In defense of morally ambiguous media


Photo provided by: Annalie

‘American Psycho’ and ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ are both works of fiction that, despite popularity, have been derided for the negative qualities of their protagonists.

Annaliese Long, Section Editor

There is no critique of a piece of literature, film or television that manages to irk me to my core quite as successfully as that along the lines of, “I would like it, but I didn’t like the character’s actions.” This is a sentiment that I have mournfully seen applied to many pieces of media that I consider to be incredibly sharp, insightful and entertaining. I find it puzzling that any work of fiction should be looked down upon for the mere inclusion of immoral activities or characters, as oftentimes that is one of the most effective tactics in getting a more agreeable theme or message across. 

One story that exemplifies this effectiveness is American Psycho, a book written by Bret Easton Ellis, and was later adapted into a movie starring Christian Bale in the titular role of the American psycho, serial killer Patrick Bateman. Throughout the novel and film, we follow Patrick through his day-to-day life, which includes frequent murdering of innocent people for unpredictable and inane reasons. By the end of the story, Patrick undergoes no redemption or change of heart, and he remains as violent and unfeeling as he was at the story’s beginning. Upon the novel’s initial publication, it was met with many negative reviews; the main complaint being the graphic violence and sexism depicted in the story. However, as time has passed the true purpose of the story seems to have revealed itself in the audience’s mind, and the film and book have both developed cult classic status. So what could have caused this change in attitude? I think many who read the novel when it first came out failed to realize that it is fully intended to be satirical, and now that that fact has become more widely realized, the story is being appreciated for what it always was: a criticism of corporate yuppie culture and the seemingly ideal model of masculinity, and how perpetual striving to reach these standards can lead to serious psychological descension. We are not supposed to like Patrick – we are supposed to understand how his own despicable actions led to his downfall. 

However, even if the point of the immorality is not to make satirical commentary, that does not automatically negate the value of the immoral characters/actions within the story. Holden Caulfield, the much-deprecated protagonist of J.D. Salinger’s classic novel The Catcher In the Rye, serves as a prime example of this. Among modern readers of Catcher, there seems to be a consensus that Holden is irritating and for the most, wholly unlikeable. I have seen many people state their disliking of the book for the sole reason that Holden is too annoying of a narrator. Now, there is some validity to this. Holden’s sour attitude and selfish actions are often taxing on the reader’s patience as they progress through the novel, and his character does not, as far as my interpretation goes, function to portray a more universally accepted message through the means of satire. Regardless, I find his characterization critical to the point of the novel, which is to show a realistic response to adolescent trauma through the actions of its main character. After experiencing major losses in his life, Holden judges people and lashes out constantly throughout the book, and while his actions do not make him endearing, they make him identifiable. The book is important because it tells the raw, truthful story, not the idealized, sugar-coated story. 

At the end of the day, stories have no responsibility to uphold morals – people do. As long as humans remain sentient enough to detach themselves from the media they consume, there should be no debasing of moral failures within said media.