Thursday, May 13, 2021

Romancing the Villain and Hotness Absolution

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Warning: This post may contain some spoilers for the Netflix and book series, Shadow and Bone. Proceed at your own risk.

I'm a fan of the Shadow and Bone ("Grishaverse") novels by Leigh Bardugo, so naturally when the Netflix series came out, I gobbled it right up. I had watched the casting announcements, and while most of the actors picked for the main roles were unfamiliar to me, one crucial one was not. 

When the producers named Ben Barnes as the Darkling, aka General Kirigan, aka Aleksander, I fan-girl flipped out. The Darkling is the main antagonist of the series, though he doesn't necessarily start out that way. At one point in the books, and on the show, the Darkling is also a potential romantic interest for the main character, Alina Starkov. Any actor that played him had to be handsome, suave, erudite, a little distant and cold, and above all, sexy. 


Have you seen Ben Barnes as Billy Russo in The Punisher? How about as Logan in West World? Okay, as Logan he might have been more "spoiled asshole" than "sexy villain" but still... there really wasn't anyone more suited for the Darkling than him, in my opinion. He absolutely lived up to my expectations.

Oh, those expectations... Barnes's performance, physical appearance, sex appeal, etc. has caused quite the stir on social media ever since the show's release. It has also spawned a ton of blog posts and commentary, so I kind of feel like I'm beating a dead horse by talking about this subject again. But I here I go anyway...

There are three main camps I'm seeing when it comes to Romancing the Villain:

  1. Romanticizing villains is bad and you should never ever do it. Nothing about abuse, violence, murder, corruption, etc., is romantic. Ever.
  2. Romanticizing villains is okay as long as you acknowledge what makes them problematic and don't condone such behavior in the real world. Your fantasies are a safe space to work out complex feelings.
  3. Romanticizing villains is okay and don't apologize for your lust. Embrace the evil! Ride or Die, Bitches!
I can't say I have a firm opinion on the matter. Rather, I think all of them are right and wrong in their own ways. However, I think I tend to fall in camp #2. I definitely found Ben Barnes portrayal of the Darkling to be, um, erm, *shifts uncomfortably in seat* compelling. I'm currently re-watching the second season of The Punisher and Jon Bernthal's performance as Frank Castle lights me up, despite knowing just how troublesome such a character would be in the real world. I've also watched Bernthal as Shane Walsh on The Walking Dead a second time and found him way more sympathetic and complex than I did the first time I watched that show. Is that because I have a better comprehension of the character the second time around, or because I think Jon Bernthal is hawt?

 
Let's not even get started on my Adam Driver vs Kylo Ren conflict. As a character, Kylo Ren is reprehensible. I did *not* root for him and Rey to become a romantic couple, not even once. It still pisses me off when I think about it. But can I happily re-watch, over and over, that scene where he first takes his helmet off on The Force Awakens? Why, yes. Yes I can.


Basically, it does all come down to aesthetic appeal though. If excuses are to be made for loving the bad guy, those excuses are most often made for the beautiful bad boys and never for, say, the Jabba the Hutts of the world.

You never want a big wet kiss from Jabba, do you?

I talked about this issue with fellow ATB contributor, Mary Fan, who is often my go-to when I'm wrestling with issues like this, either in the media I'm consuming or in my own writing. She calls this phenomenon the "Hotness Absolution". It's her contention, and I agree, that if Jabba had been a hot human (or humanoid), people would have been a lot more into the Leia-as-his-slave thing. Would people have shipped Reylo so hard if Kylo never took of his mask? I think our recent text conversation sums up this contradiction perfectly:

Mary: No one shipped anyone with Palpatine...

Me: Right!

Mary: Hmm does anyone romanticize Evil Anakin? I haven’t hung out in fan forums much but I feel like they don’t really romanticize him at all... 

Me: I know way back in the day people were writing some very smutty stuff involving Darth Maul. I read a few stories that were 😮😮😮😮

Mary: LOLLLLLL

Me: I mean, other than the creepy teeth and eyes, Ray Park is/was very, um, "fit". So, I guess if people can have a furry kink, why not an evil Sith kink?

Mary: I guess?? I mean yeah Ray Park was young, twenty-something martial artist with a British accent so I get that. Ha ha. People gonna people...

Me: Exactly

Mary: I wonder if any of those people romanticized his portrayal of the Toad in X-Men

Me: *Dies laughing*

So, I realize that the end of this post should draw some sort of conclusion about all of this. Maybe I should make a definitive stance on whether or not romancing the villain when he's hot, but not when he's not, is okay. A villain who gets to embrace his sexual appeal versus one whose appeal is hidden behind a less palatable exterior is always going to get more romantic leeway from fans. I can't criticize anyone for that though. It's a complex issue full of myriad nuances, and I'm not willing to judge people's thirst traps out of context. Context is everything. Besides, making a judgment would turn me into a hypocrite because I've got to stop writing this blog so I can go watch that video of Adam Driver/Kylo Ren taking off his helmet a couple dozen more times. Bye-eeeee!

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