Cinematic Discourse Notes 10:
Main Characters in Cinematic Discourse: Protagonists, Heroes and Their Adversaries

A) The protagonist

The chief character in a movie — or, for that matter, in any narrative — is called the protagonist (NT, 4.31). He is often called the 'hero', but this is not really accurate: see below. In most early popular films (as in popular narratives in general), the protagonist is good-looking, well-behaved, etc. This conception is not restricted to Hollywood, but can be found in other film traditions as well. Here is a description of the late Pakistani actor, Waleed Murad: ‘Well-dressed Waheed with beautiful eyes was a handsome and attractive personality. He had extremely popular hairstyle.’ But this largely positive conception of the protagonist has changed in more recent movies.

B) The antagonist

The opponent of the protagonist is the antagonist. The antagonist is quite often a villain, but to choose a more impartial term, he is the counter-character to the protagonist (NT, 4.31). An antagonist should be a more substantial character than a mere opponent encountered by the protagonist along the way

C) Protagonists and gender

Males are often the protagonists of movies. They serve a controlling function in relation to the plot. Females usually perform a supportive role. Female leads, even if they are the most significant female characters in a movie, are not necessarily protagonists. A female lead role is usually defined not in her own right, but in relation, or as a contrast, to the male protagonist or to other male characters in a movie. The controlling power of the male protagonist, vis-à-vis the weaker female characters, even if they are protagonists, has been discussed by the feminist film critic Laura Mulvey, amongst others. However, there are some important exceptions, especially in more recent decades, such as in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004), and it has been asked whether Mulvey's views are still relevant. But it is clear that her views are still relevant, the focus on male characters and male protagonists is still there, such as in many of the Pixar films, and the number of female protagonists in popular movies is still low.

D) Protagonist and/or lead

The notions of protagonist and lead, as mentioned above, may not coincide. It is thus useful to have protagonist and lead as two separate terms, as Apart from not always coinciding in the same film, their meanings are not exactly the same. An important difference between protagonist and lead is that lead is actor-centred, whereas protagonist is more character- and discourse-centred. Thus we can easily add the word ‘actor' to lead, such as lead actor or leading actor, but the term protagonist actor is less often used.

E) The hero

The term hero is still very much around, both in academic and non-academic discussions on the cinema. It must therefore be taken into consideration in any discussion on the cinema. In general non-academic discussions, the hero is often treated as being equivalent to the protagonist. In serious academic discussions however, the two terms are usually not treated as directly equivalent.

In spite of its continued persistence, the term hero is not easy to define (NT, 4.32). Standards of behaviour that one associates with the hero are not stable. A more precise or stable term, like the protagonist, may therefore be preferred. Nevertheless, the word hero has remained. Its vagueness may, in a way, be helpful. It serves as a multi-purpose positive word for someone important or virtuous. The continued use of the word hero indicates that it is a term that cannot be avoided in discussing cinematic discourse

F) Hero and villain: dividing line

The opponent of the hero is the villain. But is the dividing line between hero and villain clearly delineated? Can the hero, for example, have villainous characteristics and the villain, heroic characteristics? Or can the hero indeed, be the villain and the villain be the hero, as reflected in the oft-quoted phrase, ‘the villain is the hero of his own story’? We may also want to see this factor historically: that the line between hero and villain has become progressively less distinct in the history of cinema? In this regard, the question that we have to ask in relation to the analysis of cinematic discourse is: will the more hazy division between hero and villain have an effect on the discoursal interplay between good and evil in the film?

G) The aesthetics of villains & heroes

The good-looking protagonist or hero is mentioned at the beginning of these notes. The reverse question of course, is: should villains be ugly? That villains are ugly and heroines beautiful are often described as fairy-tale stereotypes, although there are some variations even here. In some films, the villains themselves want to be ugly: there is usually a comic intention behind this.

The converse question is of course pertinent: should it always be the case that the hero is handsome? One consequence of the traditional association of heroes with good looks and villains with ugliness, is the association of good looks with moral goodness and ugliness with moral badness, or with sinful or criminal behaviour. This association is, of course, – if we want to teach moral values to children – pedagogically unsound. Some recent politically ?correct? films, such as Shrek (2001), try to reverse the relationship of heroes with good looks, and villains with ugliness, which the traditional fairy tale perpetuates, although even in Shrek, the dissociation is not complete – Lord Farquaad, for example, is neither tall nor handsome. This rejection of a complete reversal is perhaps to prevent the didactic advocacy of an equally harmful reverse association of beauty with moral badness and ugliness with moral good. Political correctness and incorrectness are of course of interest in a more critical approach to discourse, including cinematic discourse.


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Last revised: 11 August 2018.