We all need idols, and considering how central books, film, and TV can be to our lives, it makes sense that so many of us count fictional characters among our role models. But not every charismatic protagonist is an Atticus Finch — or even a Leslie Knope. After the jump, we take a lighthearted look at some of the outsize personalities that never should have become cult heroes or objects of popular worship. These aren’t villains we relish for their cartoonish evil, but irreparably flawed (and sometimes downright sociopathic) characters people think are cool and/or strive to emulate, from a teenage rapist to pop culture’s ultimate kept woman.
Taxi Driver’s protagonist is an angry young man with a hero complex — which means that other angry young men with hero complexes can’t seem to help idolizing him, with his mohawk and paramilitary garb and homemade, spring-loaded gun holsters and faintly pathetic tough-guy banter. But here’s the thing about Travis Bickle: he isn’t just pissed off and alienated, and while he does end up saving a child from prostitution, it’s clearly out of the same obsessive need to feel important and purify the supposedly rotten world that drove him to plot the assassination of a presidential candidate. Dangerously unstable people may occasionally perform acts of heroism, but that doesn’t make them any less dangerous or unstable.
Truman Capote’s heroine was so popular that just about all of the author’s New York society-lady friends claimed to be the true inspiration for the character. But is that distinction actually worth fighting over? The original Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Holly is a beautiful young woman from the middle of nowhere who comes to the city with the goal of marrying a rich man. In the mean time, she allows several of them to finance her lifestyle in exchange for her sparkling company — meaning that, despite the glamor of Holly Golightly as portrayed on the big screen by Audrey Hepburn, she isn’t exactly what little girls everywhere grow up dreaming of becoming.
All the disaffected teenage girls love The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield, and all the disaffected teenage boys want to be him. The good news is that while he may be on his way to becoming a grown-up crank, this prep-school refugee seems a bit too smart and self-aware to turn out like Travis Bickle. The bad news is that, by his own admission, he can’t stand other people, acts far younger than his age (which is only 17), and is having a nervous breakdown. It’s bad enough that high-school kids aspire to Holden’s level of self-destructive alienation; the many adults who hang onto him as a model of righteous rebellion seem to have missed the fact that teenage angst has an expiration date.
Before there were two movies, Sex and the City tours of Manhattan, and characters on new HBO shows who are obsessed with characters on that older HBO show, there was simply a TV series earning critical praise — and a vocal following — for its frank depictions of women’s sex lives (and interminable conversations about same). But let’s be honest: Even before Carrie Bradshaw was a couture-draped monster on a culturally insensitive tear across the Middle East, she was a pretty poor role model. For one thing, she was obsessed with — and ended up marrying! — a man who spent years treating her terribly. Then there’s the fact that she’s terrible with money. (How many times did she prioritize $800 shoes over basic human necessities?) And that brings us to perhaps the most offensive thing about Carrie Bradshaw: If her personal relationships and the hackneyed questions she so passionately types out are any indication, she’s really got no business writing about sex and love, ever.
Alex (aka Alex DeLarge, aka Alexander the Large)
It should really go without saying that no one should idolize a character who rapes and murders innocent people, but we see enough people (teenagers and grown-ups alike!) running around dressed like Alex and his A Clockwork Orange lackeys and fomenting gleeful mayhem every Halloween that perhaps it doesn’t. Yes, Anthony Burgess’ book is a classic meditation on youth and authority. Sure, he invented an entire awesome dialect to realize its futuristic world. No one is better at creating a hyper-stylized environment that Stanley Kubrick, who directed the film version. And yet, a sociopath in a cool costume who hangs out at a hip-looking bar is still a sociopath.
This one hurts a bit, because Liz Lemon is one of our all-time favorite TV characters — and we’re certainly not knocking Tina Fey’s creation. But what is the deal with all these women who go around bragging that they basically are Liz Lemon? She may be a funny lady who gets to run her own TV show, but she’s also a woman who finds the business of living everyday life near-impossible and would probably be a shut-in if she didn’t have to go to work every day (and could secure reliable cheese delivery). If you still need convincing that she isn’t someone to emulate, check out this classic Tiger Beatdown post and remind yourself that there’s a difference between a great character and a great role model.
It’s one thing to romanticize debauched artists who create great work — your Arthur Rimbauds, your Lou Reeds, your Henri de Toulouse-Lautrecs. But while the titular Withnail of Bruce Robinson’s 1987 dark comedy Withnail and I may aspire to be a working actor, he’s really just a lazy, manipulative alcoholic with a talent for lying. Sure, it’s easy to see why some of the cult film’s fans get such a vicarious thrill out of Withnail; he does what he wants and has perfected a certain timeless, disheveled-fop look. As Withnail and I‘s nameless protagonist (“I”) eventually realizes, however, this is a guy who’s more trouble than he’s worth. He might be fun to giggle at for a few hours, but you would neither want to be him nor live with him.
How many millions of young romantics have closed A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man vowing to emulate Stephen Dedalus, the troubled teenage intellectual who endures a childhood full of hardship and ridicule to finish out the book making grand pronouncements about his intent to live an artist’s life, haters be damned. “I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it calls itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use — silence, exile, and cunning,” he says, and who wouldn’t admire his creative individualism? It takes getting a few chapters into Ulysses, in which we meet Stephen a few years down the road, to realize that our hero is a pretentious, underachieving windbag — an invaluable lesson to everyone whose mouth talks up sonnets his brain can’t compose.
Gone with the Wind’s heroine gets a lot of credit for being smarter than silly Southern belles around her, and the beauty of Vivian Leigh, who plays Scarlett in the classic film version, is certainly arresting enough to render anyone uncritical. But for all her enviable brassiness, she’s also a mess of insecurity and selfishness, her intelligence focused on the sole aim of winning over Ashley Wilkes. Although none of that makes her any worse than your average teenage girl, her later exploits as a business owner render her entirely inhumane — and all the fierce DIY curtain dresses in the world can’t change that.
You may want to look like Don Draper. (Who wouldn’t?) Or perhaps you find him hopelessly attractive. (Again, who could resist?) No one could blame you for envying his way with an ad campaign. And who doesn’t wish it were still socially acceptable to drink your way through a workday? But people, when you really think about it, you neither want to be Don nor date him. From the emotional reticence to the compulsive philandering to the workaholism to the oscillation between arrogance and self-hatred, it is no fun to be (or know) this guy. Secret identities are far less fun in real life than in stories, and even if you could put up with that, how about the pathetic moment a couple of episodes ago when he selfishly sabotaged Michael by leaving his work in the car before a big client meeting?