iron-man

So I read this article last week. It’s an explanation of Trump’s rise in popularity, and you may or may not agree with it. The only point I’m in interested in is the last one, where it says arseholes are heroes, and then proceeds to use Tony Stark and Dr. Gregory House as examples. To be clear, this post is not political. It’s about characterisation.

Now, I won’t say arseholes can’t be heroes. But the state of being an arsehole is not what makes you a hero, and on the topic of whether Stark and House have anything in common with Trump, and whether you can fairly label them as “arseholes”, I have strong opinions.

Now I’ll assume the writer of the political article knows nothing about characterisation, so I can forgive the ignorance, but his analysis is superficial at best. Let’s break it down.

Are Stark and House Arseholes?

Well, first question, what is an arsehole?

The dictionary gives a meaning to the effect of a “stupid, incompetent, unpleasant or detestable person”. Now of all those, I think only detestable comes close, otherwise a regrettably large portion of the population will qualify. Fortunately moral philosopher Aaron James was more precise, defining it as “a person, who is almost always male, who considers himself of much greater moral or social importance than everyone else; who allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically; who does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and who is immunised by his sense of entitlement”.

In other words, he feels he is not to be questioned, and he is the one chiefly wronged.

When Iron Man opens, Stark arguably is an arsehole. He’s arrogant, entitled, and he’s hard to like. Oh wait, look, he’s an arsehole and he’s hard to like. In fact, the audience arguably really only starts to connect with him when he does something nice for someone else. This is kind of what we call a “save the cat” moment—when the character does something to demonstrate he’s not a total arsehole. Stark starts an arsehole. He doesn’t start as a hero, and he doesn’t become hero because he’s an arsehole. Arguably, he stops being such an arsehole before he achieves hero status. dr-gregory-house-dr-gregory-house-31955058-500-375

What about House? Well, it’s clear from the beginning that House is an entirely different beast. He’s rude, abrasive, and not very nice to anyone, but there are two things to note about that:

  • He’s obviously in a lot of pain. This goes to set up the why of the way he behaves, and allows us to empathise with him and, to some extent, excuse or allow his behaviour. He’s not nasty for the joy of it, he’s nasty because all his energies are directed into dealing with his pain. Anyone who has dealt with chronic pain knows what this is like. There’s very little of anything left for civility (sad but true);
  • Although he’s in a lot of pain, and despite thinking most people are stupid (more on this later), he spends a great deal of his time saving the lives of people. Yes, he gets a bit of a kick out of solving puzzles, so his motivations are mixed, but he cares more than he perhaps wants us to know. He’s not just subjectively “on our side”, he’s objectively “working for the common good”.

House isn’t actually an arsehole. He’s pretending to be an arsehole as a kind of self-defence mechanism. It’s that which makes him most interesting, and it’s what he’s hiding from us that makes him a hero.

Are Stark and House Anything Like Trump?

Let’s talking Myers-Briggs for a moment. Stark is an ENTJ, House is an INTJ (and so am I, possibly why I took this personally), and Trump is an ESTP. Superficially, not a lot in common. Your MBTI doesn’t make you an arsehole, but it can certainly explain why you might come across as one, and INTJs and ENTJs are probably mistaken for arseholes more frequently than others.

INTJ explains House’s general lack of civility (we don’t always appreciate or understand social conventions), his belief that most people are stupid, and his difficulty with emotions (eww, emotions—let’s not discuss them, think about them, or deal with them). It also probably explains why he works so hard to save people’s lives. Not only do we need to be intellectually challenged, but bizarrely INTJs usually have very high empathy. Introverted Feeling means we can easily put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, we just have trouble expressing hat that’s like (so we may appear unfeeling, even though poignantly affected). At the same time, we think being right is more important than people’s feelings. Now, that might sound a little arrogant or entitled but consider—for House, this means saving your life is more important than pussyfooting around whatever secrets you have that may kill you.

ENTJs can be rather similar, having a ruthless level of rationality, but they are more externally focussed than INTJs. But they have confidence in similar bucketfuls which can superficially translate as arrogance.

So you might be forgiven for mistaking Stark and House for arseholes.

However, more importantly, what Stark and House are not are sexist, racist or xenophobic, which are all things Trump has demonstrated himself to be through his own comments and behaviour. House has opinions about religion, and will express them, but not in a “I’m going to do something like barcode you all” kind of a way, more in a “I think you’re even stupider than average, but carry on” kind of way. They don’t have that attitude of not being questioned, or feeling they are chiefly wronged. In fact, they both invite (and possibly even enjoy) being challenged. They do not demand unquestioning, unthinking obedience of the kind required by an arsehole’s sense of entitlement.

Additionally, I’m not qualified to comment, but numerous psychologists have said online that Trump is a classic narcissist as well. Stark and House are almost certainly not.

Let’s be clear—speaking your mind doesn’t make you an arsehole. People who enjoy the unvarnished truth will appreciate it, while those who like things more sugar-coated will find it confronting, but the mere act of speaking the truth openly does not an arsehole make. What makes Trump an arsehole is his elitist and entitled view that male, white, cisgender Christians are somehow superior to the rest of the human race purely by dint of race, sex, religion, and sexual orientation. His entitlement is demonstrated by his sheer apoplectic fury at the idea that anyone might question or criticise him.

The take away from all this? Don’t think you can write an arsehole and make him a hero, the end. There are anti-heroes, and there are complicated heroes, and no one is perfect, but I challenge you to find a modern hero character who is a sexist, racist, xenophobic narcissist. If you try and write a book with a protagonist written like Trump, it’s a pretty safe bet that readers won’t like him and will fail to empathise or care at all.

Ergo, being an arsehole doesn’t make you a hero.