When fugitive teenager Ethan Couch was caught in Mexico this week, it felt like a fitting end to the year.
Couch was dubbed the “affluenza” teen after he was given 10 years probation for killing four people in a drunk-driving accident in 2013. As part of his defense, a psychologist testified that his wealthy upbringing and lack of parental discipline made it hard for him to tell the difference between right and wrong. Couch and his mother fled their home in Tarrant County, Texas, earlier this month after photos surfaced showing the 18-year-old at a party, indicating he was likely in violation of his probation (and new evidence suggests he also had a "going-away" party of sorts before he left the country.)
As a symbol of rich, white, male privilege, Couch is a rather perfect example of why we love to hate on the Internet. And in a year where toxic masculinity, whiteness, and the destructive power of the one percent were all hot topics, his ultimate retribution seems fitting. Couch’s narrative is also a perfect bookend to what we could fairly call “The Year of the Villains.” While the Internet was no less prone to outrage in recent years, 2015 found the Internet focusing its hatred on specific individuals like never before.
The year’s first significant villain was Rachel Dolezal, an NAACP leader and university professor from Spokane, Washington. After identifying as black for years, Dolezal’s web of lies finally came undone in June, when Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene Press ran a story questioning her ethnicity. Her parents soon confirmed that Dolezal was born white, and she became a national talking point in discussions of race and cultural appropriation thereafter.
While the Internet was no less prone to outrage in recent years, 2015 found the Internet focusing its hatred on specific individuals like never before.
It’s no mystery why Dolezal was vilified. In 2014, Iggy Azalea and her “blaccent” were bad enough. But here was a white woman who not only was masquerading as black, but created an identity around-- not to mention made a living off-- a culture that was not hers. And in a year where actual black Americans were gunned down in alarming numbers by police, where the reality of simply being born black made you a target, passing off black culture as your own was not a good look.
But if Dolezal was a villain, her specific villainy appeared to stem less from cruelty than delusion. She was at least offensive, and at most exploitative, but the Internet never cast her as “evil.” The same could not be said for the year’s next great villain, Walter Palmer, the Minnesota dentist who killed Cecil the Lion while on vacation in Zimbabwe.
“Palmer has maintained that he didn’t know the hunt was illegal, nor that the lion he killed was collared or part of a study,” wrote Helen Regan in TIME magazine. “But in the eyes of impassioned online commentators and celebrity tweeters, Palmer is an “instant villain.” These commentators ravaged his Yelp page, and continue to do so today. Far from being just attacked on Twitter, he was also doxed, and crowds showed up at his River Bluff dental practice to protest. The idea that Palmer was a villain became so widely accepted, The Hollywood Reporter even published an article on other dentist villains in film.
Through all of this, Palmer was less interesting as a character than the conversation happening around him. Many felt that no matter what he did, he did not deserve to be attacked online and to have his business threatened. Others pointed out how the country seemed to be angrier over the death of Cecil the Lion than they were over the many deaths of innocent black people that occurred in 2015. As a “villain,” Palmer demonstrated that there are often many different angles to the Internet outrage cycle.
And then, as summer was coming to an end, Kim Davis came along. Bigoted, hypocritic, and prone to spectacle, she was everything the Internet hate machine loves. Except… not completely. Because Kim Davis was only a true villain if you were on the left. The discourse surrounding Davis was deeply divided across political lines, thus the question ended up becoming: is Kim Davis a villain or a hero?
The best headline about Davis may have come from the Wisconsin Daily Independent, which declared, “Kim Davis is not a hero or a villain, she is just wrong.” Whether you want to make a moral judgment about her or not, Davis was deficient in her job. More importantly, she was the single biggest representation of America’s politically polarized climate the Internet had in 2015.
Yet no one was a bigger villain online this year than pharma-bro CEO Martin Shkreli. In an article this month where he said he should’ve jacked up the cost of Daraprim (the lifesaving HIV drug he raised the price of by 5000%) even higher, Forbes’ Dan Diamond called him, “fascinating, horrifying, and utterly compelling.” Even Donald Trump himself, who was debatably one of the most prominent villains on a national scale this year, said he was a “spoiled brat.” And in a profile from the upcoming issue of Vanity Fair, writer Bethany McLean depicts him as the kind of bad guy who could only arise in the Internet age:
“Although Shkreli is a minor part of a much bigger issue, every morality play needs a villain, and, oh, what a perfect villain he is. He is an avid user of social media, where he relishes portraying himself as a wealthy young hedge-fund guy. He tweets obnoxious snapshots of labels of $1,000-plus bottles of wine like 1982 Lafite-Rothschild, along with selfies inside a helicopter buzzing over Manhattan or posed next to a life-size chess set by a pool in the Hamptons… he has an almost cult-like group of true believers, both online (“You’re a god,” wrote one Twitter follower) and in the real world… But in his wake he has left a tangled trail of blowups, lawsuits, disillusionment, and outright hatred… “Sociopath” is a not uncommon description of him.”
Shkreli also tells McLean that, “Anyone who knows me knows I am not that guy.” But that didn’t matter to the Internet, who rejoiced when Shkreli was arrested on securities fraud charges earlier this month (although the FBI has yet to seize that Wu-Tang album he bought for $2 million.) Nor does it matter to anyone that Shkreli claims his price gouging was done in part to expose the corruption of the pharmaceuticals industry. To the Internet, this guy was a true villain, plain and simple. He was more fun to hate than anyone, the rare kind of individual who could actually unite everyone but the most blatant trolls in opposition. In the Vanity Fair piece, he comes off as a kind of real life Lex Luthor
Such a comparison is significant. Where we were once obsessed with fictional anti-heroes, it’s the outright bad guys who now capture our imagination. And that fascination has started to run over into real life too. I wrote last year about the "hot mugshot" guy, and our country's’ ongoing love affair with criminals (especially male ones.) More notably, I analyzed the rise of the villains (to steal a phrase from FOX's hit show Gotham) in pop culture all the way back in January, and why we are obsessed with them now more than ever.
Where we were once obsessed with fictional anti-heroes, it’s the outright bad guys who now capture our imagination.
“This is the heart of why we can’t look away from a good villain; part of us suspects that deep down, we’re capable of being villains, too,” I wrote. And I still believe that. I also believe that’s why we were so prone to creating Internet villains in 2015. These people were publicly shamed for their actions. But they were also talked about, studied, and often defended. They were more than curiosities, they were talismans; they became symbols of what this country is right now, and where it might be going. They were compelling.
That’s because we saw ourselves in them, because we saw each other in them. I don’t believe any of the Internet villains mentioned here are truly evil. Rachel Dolezal is in need of intensive therapy, or at the very least some serious self-examination. What Walter Palmer did was shameful, but despite that Hollywood Reporter article, he probably isn’t any more sadistic in everyday life than your average dentist. Kim Davis is like your racist aunt. She’s misguided, and annoying, but not smart or powerful enough to have any lasting impact. And while Martin Shkreli does appear to be severely lacking in empathy, in the end he’s not Lex Luthor, he’s just a douchebag. If you met him at a party, you’d probably think he was slimy and gross, but not evil.
Unlike the real monsters of the world, those who seek to threaten people’s very lives, Internet villains don’t have much real power. And if they do, it’s because of what they represent, not who they really are. That’s why we have so much fun hating them. In Internet villains, we see our friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers. We see a reflection of our own existence, a familiarity that’s easy to ridicule. “There but for the grace of God go I,” as they say.
Who’ll be the biggest Internet villains of 2016? It’s an election year, so expect to hear more about certain candidates, though once again, anyone who has a chance at real power is not as fun to hate on. What is for certain is that when someone sends an offensive tweet, the Internet will be there. When someone gets called out on lies they’ve told for years, the Internet will be there. When someone posts a photo of something distasteful without realizing how disgusting it is, the Internet will be there. When someone flaunts their own perverse success in the face of those less fortunate, the Internet will be there. And when someone stands up for their beliefs, and their beliefs are largely misguided, the Internet will be there.
There but for the grace of God go all of us.
Chris Osterndorf is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared on Mic, Salon, xoJane, the Week, and more. When he’s not writing, he enjoys making movies with friends. He lives in Los Angeles.
Illustration via Max Fleishman