Bad Guys, Actually

While moral nitpicking might be fun, it isn’t really a useful framework for watching or even talking about media.

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Have you watched The Devil Wears Prada recently? It holds up, right? Meryl should have won the Oscar, and Stanley Tucci’s performance is an all-timer… but did you pay attention to Nate? Andy’s chef boyfriend who spent too much on strawberries at Dean & Deluca? The movie itself surely wants us to see Andy’s transformation from baggy-sweatered journalist to size 4 fashionista as a Faustian bargain that ultimately distances her from her down-to-earth friends and doting boyfriend and thus her truest self, but actually? If you re-watch the movie? Her boyfriend was sort of a d*ck! And same with her friends! They should have been more supportive of Andy’s incredibly demanding job, and not making it about them all the time. What sort of boyfriend would be so dismissive of his girlfriend’s incredible career opportunity and so resentful of the challenging sacrifices it asked of her? Really? If you think about it? Nate is the real villain of The Devil Wears Prada.

A monologue almost exactly like that has been repeating, ad infinitum, across every form of social media. It’s existed as tweets, Tumblr posts, YouTube videos, TikToks, essays — a take so omnipresent that the director, screenwriter, and actors in the film have all been forced to comment on it.

Given the amount of oxygen that seemingly inane conversation has been given, it’s worth asking: Why? Surely, we all know, it doesn’t really matter whether or not the fictional character was a bad boyfriend to his fictional girlfriend. Internet conversations are organic and decentralized — no one conscientiously controlling who or what gets the lion’s share of attention on any given day. People are driven as individuals, each operating independently, all trying to get the retweets that have become our essential source of dopamine. And pointing out that a nostalgic character is “actually” something other than what we assumed is a guaranteed formula to get people clicking.

It’s something in which I have indulged during various stints as an online journalist. Back in 2017, I wrote a piece for The New York Observer on all the reasons why Gaston from Beauty and the Beast was “actually” the good guy and the Beast was “actually” the villain, pulling from real history and pointing out that, pre-revolutionary France, an absentee monarch living in an elaborate palace while citizens sing about how six eggs are too expensive is someone who is probably going to end up with their head detached from the body.

Here’s the thing: Do I actually think that Belle should have ended up with Gaston? No. What are you even talking about? It is a fictional movie for children. The characters, as presented in the movie, are very clear in their morality. The Beast is a kind, sensitive soul who needed redemption through care and self-forgiveness; Gaston was a murderous meathead who tried to lock up Belle’s father in an insane asylum to force her to marry him because he thought she was pretty. What I was doing was having fun. And it is fun! At least until people confuse hyperbolic Internet outrage for the purposes of entertainment as actual actionable public policy.

That said, there actually is some media that has aged so poorly that watching it again in 2023, all we can do is cringe as the so-called heroes we’re meant to root for begin spouting racism and sexism that once passed as jokes.

It’s a delicate balance, and one that’s hard to calibrate on the Internet, where outrage only has one volume. The word “problematic” is a binary and doesn’t account for the differences between, say, Nate from The Devil Wears Prada who was a bad boyfriend and Chuck from Gossip Girl who assaulted women.

With that said, and with all of the expertise of someone who has spent the better part of the last decade living on the Internet, here is how the cycle goes.

1. A movie or TV show comes out and reaches cultural ubiquity. It’s pretty important that this step occurred somewhere between 10 and 20 years ago, back when there was something of a monoculture, and everyone pretty much was watching the same thing on the Disney Channel. It also needs to have been long enough ago that we weren’t all on social media, digesting things happening in real time.

2. We get lonely. Life is lonely and hard. American life in particular has been redesigned to bypass communal spaces. We go from our beds to our jobs to our couches. Walkable communities are rare, and so socializing with friends is limited to discrete and pre-planned increments. We spend more and more time on the Internet trying to replicate the sense of community we had in childhood.

3. We get nostalgic. One benefit of online streamers, at least in theory, is that companies maintain robust digital libraries of titles. Now, if you’re feeling a wave of nostalgia and a hunger for the comforting media of your childhood, it’s as easy as going over to HBO (sorry — Max) or Disney+ and seeing, oh, hey! The Parent Trap is just a click away. No money, no commitment, no embarrassment of having to bring a physical disc over to a counter and worry if the guy at Blockbuster thinks it’s weird that a 30-year-old woman is renting a movie for children. There’s no commitment and near-infinite availability.

4. We all realize we’ve watched the same things. Because this piece of media came out long enough ago that we weren’t all on Twitter when these movies and TV shows came out, someone tweeting a picture of, say, the DCOM Smart House elicits something like communal nostalgia. We did all watch that! We hadn’t had the mechanisms to discuss it beyond the span of our high school friend groups at the time, and we’d forgotten about it in the years since, and so there is an anchoring feeling to getting to relive the memories with our new internet community.

5. Someone has a new take. Merely pointing out that we all watched, and have fond memories of, the same movies isn’t enough. In order to get people to engage, you need a hot take. Once our collective nostalgia is established, someone points out in a viral tweet or TikTok that a character we once thought was Good is actually Bad.

  • The corollary here is that it also works in the opposite direction. Someone can point out that someone we thought was Bad (e.g., Meredith Blake from The Parent Trap) is actually Good. (A 26-year-old PR rep with an amazing wardrobe, and red lip who seduced a wealthy single dad vintner who looks like Dennis Quaid?! Goals.) If the benefit of wide-reaching conversations on the Internet is to find community, then one of the ways we’re able to achieve that is by sharing embarrassing or less than flattering aspects of our personalities in order to discover that we’re not the only ones who feel that way. Take Meredith Blake: Nobody wants to think of themselves as a gold digger, but wouldn’t it be fun to marry a man with a gorgeous, massive, California estate?

In exculpating Meredith, we absolve ourselves of our less flattering characteristics: not being outdoorsy, say, or vanity, or having very little patience for other people’s children. Perhaps those aren’t mortal sins after all, we say to the Internet, once we’ve grown up and realized that being a person is more challenging than the characters with an infinite capacity for Goodness we once related to had led us to believe.

6. The take goes viral. A take that resonates, like Nate from The Devil Wears Prada being a bad boyfriend, will be repeated in conversations and on podcasts and in various Twitter threads to the point that it no longer requires explanation. It’s not a “bear with me,” it’s a “yeah, we know.”

7. The take becomes ubiquitous and boring. The take becomes a forgone conclusion, lazy Internet shorthand, common to the point of basic and then to the point of cringe. A doctrine I have learned in being a perpetually online person: There is nothing more embarrassing than someone loudly voicing a “hot take” that you read online eight months ago.

8. The counter-backlash. Here is the thing about movies and TV shows. Counter to what Oscar movie montages set to swelling scores may lead you to believe, films aren’t that important. Or rather, whether or not people accurately interpret the fictional actions of a fictional character from 10 years ago doesn’t really make that big of a difference in the world. If anything, our updated analysis of characters is a reflection of our different world, not a galvanizing motor. And so, fed up by the annoying seriousness with which people continue to commit to something that was only supposed to be an amusing observation at best, someone (like me) will write a piece called something like No, Love, Actually Isn’t Problematic and point out all of the ways in which the screenwriter did a pretty good job in establishing the basic heroes and villains, and while moral nitpicking might be fun, it isn’t really a useful framework for watching or even talking about media.

9. People move on. There’s a new take. There’s a new scandal. There’s a new movie or something else that means that people no longer have hours to waste on the Internet analyzing characters until we pluck the fiber of them apart into meaningless strings. A meme account will post one of the original tweets every few months, just to remind us that we are, in fact, all on the same page about Nate from The Devil Wears Prada being a villain.

10. Repeat. We have chosen to live on the Internet, and so this is the hell we have built ourselves. The eagle will peck at our liver every day until this is over.

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