There is no doubt that the popularity of the anti-hero as we know it has increased in recent times. With unlikely, yet popular moral gray protagonists like Jack Bauer, Dexter, and Gregory House leading some of the most popular TV shows and characters like James Bond, Lisbeth Salander, Tyler Durden (from Fight Club), and Jack Sparrow being some of the most memorable in movies, it is not surprising that there has been an increased interest to understand what causes this characters to be so popular (Peter Jonason in et al., 193). What is it that makes them as likeable, if not more, than a normal hero? How come we relate to characters that perform actions that, if done in real life, would cause us to see them in a whole different light?
My argument is that an increased understanding in the human psyche has enabled us to see through our preconceived moral standards to accept and, in many cases, admire these anti-heros. Under the right circumstances, almost any action is permissible (albeit not necessarily right or wrong). The readers, however, must undergo a process of exposure to the anti-hero and the world she inhabits before they permit her actions. This process of “disengagement” (presented by Daniel Shafer and Arthur Raney) is what enables the reader to change his preconceived moral standards, at least in the anti-hero’s universe, to actually enjoy the story. Before explaining the big picture, however, I think it is important to understand how the enjoyment of stories can be weighted.
The enjoyment of most narratives is measured through the affective disposition theory (ADT). Shafer and Raney explain that:
“ADT is generally considered the most comprehensive theory explaining the process through which enjoyment is derived with media entertainment… According to the theory, enjoyment is a function of a viewer’s emotional reactions to (a) characters, in the form of liking; (b) the successes and failures the characters encounter as the story unfolds… and (c) the ultimate outcomes experienced by the characters… (1029)”
They feel, however, that moral judgment regulates each of these emotional reactions. This presents a problem in anti-hero stories, where, according to them, moral judgment plays an “insignificant role in antihero liking” (1037). Therefore, ADT, while effective in measuring likeability of heroic protagonists, fails to measure that of antiheroes. To try to measure the enjoyment of antiheroic stories, Shafer and Raney conducted two studies. In the first one, a group of students was split into two groups. One watched and antihero movie and the other a movie with a classical hero protagonist. Through various points in the film, the viewers were asked to rate the protagonist likeliness on a scale from 0 to 50, with 25 being neutral. Here are the results from the study (fig. 1):
Fig. 1. Liking and morality scored by...