Thursday, 30 April 2020

On Carrie Bradshaw and Frodo Baggins: The "She's the Protagonist So We Like Her" Phenomenon

I have watched a lot of Sex and the City over the years - probably every episode of the TV series and the two films - after having been forced to by various girlfriends and wife. I actually really enjoyed the series (although the films are atrocious, especially the second one, which is truly execrable - one of the worst, laziest, stupidest films ever made). It is for the most part smartly written, if highly formulaic, and I find the depiction of men in it genuinely fascinating; if you think female characters who appear in fiction and films designed to appeal to men are awful, unrealistic, two-dimensional stereotypes, then Sex and the City will quickly disabuse you of the notion that it's any different the other way round.

But the most intriguing element of Sex and the City to the neutral observer is the character of Carrie Bradshaw. Carrie Bradshaw is a horrendous person. She is materialistic, self-absorbed to the point of being almost monstrous, amoral and nihilistic - like the personification of everything wrong with 21st century consumer culture. It is completely absurd to imagine that men would be queueing up to date her - especially not supposedly nice guys like her erstwhile fiance (whose name I forget - I think it might be "ThatguywhowasinMyBigFatGreekWeddingandlooksabitlikeWaingrofromHeat"). The whole premise of Sex and the City, in other words - that Carrie Bradshaw is an attractive woman with a great personality who men would think of as being a catch - is completely and utterly false. And yet the series and films rely almost exclusively on that premise. Carrie Bradshaw is the protagonist, so we are supposed to accept that everybody within the fictional Sex and the City universe loves her  despite all the evidence before our eyes, which tells us in no uncertain terms that she is dreadful.

There are lots of examples of this phenomenon in film and literature - protagonists who are in fact intensely dislikable but who all the other characters mystifyingly seem to love. The main character in the Twilight films (I haven't read the books) is another great example: a moody, grumpy, sulking pain in the arse whose protagonist status means that, unaccountably, vampires and werewolves just fling themselves at her feet. There are plenty of others. Harry Potter is certainly on the border of this territory - what an annoying twerp that kid is; why do Hermione and Ron like him, exactly? (I may just be channelling my hatred of Daniel Radcliffe's petrified forest of wooden performances in the films, though, here.) Orloondo Bland's character in the Pirates films is slap bang in the middle of it. Although so, for that matter, is Kiera Knightley's. The Pirates films are an interesting example, in fact, in that it's not only mystifying why anybody else in the films' fictional universe likes the two main protagonists, but also baffling that they even like each other.

But this isn't just a problem for trashy YA novels and Hollywood flicks. Even the Great can fall prey to it. I am speaking, of course, about Tolkien and Frodo Baggins.

Why does anybody like Frodo? Well, we know the reason - it's because he's the protagonist. But he's fundamentally a pretty dislikable figure. In his defence, he has a lot to deal with. But he doesn't deal with it with particularly good grace. In Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith astutely observes that our natural sympathies are aroused when we know somebody is suffering, but that it is quite easy for the sufferer to extinguish that flow of goodwill by being excessively morose. There is something odd about somebody who takes suffering with too much sanguinity, but we do admire a certain amount of fortitude and forbearance. If a sufferer too readily complains, we quickly start to find them irritating - even if we know that their suffering is real. What we like, in short, is an attitude that is appropriately serious but phlegmatic.

Frodo tips over into the territory of exhausting goodwill. He is excessively morose. He is an ingrate. He mopes. He shows no initiative. He is continually at pains to let everybody know that he is finding everything jolly hard work. He is a bit like a toddler who has been running around all day and now that it's time to go home suddenly realises he's tired and spends the entire journey grousing and complaining and asking to be carried. In short, he's a great big soaking wet blanket. But the other characters don't just merely put up with him. They love him. They are unflinchingly and unhesitatingly loyal.

Creating a sympathetic main character is hard work. If he or she is too perfect, or deals with everything too easily, the audience smells a rat. But it is so very easy to stray too far in the other direction and come up with somebody who is a pain the neck - who feels everything too keenly. As Smith well knew, human beings will tolerate somebody feeling sorry for themselves if it appears to be deserved, but that toleration can very rapidly turn into annoyance.

37 comments:

  1. Frodo gets a lot of slack from me because, well - he goes. Knowing the risk, he volunteers twice to carry the Ring.

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    1. True, but he doesn't half let you know about it.

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  2. Haven't seen any Sex and the City, and not sure I want to dive into some of the other films/books mentioned, but it does occur to me that you really, REALLY want to distinguish protagonists who are also regarded as lovable, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, from two other kinds of "bad protagonists": The Pitiful Protagonist and The Redeemable Protagonist, for lack of better terminology.

    Frodo in my mind is a Pitiful Protagonist. He's actually not that bad, just kind of ordinary, from what little we see in the beginning. He becomes worse as the story moves along, but that's kind of the point: The Ring is supposed to be corrupting him. He's not loved because of his bad features, but because he was once good and his friends stick with him in hopes they can fix him. Tolkien's failing is that he's not that great at sketching characters, so maybe we don't develop strong enough feelings about Frodo to make his corruption truly pitiable.

    The Redeemable Protagonist is the inverse. We and the characters that surround them don't like the protagonist in the beginning, but the object of the story is that the character learns the error of their ways or possibly doesn't. It's a Wonderful Life is a maudlin example of a character successfully learning his lesson. Citizen Kane is the contrary example of a character who just gets worse and learns nothing before he dies.

    Some -- OK, many -- movies and books try to do Redeemable Characters but do a poor job. For example, Peter Venkman in The Ghostbusters. Several characters are visibly annoyed at his behavior, although arguably not annoyed enough. He's a truly terrible character. He does finally stand up for something at the end, risking his life to save the world, but I'd say his basic personality still hasn't changed and his reward at the end of the film feels wrong. Venkman didn't really learn anything about being a better human, he just proved he wasn't a completely selfish jerk, only 99% of a selfish jerk.

    The question I would have about Carrie Bradshaw, since I haven't seen any of Sex and the City, is: does she get rewarded for her bad behavior, or do we see her mess up her life repeatedly and never learn anything? If the latter, perhaps what we are really seeing is that the writers wanted to tell a story about a Redeemable Protagonist who is never redeemed, but they weren't good enough at writing to show us how people around her would really react to her repeatedly horrible behavior.

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    1. She gets rewarded to the hilt. I think they were really trying to go with what you might call the Aspirational Protagonist? Somebody to aspire to be like, even admire.

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  3. Some characters are intentionally written as bland so they can act as an audience cypher. I believe in the case of Twilight books the author admitted as much.

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  4. Of course she might have been rationalizing after the fact to defend her books.

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    1. Yeah, I can't really comment on that because I haven't read them. It sounds like an excuse to me.

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  5. Interesting. It makes me think about Arnold Rimmer and Cat from the Sci-Fi Britcom Red Dwarf (and not just because I rewatched absolutely all of it in the past two weeks and I am running a campaign based on it).

    Neither of these two characters are likable in any logical sense of the word. One is a self-important, self-hating, pompous coward (and those are his good points) and the other a close to equally self-obsessed lech who is shallow beyond measure.

    They work of course because they are supposed to be these things. They aren't introduced or presented as anything but what they are and although they show minor improvements here and there throughout the years and years of episodes, they remain who they are at their core. I would place Peter Venkman in a similar vein.

    So why do people like them? Well in those cases I've given, it's because we're talking about comedies. In Red Dwarf and Ghostbusters a good portion of the humor arises from exaggerated character quirks these fictional people possess. You grow to enjoy their madness.

    As far as Frodo or Carrie Bradshaw goes I have no clue. Three episodes of SitC was three episodes too much for me and I actually prefer the LotR movies to the books.

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    1. I'd argue that Venkman remaining a jerk is a strength of the movie. One of my frustrations with modern comedies is that they tend involve a character with an amusing character flaw learning to get over that flaw and not be be funny anymore. Combined that with the excessive length of a lot of comedies these days, and you get a slow, unfunny last act.

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    2. That's the thing I find interesting (I'm not sure I like it) about the recentish Doctor Strange film. The traditional arc for these sort of things is that the protagonist learns decency and humility and becomes better for it, but Strange remains an arrogant arsehole and the end, except he's now an arrogant wizard instead of an arrogant surgeon.

      I'm not sure if that was a deliberate decision. Strange's characterisation in later films suggests it is.

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  6. I've seen this backlash against Frodo before and I honestly don't get it. Conflation with the movies? Please cite sources.

    *pushes glasses further up nose*

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    1. Haha. Okay, maybe I will have to do another post on this.

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  7. Hmm ... I'm not sure you're being fair on Frodo. I think he's fairly well set up as brave, kind and decent - which makes the whiny petulance of the later stages work better, because you see what the ring is doing to him as he and Sam draw nearer to Mt Doom.

    He's a bit annoyingly saintly during the Scouring of the Shire, mind you. The more gung-ho tendencies of the other hobbits earn a cheer when it comes to dealing with half-orcs and ruffians. But you do get plenty of initiative and pluck early on - all that stuff with Boromir and Frodo's decision to sneak off to Mordor on his own, for example.

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    1. I always felt like even at the beginning he comes across as a bit of an arrogant tosser, but maybe that's unfair. I'll re-read it and put a post about it, as it's a good excuse to read LOTR again.

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  8. I definitely get that vibe from Frodo in the Peter Jackson films (which is one reason I don't really like them)), but my impression from the books isn't that way. He is brave, intelligent, and experiences great suffering. He's a noble hobbit, but pays the price of the joy that we see in Sam, Merry, and Pippin.

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  9. Well, one thing Frodo has going for him is Class. That's part of why Sam is so loyal to him, because Sam is a gardener and Frodo is of the landowning classes -- or the hobbit equivalent, anyway -- and it is only Right and Proper for Sam to follow him into certain death.

    Spot on about Harry Potter, too. One reason those books annoy me is the nonsensical worldbuilding, but the main one is that Harry is insufferable. The prequel films with the bloke who is basically Doctor Who are better in that regard, at least, because Harry doesn't exist yet.

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    1. There's a take on the books that Harry's just a lazy frat boy (or English equivalent thereof) who plays sports and coasts on his family's reputation while his unsung companions do all the real work. Seems pretty realistic actually.

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    2. Regarding Frodo: what Kelvin said. We’re kind of forced to love him because Sam does. There’s a bit of ugh there.

      (do the servants of Downton Abbey *really* love their employers? Or is it just that they love their jobs that they show such loyalty?)

      Sex and the City is TV crack. Personally I didn’t mind Carrie because...well, maybe I identify with her a bit as a flawed, selfish narcissist (who often ends up learning from her mistakes). My wife absolutely LOATHED the character, however, and complained about her constantly despite loving and diligently watching every episode and film.

      I have very little good to say about HP at all (and nothing to say about Twilight...never seen/read any of that series).

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  10. What, never lined up to date an attractive woman with a terrible personality? You're missing out on an all-too-common joy in life around here.

    I'm only joking a little bit. Actually, it seems to me that plenty of TV is like this, especially that made in the last few decades. I think it appeals to the narcissism found in (seemingly) everyone... others will like you based on who you "really are" (ie. imagine yourself to be), while you blithely continue doing whatever you like, justifying it however necessary.

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    1. But she isn't even all that attractive! That's the thing. Charlotte and Samantha are both much better looking.

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  11. “ But I was going into Tosche Station to pick up some power converters!”

    - Space Frodo

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    1. Best thing about the prequels was knowing Annikan (who was super-annoying) the father of Luke (who was super-annoying) also made Threepio (who was super-annoying).

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  12. Hmmm. Are you talking about movie Frodo, or book Frodo? Your description of movie Frodo seems spot on, but I'm not so sure he's quite the stuffed wet shirt in the books.

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  13. I shall say in Frodo's defense that I like him rather a great deal. Both before and after the ring quest we see a poetic and noble hobbit, delighting in elvish and having a love of natural beauty. In Elijah Wood's performance, he shows a great deal of happiness and laughter which I find congenial. As well, as has already been pointed out, he volunteers to take upon himself the burden of the ring, oftentimes forgoing sympathy and, from my reading (admittedly rather blurry in my memory) shouldering things silently.
    There is a seen which I think encapsulates Frodo's character on the quest, at least up until he completely breaks down after cirith ungol. He, Sam, and Gollum are passing through a crossroads, and they see the statue of an old king with his brow wrapped in flowers and Frodo, ever poetic, exclaims in joy amidst his pain the the king has a crown again.
    I suppose I am predisposed to liking the sort of romantic (as in romanticism) protagonist represented by Frodo, and I'm kinda a sucker for tragic burdens, but I really like him nonetheless.

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  14. Ah I've posted my comment without reloading, and it appears during that time the frodo defense squad(tm) has arrived. Apologies for unknowingly adding to the badgering you are experiencing.

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  15. One piece of media which I think cannot be allowed in this category is Howl's Moving Castle (the book). Howl is not a likable person, and every character in the book as well as the author is very well aware of that. Which does lend some paradoxical adorable-ness once Sophie finds that she has unknowingly fallen in love with this insufferable fop. (As well as extra humor when the author found that much of the female fanbase, as well as some men, had formed in their mind that Howl is a dreamboat)

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    1. Yeah, that comes across in the film too. I haven't read the book, but I loved Archer's Goon.

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  16. Whenever my friends and I watch that scene, we all say “whiiiiiine” immediately after that line. It’s almost a ritual.

    But you’re absolutely right. Luke is annoying, with no real redeeming features other than a sort of reckless bravery. Until he starts cosplaying a Jedi in Return of the Jedi.

    One of the scenes I loved in The Last Jedi was Yoda coming back to verbally smack Luke upside the head and show that he really hasn’t changed. He’s still whiny and self-absorbed, albeit with an element of true heroism that he rediscovers.

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    1. I get what you mean, but i always liked Luke, flaws and all. I can see why you would find his immaturity annoying, although for me that's part of the charm. besides his bravery you can also factor in his idealism and loyalty for his friends as positive features, despite sometimes coming across as whiny and reckless. He's a flawed and imperfect hero, definitely not a Mary Sue. The Last Jedi shows us a broken man who ends up redeeming himself, ditching the whinyness and coming to terms with his past mistakes, and it's one of the reasons i actually enjoyed that movie very much, against the tide of annoyed fanboys.

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  17. Heh. This immediately made me think of Todd from Outsourced, ever see that show. Dude makes fun of Indian culture and funny-sounding names the whole time, takes his employees for granted, but we're supposed to like him because he smiles a lot.

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  18. I have been listening to the BBC Radio LotR of late, and I am more than before set in my mind that whatever Peter Jackson did to Frodo, Merry and Pippin came off worse.

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    1. It's a good point. I love how in the books you see them evolve from immature brats into 'men'.

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    2. Neither seem like someone you would go on a long walking holiday with or get to help you move house in the films, and yet that's one of the first few things we see them do in Fellowship of the Ring.

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  19. Yeah asshole protagonists can be great if the author KNOWS that they're assholes, but if they don't that can get very annoying. For example in The Black Company, Raven is your standard fantasy badass loner wanker but he works there because the authors knows how much of a dipshit he is.

    The worst thing protagonists can be is passive, which happens a lot when authors try to slap them with badly understood PTSD which means they actively try to avoid doing anything interesting, while whining a lot which is just terrible.

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    1. I agree. Not sure what it says about our cultures that passive protagonists have become so common.

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  20. High Charisma characters - they get the bonus when they roll the dice, even if how they're played doesn't reflect this.

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