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WHEN THE MOB BOSS, DRUG LORD, AND MALEVOLENT QUEEN AREN’T ALL BAD: AUDIENCES’ COMPLEX UNDERSTANDING OF AND ALLEGIANCE TO FICTIONAL ANTIHERO CHARACTERS IN TELEVISION AND FILM

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Abstract

Antihero characters in TV and film have grown in popularity with both audiences and in academic study in recent years. The antihero literature thus far has focused on predicting audience enjoyment of such characters/narratives and building theories to explain audience members’ ability to root for morally questionable characters. However, the current literature lacks a foundational understanding of how and why audiences engage with antihero characters, and how that engagement evolves over time. In order to address this gap, this project breaks from traditional effects-based methodologies used in the study of antihero characters by triangulating three qualitative studies (focus groups, in-depth interviews, and thought-listing exercises) that allow for the free generation of audience-driven data regarding the full engagement experience with antihero characters, from their first introduction to post-viewing contemplation and discussion. The findings uncover two fundamental goals that drive audiences’ engagement with antihero characters: 1) understanding the complexities and true nature of the antihero, and 2) determining the nature of their (the audience member’s) allegiance, or sympathetic and/or antipathetic stances towards the antihero character. The findings also highlight the dynamic processing style and mixed automatic/conscious processing that was common across participants in all three studies. Three themes capture more specific details regarding several elements, concepts, and processes involved in audience engagement with antiheroes – many of which have not yet been recognized, studied, or measured in previous antihero research – as they relate to the character, narrative, and viewer. Particularly notable among these findings are the multiple roles a single antihero character may fill, their layered personas, the importance of context and between-character relationships, the comparative nature of engagement, the difference between understanding, agreement, and acceptance, the central role of sympathy, empathy, and pity, and the many ways viewers deal with questionable or immoral issues including justification, rationalization, forgiveness, and forgetting. Not only do these findings provide a strong foundation for future academic research, they also offer useful insight for industry professionals who wish to develop engaging antihero characters, and point to potential personal and societal implications of audience engagement with antihero characters.

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164 pages

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2021-08

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Allegiance; Antiheroes; Audience Engagement; Film; Television; Understanding

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Committee Chair

Shapiro, Michael

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Byrne, Sahara E.
Duffy, Brooke Erin
Ong, Anthony D.

Degree Discipline

Communication

Degree Name

Ph. D., Communication

Degree Level

Doctor of Philosophy

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Government Document

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dissertation or thesis

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