Why do we keep trying to sympathize with awful men?
The first excerpt from Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, is now available to read, and the new protagonist might come as a surprise.
You might have guessed the prequel would star Haymitch Abernathy––rebel leader, sole survivor of the 50th Hunger Games, and mentor to Katniss and Peeta from the original novels. Or perhaps Effie Trinket, the eccentric advisor from the capital who, in spite of her position, remains sympathetic to Katniss' plight.
Nope. The story revolves around President Snow, the murderous tyrant who actively oppresses poor people and subjects children to death games as the villain of the first three books. Except now he's just Coriolanus Snow who is, as Entertainment Weekly puts it: "A teenager born to privilege but searching for something more, a far cry from the man we know he will become. Here, he's friendly. He's charming. And, for now anyway, he's a hero."
Ah, yes, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is set to be everyone's favorite kind of story––an attempt to make us sympathize with an awful man who murders people.
Of course, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is hardly the first narrative to cast an awful person––who almost always happens to be a white man––in a sympathetic light. These proverbial "Awful Men" stories include television series like You and movies like Todd Phillips' Joker. But however critically acclaimed any of these stories are on an individual basis (and some of them are, indeed, very good), the media landscape is oversaturated with them, which begs the question: Why do we keep trying to sympathize with awful men?
In his 2014 book, Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad, author Brett Martin posits that series like The Sopranos and Mad Men provide a "compensatory wish fulfillment" for middle-aged men. Joker, too, could easily be viewed as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for young men who feel misunderstood by society at-large.
But The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes isn't geared towards middle-aged men. The primary demographic of YA literature is 12 to 18-year-olds, many of them girls. Moreover, Suzanne Collins is a woman, as is You showrunner Sera Gamble. You goes so far as presenting its main character, stalker and murderer Joe Goldberg, as both sympathetic and sexually attractive. As such, there's strong evidence that our cultural obsession with "Awful Men" runs much deeper than just male power fantasies.
Perhaps our obsession with "Awful Men" is almost like a collective form of Stockholm Syndrome. From abusive partners to rapists (1-in-6 women will statistically be the victim of rape or attempted rape at some point in their lives) to the president of the United States (who has "allegedly" assaulted at least a few women, too), it's almost impossible to find a person who doesn't have an "Awful Man" story of their own. Whether their "Awful Men" are sexual predators, wannabe dictators, or just a run-of-the-mill angry man in your inbox, in real life "Awful Men" are a genuine epidemic. Naturally, empathetic people want to understand why awful people do the things they do.
But at some point, we need to ask ourselves if the origin stories behind "Awful Men" actually matter to us, and more importantly, why we're so willing to waste our time consuming content that paints them in a sympathetic light. After all, understanding why awful people do bad things does not make them any less awful. It doesn't matter if they're awful because of unchecked depression or an abusive childhood or ambitions gone awry. The truth is that plenty of people have perfectly valid reasons to be bitter or angry or miserable, but still don't end up awful.
For instance, if we posit that a significant percentage of "Awful Men" are awful because of unchecked depression (a la Joker), then we have to wonder why depression is twice as common in women than men and yet school shooters, rapists, and murderers are overwhelmingly male. Why do we feel such a strong need to sympathize with the people who commit such horrific acts? Why do we, as a culture, continue to fictionalize and editorialize "Awful Men" into "understandable" circumstances? Is this act, in some capacity, an attempt to excuse and justify the negative behaviors of the "Less Awful Men" in our lives––the ones who are awful, sure, but not so awful? Or what if, at the end of the day, these "Less Awful Men" don't deserve our sympathy either?
Ultimately, Suzanne Collins can write whatever she wants. If she wants to dig deep into President Snow's roots to justify why he thinks it's okay to murder children and wage class warfare, that's her prerogative. But wasting your hours reading it... Well, that's on you. Besides, if you want to spend hours consuming stories about unlikeable but still sympathetic people, you're better off reading My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. You'll still get all the intense socio-psychological machinations, just minus the "casting a guy who murders children and engineers class warfare in a positive light."
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