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A few freezing and miserable weekends ago my son, Chuck and I, spent a afternoon watching DVD's of a science fiction show we like. We don't have regular TV and fortunately, the show ran for 10 years so there were plenty to watch. Over the many seasons it ran, this particular show had a pantheon of colorful characters, many of them unusual and flamboyant villains. We got into a discussion in which we chose our favorite bad guy, upon which we uncharacteristically agreed. This character was a nasty, ego-maniacal, tyrant who, over a couple of thousand years of rampaging about, conquered hundreds of planets and enslaved their populations. So, why did we like this guy?
“You like him because he's handsome,” stated Chuck boldly.
To be perfectly honest, it didn't hurt that the actor, who was playing a god-like character, closely resembled one, but as I pointed out to Chuck, I have disliked many a handsome TV or movie character over the years so I refused to accept his hypothesis. I asked him why he liked this particular evil villain more than the others.
“It's his elegant smirk,” he answered.
This struck me as an odd answer, and I told him as much.
Chuck went on to explain that the character, whether he had the heroes at his mercy or was being thwarted by them at every turn, never seemed to lose his cool and always managed to have the same slightly amused one raised eyebrow smirk, as if he knew exactly what was going to happen and was just waiting for the poor, stupid humans to catch up. He also had one of those refined, British tea-in-the-parlor accents that just made it better. “He could even verbally smirk,” said Chuck.
This was a truly accurate assessment of the character, so I could hardly argue with him, but it did lead to me wonder out loud why we like the villains at all in these kinds of entertainments.
“For one thing,” said Chuck, “the bad guys always seem to be better dressers.”
This is very true. When my brothers and I were young there were a lot of TV shows and movies that were about WWII and I can remember us wondering why the Germans seemed to have much better uniforms than the allies. When you think about it you have to admit that even in science fiction, where you can make up anything you like, the bad guys always seem to have better looking outfits. Let's face it, Darth Vader and the stormtroopers had a much snazzier look than the hapless rebels in Star Wars. I imagine it has to do with an idea that even the most enormous, organized, fashion conscious evil empire can be taken down by a bunch of rag-tag rebels dressed off the rack. The idea of that makes us feel comfortable about our ordinariness, I suppose. Like Albert Einstein's hair. If you look at a picture of him it isn't hard to conclude that they guy was not exactly into grooming, but you also know that his bizarre, crazy hair was stuck on a skull that housed an enormous, honking genius brain. Don't judge a book by it's cover and being a handsome, elegant, snappy dresser is often an indication of the kind of evil that will fall prey to a bunch of guys who shop in second hand stores and forget to shave. That's because they have far more meaningful and important things on their minds than hygiene and hair combing - at least in the world of mass entertainment anyway.
Chuck pointed out that plenty of people in real life seem to be oddly attracted to real life villains, which is icky, but true. There were, after all, at least a dozen women lined up outside the prison where Ted Bundy was about to be executed who wanted to marry him before they strapped him in a chair and fried him. I find this incomprehensible and horribly disturbing. And plenty of people made a heroes out of Jesse James and Pretty Boy Floyd, who made a habit out of stealing other people's money and killing a bunch of innocent bystanders. What is it with human beings and our pathetic attraction to villains? If they have any semblance of style, charm, or panache we find them fascinating. Especially if they have a pack of evil minions to run around doing their evil deeds and never seem to get their hands dirty, that way we can maintain the illusion that they are not as much directly nasty and evil as they are vicariously nasty and evil. It's crazy.
I still like the galactic villain with the elegant smirk, but I never really rooted for him, despite his sexy accent and evil charm. Nonetheless, I can't help thinking that when it comes to this stuff, we humans seem to have some serious issues resulting in plenty of cultural ambiguity. On the other hand, maybe its really just about fashion choices. Who knows?
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