Heroes and Villains: How Do They Stack Up?
Humans love stories. Young children want to be told stories and to be read to. Kids and adults alike soak up yarns in various forms- books, television, movies. Videogames offer interactive narratives. Reality shows (er, “unscripted dramas”), sports, and even politics weave tales that people yearn to follow. And characters are integral to stories – specifically heroes and villains. It’s in our nature to cheer the good guys and loath the bad guys.
This post kicks off a regular feature on Shrink Tank: Heroes and Villains. I’ll be taking a look at prominent heroes and villains in pop culture. I’ll be assessing along factors of heroism and evil pulled from psychological theory and research. A major influence is Dr. Philip Zimbardo, who rose to prominence by examining evil with his simulated-prison study at Stanford University in the early 1970’s. He since has pivoted to an exploration of heroism, which he defines as a social activity that meets several criteria:
1. it is in service to others in need, or in defense of an ideal
2. it is a voluntary act
3. it is done with a recognition of possible risks/costs
4. the hero is willing to accept anticipated sacrifice
5. there is no external gain anticipated at the time of the act
I’ll rate each hero 0-20 on each of these five criteria, yielding a Heroism Quotient (HQ) with a maximum score of 100; the higher the score, the more heroic the hero:
HQ in the 80’s: Paladin, for sure, but with some cracks in the armor. Examples- Helen Ripley from Aliens (HQ 88), George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life (HQ 82)
HQ in the 70’s: Heroic, but perhaps out of necessity or to meet a job requirement. Examples – Olivia Pope from Scandal (HQ 74), Marge Gunderson from Fargo (HQ 70)
HQ below 70: Still someone you’d want to have your back, but a bit of a wildcard or maybe an antihero. Examples- Raymond Reddington from The Blacklist (HQ 68), Rooster Cogburn from True Grit (HQ 67)
Villains will also be rated along five criteria (0-20), yielding a Villainy Quotient (VQ) with a maximum score of 100. The factors are drawn from the thinking and research of Zimbardo and other experts on evil:
2. degree of harm or damage done
3. track-record of evil-doing
4. malice towards victims, intent to cause suffering
5. taking pleasure in actions
Similar to the HQ, the higher the VQ, the more evil the villain:
VQ in the 90’s: Grade “A” reprobate, worst of the worst. Examples- Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs (VQ 95), Amy Dunne from Gone Girl (VQ 91)
VQ in the 70’s: Nasty, noxious, and nefarious. Examples- The Governor from The Walking Dead (VQ 73), Ultron from Avengers: Age of Ultron (VQ 70)
VQ below 70: Crossing paths would be a bummer, but count your blessings. Examples- Gordon Gekko from Wall Street (VQ 52), Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver (VQ 44)
One reason I like the idea of scoring characters is that it enables comparisons across media, genres, and eras (like Rocky Balboa vs. Clarice Starling, or Nurse Ratched vs. Freddy Krueger). Again, I’ll be surveying all of pop culture, so sports and reality television are fair game. Which hero or villain will be rated first, and how strong will their HQ or VQ be? Check back to find out!