Pop culture, and those who follow it closely (which includes all of us), has this love hate relationship with the anti-hero and the villain. There are those who faun over such characters as the Joker, who love his style and his flair. Admittedly, he is very much a charismatic individual. But he’s also a cold blooded murderer, mental unstable, and in the end was only created to be the ultimate foil against Batman. Batman himself is the antithesis of Superman, who is portrayed as the ultimate hero. Superman has power, strength, kindness, honesty, is an open book for the world (save for his secret identity), and is looked up to by everyone. Batman on the other hand, works in the shadows, uses fear to his advantage and can be brutal in his methods. To that end, this makes Batman pretty much an anti-hero.
In pop culture, the best example of an anti-hero would have to be the Punisher. A man affected by crime, he takes his one man war to the streets, killing those who hurt him, or have the potential to hurt him. He’s a former United States soldier, and is often described as a former Vietnam veteran. To that end, he’s the perfect antithesis to Captain America. World War II vet, who sees honour and loyalty as high attributes, he tries to embody the best in the American dream. And as Cap himself has said, a true patriot holds the beliefs high, but does not need to support the government who brought them about.
There’s other pop culture examples as we take a look at books and movies. Loki from the recent Thor and Avengers movies and even into the comics. Moriarty, from the original in the late 19th Century, to the present with BBC’s Sherlock. It goes beyond pop culture to the real individuals who were seen as heroes by some and criminals by others.
Like Jesse James.
James fought during the Civil War, and was known for his brutality on the battlefield. After the war, he began his new life as a bank robber, where his brutality did not end. His legend is romanticized through books and films. But let’s get something straight. Jesse James was a cold blooded murderer. A psychopath who got off on killing. He primarily targeted Union banks, and killed Union citizens, which means he wasn’t stupid and his attacks weren’t random. He was seen as a Southern hero that captured a sense of rebellion after the Confederacy lost the war. In the North, he was a cowardly criminal.
Now, James did live in Missouri, which was a border state during the war. Seventy five percent of it was Southern influence, however, but both sides performed various human atrocities during the war. Southern guerrillas killed Unionist civilians, executed prisoners and scalped the dead. Union soliders enforced martial law, performed summary executions, raided civilian homes and arrested Southern sympathizers, banishing many from the State. It was a perfect climate to create the monster that James would later become, as he joined his brother and Quantrill in December of 1869, well after Frank had been a part of the first daylight bank robbery in the United States. A Daviss Country robbery, and killing of John Sheets (mistaken for Samuel P. Cox), was the first in a series of bank robberies with Jesse. James made friends with a Kansas City newspaper editor who was a former Confederate cavalryman, and sent letters proclaiming his innocence. Each subsequent letter became more and more political, as James announced his pride in Confederate loyalties. Along with the newspaper editors’ editorials, there became a huge swell of support for James, and a hatred of the Reconstruction after the war.
Jesse James was still a psychopath, but he was a very intelligent psychopath. Combined with white features and dashing good looks, he was seen as the perfect hero. But he was still a psychopath.
James isn’t the first, nor is he the last of those who would commit violence. But they all had a common bond. Each was very charismatic, each was very white, and each was very good looking. Angelic faces with hearts of pure evil.
Let’s turn the tables now.
There are very few non-white criminals who have become symbols of heroism throughout history. Almost all are vilified in some way, even more so than would have happened to Jesse James. The reason is simple; they’re black, or Native American, or ‘Asian’ (ie, Chinese, Japanese).
There’s another thing that each of the iconic villains from history and popular culture have in common, even the ‘dark skinned’ ones. They’re all men. Throughout history, there is very little mention of women being as brutal or ruthless as men like Jesse James or the historic version of Captain Black Beard. Those in the realm of psychology would argue that women just don’t have it in them. Here’s a quick, one word argument against that.
Women can be just as passionate, strong, emotional, and driven as men. And women can act out on their fears or desires just as men can. They aren’t heard about as much because there is a common historical attribute that keeps women on the down low with regard to being brutal cutthroats. Patriarchy.
For centuries, men have been in control (most often) and men have been the ones who control the media, the government, the church, police forces, military, and so on. So men like Jesse James come along, and they’re branded as villains by the government, but as heroes by the common man. You have to think, would the mystery of Jack the Ripper have gone on for so long had he not been killing prostitutes, but instead targeted wealth women, or even men. Would it have gone on longer had Jack the Ripper actually been Jacqueline the Ripper? I bet it would have, because police would never have suspected a woman of the crime, because the thinking was that women cannot be serial killers.
Bonnie Elizabeth Parker and Clyde Chestnut Barrow were infamous bank robbers with the famed Barrow Gang during the dirty 30s that plagued the central United States. While John Dillinger had good looks and Pretty Boy Floyd had the perfect nickname during this era, it was something else that rose Bonnie and Clyde to fame. Illicit sex. Bonnie and Clyde were young, good looking, and aside from the cartoonish aspect of a machine gun toting woman, without Bonnie, media outside of Texas would have dismissed Clyde as a punk, if they would have given him any attention at all. With Bonnie, the Barrow Gang’s spree of bank jobs and murders lasted from 1930 to 1934. Driven by a twisted interest from the public, the pair became famous and idolized even though many of the crimes were pinned on them they never committed. There was something incredible about being a killer, bank robber and a sex symbol.
While Bonnie had her share of murders during that time, she wasn’t branded a serial killer.
In the United States, there have been 86 female serial killers. Most have been very close to their victims, and motives have often been for material gain. This has brought about the “Black Widow” romantic aspect of a female serial killer. Most of their killings happen in a home, or in many cases, in a health care facility they are working at. There are exceptions to this rule, just as there are for male serial killers. Aileen Wourmos killed outside. She was a prostitute in Florida, used a gun instead of poison, killed strangers instead of loved ones, killed for personal satisfaction instead of monetary gain. Another much darker example is the Countess Elizabeth Bathory, who was famous for draining the blood of her victims and bathing in it. Her motives were for personal beauty, believing blood of women would keep her good looks and youth. It’s estimated Bathory killed over 600 young women and girls, but in the end was convicted with 80 murders. While she never set foot in a court of law, she was imprisoned in her castle, where she died four years later.
The most telling of the romantics of the anti-hero and villain are this, however. White men are seen as intelligent (even if they are mentally unstable), visionaries, charismatic, and good looking. White women are often seen as good looking (such as Bonnie), but often as Black Widows, seductresses, evil, shrews, and an exception to the rule of “what a woman should be”. Obviously men can be psychopaths, then. Visible minorities get and even shorter end of the stick, often vilified for their actions. Most notable would be the early 19th Century revolt by Haitians who drove out French and British oppressors to become the first independent nation in the Americas under the control of black citizens. A heroic story, yet we don’t hear much about it because of that “black” part. Had the Haitians all been white, we probably would hear no end of it.
As far as women go, they are usually viewed with scorn, vilified, told to be put in their place, or completely erased from history. While the motives of women who commit violent crimes may be different, their actions aren’t any different at all. Yet, it’s the men who are praised and hero worshiped. Even psychopaths like Jesse James.