The Humanity of Our Antagonists

I’d like to preface this by saying that I am not a film/theater critic. I’m merely writing this as someone who appreciates The Phantom of the Opera, as someone who has seen a few too many one-sided narratives in my life so far, and as someone who is always on a hunt for nuance in stories.

A few weeks ago, I watched Phantom of the Opera (2004) with my husband. This was the first time I’d watched it in probably four or five years—certainly the first time I’d seen it since having children. Phantom has always been one of my favorite musicals. I was a bit nervous to watch it again. Knowing the story, watching it now as a mother of two daughters, I was afraid I would utterly hate it, that I would find it too disturbing to be redeemable. I was afraid that motherhood and four more years’ experience of real life would lead me to see the story more clearly, and that I would only find that I had only loved a beautifully dressed story about dysfunction, and little more. This is my greatest misgiving about the story of Beauty and the Beast—though I have yet to come to any solid conclusions about Beauty and the Beast. (I did see some of the characters a bit differently this time around, and I made some notes on that—you can read them at the end of this essay, if you like.)

I’m relieved to say that I came away from Phantom of the Opera, feeling a renewed appreciation for it, and this is why: I believe one of the most compelling things about the plot of Phantom of the Opera is that it tells a story of a multidimensional villain. It tells a story that elicits curiosity and compassion for the antagonist instead of hatred. I wish the world had more stories like this. Too often we are forced to pick a side, and too often the antagonistic characters in a story are made out to be utterly repulsive. We only want to see them destroyed, we’re led to believe that the only way our heroes can live in peace is for the antagonist to be been done away with. We like to imagine ourselves on the good side, and we like to see anyone who didn’t take our view of things being wiped out entirely.

It’s hard to listen to the stories of the people who abuse, brutalize, and cause terror on the earth. It’s easier and pleasanter to believe that they aren’t like me, that they are monsters. (And there is a degree to which we should limit the stories of those in power, and let those who’ve been hurt have a chance to speak if they wish. I think of the recently-released documentary featuring two men who suffered abuse by Michael Jackson—it’s important not to let people who’ve done evil to have extended access to the microphone).

And as I write the above paragraph, I want to take it back, because I have my own set of matters in which I want to take a side. Right now, a handful of my friends are afraid for their well-being, living in a community that is being terrorized by a brutal military force. At this moment, my only feelings toward those who have perpetuated this violence are feelings of disgust, not curiosity.

But as we live and tell ourselves stories of the people who walk the earth alongside us, those who are either real or imagined antagonists to us, we should never limit their humanity. We need to allow some space in our lives to listen and learn from the stories of those who offend or frighten us, to remember that they are human. At the very least, this practice can help us to learn from their mistakes, but even better, it is an opportunity for us to practice love by the simple act of listening.

I love The Phantom of the Opera because it doesn’t encourage this primal urge of ours, to destroy someone or something that has offended us; to obliterate or silence the other side. The climactic scene, where the Phantom forces Christine to choose between him or Raul, is profoundly moving. The Phantom is no longer wearing his mask, and he is no longer wielding any charms. His beauty and the romance of his musical talent have been stripped away and we see him only as a truly horrifying person, making a truly horrifying demand of Christine.

She replies with clarity:

“This haunted face holds no horror for me now.

It’s in your soul that the true distortion lies.”

The Phantom repeats his demands, insisting that she make a choice. And Christine, after a short pause, moves toward him and kisses him, singing,

“Pitiful creature of darkness, 

What kind of life have you known?

God give me courage to show you,

You are not alone.”

This is the climax of what Christine’s character has been setting us up for throughout the whole movie. She’s been turning our eyes toward empathy throughout the whole narrative. Christine’s willingness to show tenderness to the Phantom in his ugliest, most terrifying moment is an incredible act. It’s an act that affirms the Phantom’s humanity. (In fact, I think the Phantom is more human in this scene, as he is exposed in his weakness and hurt, than he is at any other point in the story.) Instead of goading us to hate him in his weakness, the storytellers nudge us in a different direction. Every time I watch this scene, I’m moved to tears. It’s easy to write a story where you can hate and obliterate a character that represents evil. It’s much more complicated to tell a compelling story that leaves us hoping that we will get to see all the characters make it out alive and thriving.

Christine’s character is beautiful to me because she bears forth an invitation to look at people the way God does: she compels us to look at the Phantom with different eyes than the rest of the world. It gets me every time. And it leaves me feeling deeply conflicted about the film’s conclusion, every time. The choice, should we reject Christine’s invitation to view the Phantom with compassion, is that we ourselves become a sort of antagonist in regard to his suffering. (Which is actually a horrifying prospect, if you think about it.)

The Phantom’s character is not so romanticized as to hide his flaws; he is clearly a diabolical and troubled individual. And yet the story continually gives us a window into his suffering and his loneliness, such that whenever we see Christine or Raul flourishing, we also see that the Phantom grieves a loss. We are forced to see a tiny sliver of the cost the antagonist will have to bear if our heroine is to survive and thrive, and even that tiny sliver we see is heartrending.

The Phantom of the Opera is still just a story, and it still has features that require us to suspend our disbelief in order to soak in the experience. But I don’t think that the invitation to imagine our antagonists as multidimensional human beings is slight of hand, or the result of great stage production—I’d wager that it is an invitation that is Divine: a call to see people as humans rather than monsters.

The Phantom of the Opera makes me long for the world to be filled with more stories that leave us feeling conflicted. I want a world filled with more complicated narratives like these. I want more stories that leave us all a bit sad, wondering if the antagonist will be okay. I want a social media feed that is not filled with such simple stories, not quite so eager to bash on an entire group of people. I will always love Phantom if for no other reason than that it is an invitation to imagine a world where those who we dislike, those who we find “other” or hate-able or terrifying are not super villains, but beloved human beings. And I want to participate by trying to practice the work of listening for the things that are not immediately obvious in the lives of others, and to do them a kindness by letting my understanding (and the words I may say about them) carry the weight and uncertainties of nuance.

I hope we can slowly train ourselves to be eager to embrace a complicated narrative that doesn’t leave us with easy answers. I hope that we might increase in our distrust of the stories where it is too easy to pick a side. I hope that when we consume op-eds, books, pop culture, and social media, we’ll learn to be cautious of stories that dehumanize and villify a person or an entire group of people in favor of an easy conclusion.

I hope we can learn to long for stories that tell the truth about evil, while also longing to see the restoration and flourishing of every person involved. For the sake of our own souls, for the sake of tenderness and love for the humans who fill the world around us, we ought to ask more of ourselves, and of those who tell us stories. 

I’d love to hear your recommendations for nuanced stories, either in film or books! Feel free to mention them in the comments—I’m always looking for new media that leaves me feeling conflicted.

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Some Further Thoughts on Phantom of the Opera:

I had some new thoughts watching Phantom this time as a parent, and watching as someone who’s experienced a greater cross-section of society since the last time I took in the story.

I saw Christine’s character, and all her fellow dancers as vulnerable people, women who were likely impoverished, and who lived subject to the whims of the powerful people who surrounded them. I remember thinking of Christine as a vulnerable character before, but not in terms of the greater social fabric in which she was placed. Watching again, it was all the more clear to me how the work of a dancer in the opera house was probably little better or different than work in a brothel during that time in history.

I was a bit disgusted with my former self to realize that I had almost exclusively romanticized Christine in the past. How readily an oversimplified story can lead us to do this, and to miss considering the important, hidden parts of someone’s history. The oft celebrated understudy, ingénue, orphan, etc—they all came from somewhere, how quickly we give their stories power because they were somehow lifted up by fate and chance, and how rarely we take the time to look at the likelihood that they had spent their whole lives being abused and battered by the same system that now deigns to lift them up. This is something I want to talk about with my girls whenever they watch these kinds of stories (which will be often because this kind of oversimplification is everywhere).

I saw Madame Gerie as someone who fell under the sway of an abuser (the Phantom), how she took on the role of an enabler. Years before when I watched this film, Mme. Gerie had looked more like an all-seeing mother who watched over the opera house, and I was attracted to her as a person of power who knew what was happening and had influence. But this time around she struck me as someone who was so impressed with talent that she was willing to put Christine in the hands of an abusive man in order to further the cause of musical genius, both Christine’s and the Phantom’s. People who enable abusers will certainly be a part of any discussions I have with my kids when we watch this film one day.

I was struck by how unrealistic Christine’s character was in light of the circumstances she lived in; how her innocence and naiveté are such an appealing contrast to the lifestyles of some of the other cast members in the opera house, and yet how it is not at all plausible that someone in her situation would actually make it to adulthood with such a doe-eyed view of the world. Watching it again, I’d like to imagine what kind of story it would make if Christine’s character had all the same talent and beauty, but had more of the lived experience of most of the other chorus girls. Would we be attracted to this story in the same way if Christine were a slightly more hardened, street smart woman, a woman who still was alluring, kind and talented? It’s interesting to think about. And despite my misgivings about the reality versus the portrayal of Christine’s life, I love the story of Phantom, and so I’m willing to suspend my logic and let Christine be who the writers made her to be, for the sake of a good story.

I thought about the Phantom, and how truly creepy he is. I still love his character—he is still probably my favorite character—and I have so much sympathy for him. I still want to see him thrive. But he is a creep; he is abusive, angry and destructive, and it’s really easy to let his talents and the romance of music and beautiful set design minimize the seriousness of these faults. He was a man who needed help, who needed to experience love. But he was also a predator. I come away from the film still loving the story, but also wondering if stories like this are problematic—do we take the behaviors of predators seriously? Do we look out for those who are in their path, those who might not realize they’re in danger?

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