A Toast for the Douchebags at SXSW

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"A Toast for the Douchebags at SXSW"

A programming note: posting’s going to be a bit slow for the rest of my time at SXSW. There are just too many panels to go and people to see. Thanks for being understanding. I’ll keep the content coming as best I can.

“In Hollywood, the douche is louche. The douchebag, as opposed to the meathead or the jagoff, is a viable hero in cinema,” Slate’s Dan Kois said at a panel on SXSW on Sunday. “Usually, a douchebag could only be a hero if he was redeemed, usually by the love of a good woman…[But now we have] Iron Man, the world-historical first superhero douchebag franchise…[In The Hangover movies]Bradley Cooper plays an unrepentant douchebag who is terrible to his friends.” The panel didn’t entirely get into it—instead, it devolved into one of the more committed piece of performance art I’ve ever seen at a conference—but it’s an interesting question. What does it say about us that we’ve got so many movie heroes who disregard everyone around them in pursuit of their own interests?

There’s something Randian about the perspective that Kois and his fellow panelists, Robyn Sklaren, P.E. Oppenheim, Eliza Skinner offered up. “We’re all animals. We go after our wants and needs,” Skinner said, arguing that in a moment when we put a premium on authenticity, “A douchebag feels so much more authentic that anyone else. A douchebag is honest about the fact that he wants to fuck that girl. Everybody wants to fuck that girl.” Kois said that Michael Mann’s movies have thrived on the fact that “they all demonstrate the charismatic amazingness of douchebags.” And Skinner suggested that, in contrast to your everyday deeply unpleasant person, “you have to be charming to be a douche. People have to want to talk to you.”

The thing is, most people don’t actually meet that charmingness threshold. And most people don’t possess the other attributes, like insanely good looks or extreme wealth, that allow them to ignore the wishes, needs, and even rights of others, and still compel people to continue interacting with them, much less fulfilling their needs. Being able to be utterly impossible and still get everything you want isn’t a remotely obtainable fantasy for almost any of us. For all that romantic comedies get blamed for feeding unrealistic conceptions of what love and relationships look like, it’s more plausible that flawed people will make accommodations for each other than that the average person can get through life being entirely anti-social without ever once being called effectively to account and forced to alter their behavior to get something that they want.

Because I think the truth is, conditioning or no, most people actually want certain levels of interconnection. At worst, that manifests as a desire for credit for being compassionate and thoughtful, which means you’ve at least got to go through some of the motions. At best, we crave actual intimacy and emotional interdependence. These things are messy, and strange, and not uniformly rewarding, but we do often want them. Fantasizing about wanting interactions without the possibility of experiencing pain may not result in attractive fantasies. But it’s a rational response, if not a classy one, to great fear, and great want.

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