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Perks of Being a Loner: Why we love characters who won’t love us back6:00:00 AMJoseph Anderson
You’re familiar with this character. He rides in from the sunset, nobody knows anything about him, where he’s from, what he’s done. He’s reticent to share his feelings — in fact, he doesn’t seem to have any feelings at all. He’s a drinking, smoking, macho-man with a mysterious past.
Sounds cliche? It does to me, too. But if you look at the movies and what they’re coming out with, this storyline is being recycled over and over again. And we love it. We keep buying it. All they have to do is sell it to us in new packaging.
Take this last Valentine’s weekend big box office reveal, Deadpool. For a character hyped up for being “not your regular hero,” he sure seems a lot like all the other cliche action hero stars out there. The fact that he kills his enemies goes against the mindset of the justice bringers like Batman, Spiderman and Superman.But, this is really not that unique in today’s cinema landscape.
Deadpool fits the regular loner stereotype. He’s jaded, unloving, anti-communitarian, and the only thing that makes him “have a heart” is a girl. One day storytellers may move on from the tiresome belief that the only emotion men are capable of feeling is centered around their crush. For now, however, this is the formula they have and apparently they are sticking with it.
The question to ask in the face of Deadpools, Wolverines, Clint Eastwoods, and James Bonds is this: why do we love these characters who don’t love us back?
You would think that because they rule the box office and the “New Releases” section of your local bookstore they would also run things in everything from local universities to the social world and beyond. And unless these loners are somehow secretly pulling the strings behind the scenes, it seems apparent to me that in real life, loners aren’t nearly as popular as they are in the movies.
Think back to when you were in high school. Did people love the moody emo kid who sat in the corner and read Anna Karenina? Maybe he had a small following (but probably not). And even if that particular loner you knew in high school was especially cool and did garner something of a reputation, could that reputation hold up to the demagogue that went to all the parties, captained the football team, and ran for student body president?
In fact, chances are that these loner characters are almost always overlooked in social settings. And even the ones who have some sort of gift that makes them of interest to the general public, they soon fade out of the public eye when the next attention-starved star comes along. These attention-starved divas don’t only lurk around Hollywood and attend Oscar award ceremonies. Every community, large or small, has them. They gravitate towards the center of things and they end up on your college brochures and all over the yearbook.
These people are great socially. They are rarely seen alone without some sort of entourage around them. But they don’t end up the center figure of a novel or a major motion picture. Why is that? Why would you vote for Donald Trump for president, and not Wolverine? Would you even think to vote for Wolverine, besides the fact that he’s Canadian?
The Dismissive, Antisocial Personality
Perhaps the reason that these fictional characters are so well received to the point that even their slightly altered and reanimated cliches bring packed theaters is that they embody something of human experience that is universal. Man is undeniably lonely. This isn’t just because he happens to be single —no, even outside single life he has something of this loneliness in him because at the innermost realization of his being he knows that he is alone. His thoughts cannot be shared fully, his experiences cannot be expressed appropriately.
This could explain why there is then such a divide between the characters who are idolized on the social level and those who are idolized on screen and in books. One persona embodies our wishful thinking for what we want to be. The quarterback or the front-runner of the school’s biggest production appears on the outside to be accepted by society. And social acceptance is something that most people, if not all, long for. We have a deep fear of not being accepted by society, of failing and being “forever alone.” If we can say that we are friends with this particular persona of social acceptance, if we can date him or her, or even if we can just look to that person and think “yeah, I’m like him,” we can try and persuade ourselves that we aren’t still afraid of being unacceptable.Meanwhile, the loner character has long ago given up on being socially accepted. He masks this innate desire with a dismissive attitude. And perhaps within the context of the story this person has been able to so condition himself to really not long for social acceptance anymore. Publicly we would never voice our desire for such a persona around us. That would be too edgy, too unacceptable.
Similar to how I discussed movies offer us a chance to cleanse ourselves through nostalgia, movies and stories also allow us an outlet where we can worship this character who has given up on society, who is better off without it. We can come together with one another and share this ardent appreciation for such characters. In doing so, we also share our own fears of loneliness, our realization that we know there’s something about us that the world wouldn’t find acceptable. We can vent our own fears, and find community over our alienation.