Howdy-hey, kids! Thanks for coming back to another edition of Flashback Friday, this time with an excessive amount of mustache-twirling and top-hat wearing. I bring up these villainous tropes found in old serials of yesteryear because today I’m throwing the magnifying glass on the bad guys and gals that inhabit our world, both real and fictional. Specifically, I’ll be taking a look back at writer Chuck Klosterman’s examination of villainy in I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined).
For those of you not familiar with his work. Klosterman is a novelist, essayist, and columnist, focusing on pop culture studies and examining the disposable bits of pop culture and using them to speak to larger issues of society, both in the micro and the macro. For example, in his collection of essays Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto, he uses the 1990s brain candy series Saved by the Bell to comment on how everything in our cultural field becomes cliché, while in another essay he uses the films Memento and Vanilla Sky to discuss the nature of reality. For a pop culture junkie and an anthropology/religion nerd like me, stumbling upon Klosterman’s work was a revelation.
Klosterman continues that vein of cultural observation and analysis in his thematically-connected essays in I Wear the Black Hat. As mentioned, Klosterman is concerned with looking at the idea of the villain, the bad guy, as depicted both in fiction and in the real world. Specifically, many of his essays are concerned with what we consider villainous behavior and why we more apt to overlook some poor behavior in some people or characters, while vilifying similar behavior in others. In a roundabout way, Klosterman seems to want to also comment on why we hate what we hate and why that application of hatred can be uneven and unfair at best.
Take, for instance, his essay “Easier than Typing,” in which Klosterman ruminates on why we as readers and movie-goers have no problem rooting for Batman as he engages in his vigilantism across the Gotham City skylines, but we recoil at the actions of Bernhard Goetz. We cheer on vigilantism in our fiction as a type of cathartic act, although many of us might not want to see such vigilantism play itself out in our waking world. (Admittedly, I think that this might be Klosterman’s weakest comparison in the collection, since Batman, fictional or not, isn’t a wacked-out racist and murderer like Goetz, a fact that even Klosterman acknowledges.)
In that same narrative thread, Klosterman looks at other acts that we might consider villainous, but are glossed over when performed by who we see as otherwise virtuous men. In “Villains Who Are Not Villains,” Klosterman looks at the case of Muhammad Ali, who championed civil rights, but who also mocked Joe Frazier with racial slurs and pretty much crushed the boxer’s career. Why do those acts get swept under the rug of cultural and historical memory? Klosterman suggests that Ali’s bigger-than-life persona and cockiness made such acts easier to disregard in the public eye.
The collection isn’t perfect, as Klosterman meanders down narrative rabbit holes that he fights his way out of, but what I appreciate about him as an author is that he seems comfortable with getting lost. Several times in the book he confesses this meandering in one way or another and decides that it’s okay if he doesn’t have all the answers. This collection isn’t meant to be a definitive examination of our fascination and struggle with villainy in others, in our pop culture, and in ourselves, but a touchstone for further analysis. While the title of the book might be I Wear the Black Hat, I appreciate the shades of grey he pulls into the discussion.
Until next week, friends, be kind to each other and try to keep your world-ending deathrays in the “off” position. Check in next week for a brilliant, funny, and poignant look at depression and life in Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half.