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03 December 2009 @ 02:44 pm
Forgiving the Bastard  
The appeal of the Fictional Swine

So I'm reading a proof copy of a forthcoming novel (Mike Thomas's Pocket Notebook) and something about my reaction to the hero begins to seem familiar. Jake, aka PC Jacob Smith, firearms officer and part-time foot fetishist, is an intelligent man, capable, sometimes, of genuine concern for others and he has a wicked but undeniably witty way with words. I can't help grinning as he bitches about the resented younger colleague on his way up, whose name he can't keep in mind, "I just referred to him as Seal Pup because all I wanted to do was club him to death", or when he and his mate Frank, on a dull shift, play police snooker (pulling cars over, first a red, then a colour; the game ends when they can't find a pink one).

But he's also an adulterer who drinks too much, has a steroid habit and beats up prisoners in the back of the van, and while part of him wants to protect every woman he meets, much of the time he's what they need protecting from.

In fact, as I suddenly realise, I am, once again, Forgiving the Bastard….

Back in 2007, Imogen Ridgway, blogging in the Evening Standard's "This is London" entertainment guide, was in a moral tangle about her attitude to a character from the TV hit Life on Mars:

"Reading back over my notes for next week's penultimate episode of Life on Mars, I found, disturbingly, the phrase "is it wrong to fancy Gene Hunt?" appeared more than once.
What bizarreness is this? In real life there's no way I'd warm to such an old bigot as DCI Hunt, the Seventies copper rich in one-liners and far from shy of using offensive language. Does this mean I've sacrificed my sort-of liberal principles of not tolerating racism or language derogatory to women because I've taken a shine to a pretend person off the telly? Surely not. It's probably because Philip Glenister's portrayal of ten-guv-a-day cop DCI Hunt is just a tiny bit sexy, even though it really shouldn't be. Perhaps the appeal comes from Hunt's no-nonsense approach to life, bulldozing colleagues and pogo-ing over political correctness in the name of results.
Ah hell, maybe it's that camel coat." 1

This is an old question in fandom. There are few film and TV fandoms where at some time fans (mostly female fans, if my experience is typical) have not asked themselves: what do I see in that total bastard, and why do I forgive him things I wouldn't forgive another character? (And, frequently, why do I prefer him to the peerless hero?) It happens in book fandom too, though for my money it's a harder trick to pull off in words alone, for part of the Bastard's appeal is likely to reside in his face and voice.

He is not, be it noted, the same as the Lovable Rogue. This chap's appeal is easy to understand. He may be into property-related crime; he will not commit crimes of violence. He has a good heart and is liable to spend the proceeds on a stray dog, if it comes in his way before the betting shop does. Animals, indeed, instinctively like him, as do children. He's almost certainly unfaithful in love, but genuinely likes his partners. He is irresponsible, unreliable and mendacious; he is not mean, vindictive or intentionally cruel. He is, fundamentally, very selfish, but we are apt to forgive him that, because it's a fault we can empathise with. And his casual attitude to property and truth is easily forgivable in someone who is basically rather fun (it is not, after all, our property).

His sense of humour, indeed, is about the only thing he nearly always shares with the Forgivable Bastard, though it'll be expressed very differently. With the Bastard, humour tends to be a weapon, elegant and/or brutal sarcasm that leaves his opponents squashed and us envious of his ready wit. As Ridgway mentions, Gene Hunt's way with words was ruthlessly inventive - "He’s got fingers in more pies than a leper on a cookery course" – and throughout the history of literature and fandom, Bastards have seldom been at a loss for words. Avon from Blakes 7, a classic FB, had a particularly good line in acid repartee. He also had a tragic past, which is another typical FB characteristic, perhaps because it gives us another excuse to forgive them.

Then there's the quality Ridgway mentions; sexiness. It's a fact that FBs are sexy. But it's not always easy to tell whether we forgive the FB because he's attractive, or whether it's being an FB that makes him so. For one, I wouldn't have thought that Philip Glenister, who played Hunt, was a particularly good-looking or sexy man, and Paul Darrow, who played Avon, was not conventionally a looker, though he did have a very sexy voice.

But is a ready tongue, a troubled past, or a magnetic attraction really a reason to forgive the kind of stuff we do forgive our favourite FBs? For the Bastard can be cruel, vindictive, tactless, unscrupulous, arrogant and, of all things, misogynistic, yet he doesn't lack devoted female fans. And is there anything his writers can make him do that can't and won't be forgiven?

People differ, of course, in what they find unforgivable, and one woman's Forgivable Bastard is another's bete noire with no redeeming features. I, for instance, am at a loss to see how so many can forgive literature's most famous example, Heathcliff the spaniel-hanger. Yes, he had the FB's classic hard childhood; so what? He hangs a spaniel. The first woman who forgives him this is of course the dog's owner Isabella, his fictional wife, who is eloping with him at the time and doesn't take this incident as a timely warning to about-face sharpish. And I have always thought she was Emily Bronte's savage caricature of all the female readers who, Emily guessed, would pardon him subsequently – "... and I've sometimes relented, from pure lack of invention, in my experiments on what she could endure, and still creep shamefully cringing back".

Despite the example of Heathcliff, I'd still say that cruelty to animals and children (of which he also does his share) is probably dodgy territory for the FB: hard for most to forgive. Misogyny would appear easier to get away with, certainly in TV fandom where good looks and charisma come into it. From Avon through to Hunt, televised FBs have been misogynists, and their fans have happily excused it and frantically pointed to exceptions in their behaviour. Hunt doesn't believe in women detectives but, as his fans will assure you, he is prepared to admit when one has done good work. So he is, but making an exception for one or two doesn't actually alter his general opinion.

What caused far more agonising in the fandom was the thought that he might be racist. In point of fact, he seemed to me in this respect to be like Prison Officer Mackay from Porridge, who assures a black prisoner that he need have no worries on that score because he, Mackay, despises all prisoners equally. But Hunt still used the casually racist terminology that police officers in the 70s did use. If the show was to retain any realism, it is hard to see how he could have done otherwise, but it was reason enough for some fans to stop watching; they could cope with other characters using the terminology of the time and milieu, but not with their own feelings of attraction to someone who did it. Ridgway was not the only one who wondered if it was wrong to fancy the character.

Avon was clear of racism, and his overt contempt for anyone he considered less intelligent than himself seemed to raise far fewer fannish hackles. But his fans still had to wonder how much they could endure of his ruthlessness, killing at need without apparent concern. When someone refers to one of his victims, who'd actually been an ally at the time, his response is "Who?", and he was finally allowed to strain loyalty to the limit by trying to kill a comrade to save his own life. This took some forgiving, but most of his fans still managed it.

And I think plenty of readers will have the same frisson of enjoyable unease about the protagonist of the upcoming novel I mentioned earlier. Mike Thomas, the author, is a serving police officer, but I can vouch for it that he doesn't resemble his hero, which is just as well. Jacob Smith, as I noted, is a serial adulterer, addicted to steroids, who enjoys violence and tends to fabricate evidence when none is to hand. People being as various and unpredictable as they are, he is also capable of great concern for victims and anger on their behalf, loyalty to his friends and a certain sentimental idealisation of women.

Above all, he is relentlessly funny, partly because he's extremely honest with himself and tends to say and think what persons of more propriety and liberal principles would put guiltily from their minds before the thought had half formed. Sometimes the use of the FB is that he can think and say what we might like to. As far as race goes, by the way, Jacob is another Mackay: one low-life is as bad as another to him, but his views on inadequate parents, abusive husbands and semi-literate, lippy yoof are unreconstructed to a degree that would shock anyone of liberal principles, if they could prevent themselves being amused by his sardonic turn of phrase and habit of living on the edge of disaster. The title refers to his police pocket notebook, which he uses in a dangerously non-regulation way to record his disintegrating life. For Jacob, being a classic FB, has a difficult past and enough current problems to provide fans with excuses to forgive him, if they need them. But the truth is, most of us don't.

Pocket Notebook, btw, is due out in February next year.
Verdandi Weavesverdandiweaves on December 3rd, 2009 03:21 pm (UTC)
I've been hearing about Pocket Notebook for a while - is this the first in a series? Or am being particularly up on my publishing gossip today?
I confess I had a weakness for Avon, but Gene Hunt not so much. I suspect lurking in the background of many women's liking for the FB is the knowledge that back in the caveman days being in the camp of the FB was the way you were most likely to survive. I also think it's all about knowing it's a story. As a teenager I might have fantasied over Avon, but even then I knew I didn't actually want to meet him (although I wouldn't have minded meeting Paul Darrow :) )
Sheenagh Pughsheenaghpugh on December 3rd, 2009 03:33 pm (UTC)
Have to tread carefully here, but there is a second novel on the go, also with a police setting, and I think it shares at least one character with this one. But it isn't a sequel as such.
Verdandi Weavesverdandiweaves on December 3rd, 2009 03:46 pm (UTC)
I'm sure I met this author at some point and he talked about the book. Anyway I've pre-ordered in on amazon as by Feb by local bookshop will be no more. :(
Video Deteriora Sequor: losingexecutrix on December 3rd, 2009 03:25 pm (UTC)
How Very Unlike the Home Life Of Our Own Dear Queen
When it comes to fiction, I'd rather read something entertaining about someone I am glad doesn't actually exist than read something boring about a paragon. In fact it's notoriously difficult to write something worth reading about a genuinely virtuous person.

PS--I think in his Avon years PD was *intermittently* beautiful which is more exciting than a steady state. And Philip Glenister has lovely eyes. (As does Michael Weatherly as Logan Cale in Dark Angel--I am now contemplating what would happen to Dystopian!Seattle if Gene Genie landed there.)
Sheenagh Pughsheenaghpugh on December 3rd, 2009 03:37 pm (UTC)
Re: How Very Unlike the Home Life Of Our Own Dear Queen
Agreed, PD has moments, esp. when his face is animated. But there is the conk... With Glenister I am handicapped by always seeing him as the guy from Hornblower, (Hobbes?) who is not supposed to be remotely sexy, and isn't, though who could be when in competition with Messrs Gruffudd, McCann, Bamber and Corrigan?
Video Deteriora Sequor: kitty pokerexecutrix on December 3rd, 2009 03:56 pm (UTC)
Re: How Very Unlike the Home Life Of Our Own Dear Queen
OT: have you seen the photos from the con last weekend when Mr. Bamber was present?
Negative Nancyscarlet_carsons on December 25th, 2009 12:54 pm (UTC)
Re: How Very Unlike the Home Life Of Our Own Dear Queen
In fact it's notoriously difficult to write something worth reading about a genuinely virtuous person.

This x 1000.

I'm not interested in characters being nice. I'm interested in conflict and hubris and unpleasantness. And I'd rather read about a character who is a bastard with a few sketchy redeeming qualities than a character who is a complete monster - I might have a shred of sympathy for the bastard, whereas I probably won't care so much about what happens to monster.
Sheenagh Pughsheenaghpugh on December 25th, 2009 01:04 pm (UTC)
Re: How Very Unlike the Home Life Of Our Own Dear Queen
In fact it's notoriously difficult to write something worth reading about a genuinely virtuous person.

Yet some of the most memorable characters are just that - Miss Matty from Cranford, Seth Bede... I'm currently re-reading Wilkie Collins's Armadale and realising what a nice man Allan Armadale is - not the sharpest tool in the shed, but so good-natured he genuinely improves life for those around him. The anti-heroine, who generally gets most of the critical sympathy in this novel, dislikes him, which IMO says a lot about her; you plain and simple wouldn't trust anyone who disliked Allan. Miss Gwilt is actually the only female Forgivable Bastard I can think of. And Allan's friend Midwinter is superficially the more interesting, complex character of the two, yet this time around I'm finding myself thinking Allan is the greater achievement, in a writing sense.
Kalypso: Guvkalypso_v on December 3rd, 2009 03:50 pm (UTC)
I think, especially with Gene, there's the idea that he can still be redeemed by the love of a good DI... It's clear that Gene is a better man when Sam is at his side, or challenging his bad points, and it's easy to identify with Sam, the 21st-century point-of-view character, and to believe that one could have the same improving effect.

Ha, Clockwork Orange cover!
The Espresso Addict: avonespresso_addict on December 3rd, 2009 04:11 pm (UTC)
...there's the idea that he can still be redeemed by the love of a good DI[/rebel]

Indeed, I think this might be at the heart of the matter with both Gene & Avon. Actually, I found Phil Glenister quite sexy in Clocking Off, as an unreconstructed character with a much narrower streak of bastard.
The other Lindareapermum on December 3rd, 2009 06:19 pm (UTC)
Glad I'm not the only one who thought Clockwork Orange when I saw the cover there.
Kalypso: Bookkalypso_v on December 3rd, 2009 06:41 pm (UTC)
Does it betray our age, or is that cover still around? I suppose it must be, or there'd be no point quoting it.
The other Lindareapermum on December 3rd, 2009 07:51 pm (UTC)
I think it's our age (or the age of the cover designer), that's the 1972 edition cover.
Sheenagh Pugh: Heslop from Porridgesheenaghpugh on December 4th, 2009 08:28 am (UTC)
The cover designer certainly had homage in mind, AFAIK
azdakazdak on December 3rd, 2009 04:15 pm (UTC)
For one, I wouldn't have thought that Philip Glenister, who played Hunt, was a particularly good-looking or sexy man

He's one of those anomalies - a person who oughtn't (on the basis of their physical appearance) to be sexy, but is. It isn't just because Gene Hunt's a bastard. Have you seen State of Play? He plays a much nicer, and more moral, policeman in that, and is still sexy.
inamac: Bookinamac on December 3rd, 2009 05:38 pm (UTC)
you rat! *g* You sent me over to TV Tropes to find out whether Gene Hunt is listed under 'Magnificent Bastard' (he is - of course he is - so are the majority of my TV/film/book lust objects). Also 'Licensed Sexist' and 'Sexist in Leather Pants' (which appears to have been recently re-named) -though I have difficulty in picturing Gene Hunt in leather pants...

Brother Robert Glenister is pretty hot too...
Alizarin_NYC: life on mars gene and samalizarin_nyc on December 3rd, 2009 05:52 pm (UTC)
I love the explanation of the Forgivable Bastard and the Lovable Rogue. And the question of where and how the character crosses the line into unforgivable territory as is simply a Villain is interesting to ponder.
Video Deteriora Sequor: bardexecutrix on December 3rd, 2009 05:59 pm (UTC)
The Devil Has All the Best Tunes
Anyway, the villain is often by far the most interesting person. Leaving aside how horrible the real Henry VII was, would anybody actually rather watch Richmond than Richard III in Shakespeare's play?

Alizarin_NYC: being human mitchellalizarin_nyc on December 3rd, 2009 06:09 pm (UTC)
Re: The Devil Has All the Best Tunes
I'm going to do a poll in my LJ for some familiar characters and see if people can decide on the category: Lovable Rogue, Forgivable Bastard or Villain Most Foul.
Sheenagh Pugh: Brainsheenaghpugh on December 4th, 2009 08:29 am (UTC)
Re: The Devil Has All the Best Tunes
I'll come and have a look at that!
Alizarin_NYC: doctor wants this bullshit explainedalizarin_nyc on December 4th, 2009 07:41 pm (UTC)
Re: The Devil Has All the Best Tunes
I have posted it. There are so many characters I want to discuss, though! Might have to make this a daily poll with different characters until I'm satisfied.
Nico: thief of heartsvilakins on December 3rd, 2009 10:24 pm (UTC)

I've always gone for the Lovable Rogue (and the alien or android) over the Forgivable Bastard, though bastards can be a lot of fun to write. It's the pleasurable nature of their snark, even if I don't like them very much.

What caused far more agonising in the fandom was the thought that he might be racist.

Sexism will be the last prejudice to fall. People say things about women that they'd never--or be ashamed to--say about other races, though pointing this out just makes the perps defensive. Look at all the sexist jokes and insults on TV shows, and common remarks like "Don't be a girl" or "You big girl's blouse" which are even said by women. :-(

As for cruelty to animals, that is a deal-breaker for me. Since Jamie boasted about shooting all the cats in his neighbourhood as a teenager, I regard him with extreme dislike although I still watch Mythbusters for the stuff they do, and the others on it. It also does not surprise me that the giant pillock Jeremy Clarkson dislikes cats. And when a pet shop burned down due to a character's heartless arson (on the next-door video shop) on a local (and very good) series, I haven't been able to watch it. It will take time for me to get over that.
(Deleted comment)
Sheenagh Pughsheenaghpugh on December 26th, 2009 04:48 pm (UTC)

very possibly, from what I've heard, but I've never actually seen the programme! And I'd have some difficulty ever believing in Hugh Laurie as a baddie, because to me he'll always be Bertie Wooster...
Anyaanya_elizabeth on December 26th, 2009 02:05 am (UTC)
from metafandom
I have this thing where I love fictional things which cause me some kind of moral dissonance. This is why I fancy Dexter despite Michael C. Hall being somehow my anti-type, and why I consistently and repeatedly fall for baddies no matter how many Kick the Dog moments they have (or indeed, some borderline gruesome puppy-slaughtering). I guess I would put it down to the thrill of taboo and a bit of wanting to rescue/redeem, not to mention all the primal I-wanna-be-on-the-scary-man's-team evolutionary stuff.

I have given up on worrying how this reflects on me as a feminist and such, since it's occurred to me that, were I to meet a man such as Gene Hunt IRL, I wouldn't really fancy him for long. About as long as it takes for the shine of alpha-maleness to wear off, and the realisation to dawn that he's not ever going to agree with my core values. I will make do with the next best thing – a snarky git with a squishy core, one who I trust and respect. Jackpot.
Mannamanna on January 4th, 2010 07:13 pm (UTC)
The forgiveable bastard characters are often ones given the point of view, or the ones whom we get to see a lot. With books and TV you get much closer to a character than you do with a real person on a similarly short acquaintance, and I think it tricks the brain into classifying them as 'us'. I think most people are naturally empathic/sympathetic towards their friends and family, and will defend them, forgive their faults, and try to see the best in them.

I do know that with the Administration stories there are a lot of people who love Toreth and loathe Carnac. On a strict assessment of what the characters *do*, that seems bizarre, but on another level I'm not really surprised by it.