do. Take for example Lars Von Trier’s 2009 film Antichrist. It radically divided the critics, with some hailing it as a masterpiece while others decrying it as the febrile product of a misogynistic mind. The ‘villain’, if she can be so described, is a grieving mother, and her actions mirror the violent and darker aspects of nature. After watching this film, one is left in doubt as to whether Von Trier is portraying this one woman and making a statement about her particular grief and madness, or if he is speaking about women in general. Do all women harbor the same potential for destructive savagery? Is he saying that beneath the veneer of civility and tenderness all women have a Praying Mantis-like urge to consume their own families, to destroy what they love, what they cannot bear to love? Did Von Trier want to provoke us to ask such questions, and what answers might we glean from this film? If he is indeed asserting that, does that make him misogynistic, or brave in that he is willing to explore such uncomfortable questions?
That is the kind of villain that really interests me, or the kind of character in general. Real people are never simply ‘good’ or ‘evil’, and if so, those terms change depending on whether they are being applied by their friends or foes. But it requires such thick skin and confidence to delve into such territory. To create a villain that fails to fall into a neat category, that subverts stereotypes or partially follows them. Is it misogynistic to create a female character such as the one in Antichrist? How much more interesting is Edward Norton’s neo-Nazi in American History X then any other two-dimensional Nazi figure that is simply ‘evil’?