Wes Anderson’s Films on Camera Gaze

Wes Anderson’s Films on Camera Gaze

The issue of gender and patriarchal supremacy has long been a facet of popular culture. Music, television, literature and much more have predominantly been centered on men or reinforced traditional roles of male control and power. Does this bias, however, run so deep that it effects the vary means of producing culture? Laura Mulvey’s essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” argues that so ingrained is male dominance in our culture that it not only infiltrates the content of movies, but even how they are made. She says that both the way consumers watch movies and the way they are filmed perpetuates male control, showing “the way the unconscious of patriarchal society has structured film form” (Mulvey, 393). To examine her claim, it seemed best to look at a director who is both a widely acclaimed Hollywood success, and an independent and stylistically unique artist.

Wes Anderson’s position as a commercially successful director who creates very stylized movies lends him perfectly to this job. To test how widely pervasive this claim actually is (if her claim stretches beyond the blockbuster films that follow commercially successful formulas) one needs to examine films that are popular and widely viewed, but also are stylistically independent enough that they don’t represent the most common movie formulas. This allows for the possibility that Mulvey’s claim is relevant in the biggest movies but also encompasses more independent films. This, in turn, shows that Mulvey’s theory is a broader cultural tendency that affects all Hollywood cinema whether it’s a cookie-cutter blockbuster or a more stylistically individual film.

Wes Anderson uses a very particular and consistent set of elements in his movies. He has a core set of themes and every part of his movies from design to the cast to the style of dialogue and humor is recognizably unique. Most importantly, he employs a unique set of camera shots, which define his movies and are central to how the audience interprets the film. This brings us back to Mulvey’s argument. In “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” she describes viewing movies by noting:

The extreme contrast between the darkness in the auditorium and the brilliance of the shifting patterns of light and shade on the screen helps to promote the illusion of voyeuristic separation… conditions of screening and narrative conventions give the spectator an illusion of looking in on a private world… the position of the spectators in the cinema is blatantly one of repression of their exhibitionism and projection of the repressed desire on to the performer (Mulvey, 396).

Mulvey is arguing that watching a movie is like peeking onto an unsuspecting world, with the spectator as a sort of peeping Tom and the camera image his or her gaze.

What the camera shows us, then, is supremely important. Mulvey argues a couple of things. The first is that “Traditionally, the woman displayed has functioned on two levels: as erotic object for the characters within the screen story, and as erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium” (Mulvey 398). She is arguing that “women are simultaneously looked at and displayed” in our society, with “their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness” (Mulvey 397). Her point is that women are portrayed in society as something to be looked at, and this can also be found in film. This is not a particularly unusual claim, but leads into the second one: That the camera is shot from a predominantly male perspective. Her argument is that films contain “liberal use of subjective camera from the point-of-view of the male protagonist” and thus “the audience is absorbed into a voyeuristic situation within the screen scene” (Mulvey, 401). Essentially, the audience becomes conditioned to see the world from a man’s perspective, as it is the view shown via the camera. This is combined with traditional ‘continuity editing’, “the conscious aim being always to eliminate intrusive camera presence and prevent a distancing awareness in the audience… The camera’s look is disavowed in order to create a convincing world in which the spectator’s surrogate can perform with verisimilitude” (Mulvey, 403). The result is that viewers are first conditioned to see via a man’s perspective, gaze upon female’s who are designed to be looked at, and then convinced that this is what reality is through editing that removes the sense that a camera ever existed.

So are these elements apparent in Anderson’s films? The first thing one notices watching them is that nearly all his films have male main characters. Female characters are often relegated to supporting roles and act as love or sexual interests. Even when there are woman with prominent roles, they are in tandem with male leads such as in The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom, and still experience images of objectification. Margot Tenenbaum is the love interest of multiple men, and is shown as a sexual object multiple times. She is shown both in a montage dedicated to showing her various sexual relationships and naked in a bathtub. Suzy Bishop, from Moonrise Kingdom, is one of the main characters and is the subject of a shot on the beach where she poses nearly naked, as well as one where she is felt up. Both these characters are given much more depth than just as objects to be looked at, but unlike their male leads, they still appear in shots where they are specifically shown as objects of beauty. This type of shot also appears in films without a female lead, such as The Grand Budapest Hotel, where there is again a montage of the elderly female patrons as sexual partners. While their elderly age certainly rejects certain stereotypes of beauty, they are still portrayed as objects for attraction. Most importantly, male characters are not subject to the same portrayal as sexual objects in various scenes. Of the above three movies, only in The Royal Tenenbaums is there a male character portrayed in such a manner, when Eli Cash is shown with his shirt off while visiting Margot.

Beach Scene

In Anderson’s movies, there are more point-of-view shots from male perspectives than female ones. This, however, seems more due to the much larger number of men in his movies (and as mentioned before their tendency to be in leading roles). Anderson himself confirms this, saying in the future “I would love to write a good, big part where the lead character was a woman. I want to see if I could do that well” (Barrett, Wes Anderson Answers). When one examines scenes where males and females interact, prominent female characters get about the same amount of point-of-view shots as male characters. A famous example from The Royal Tenenbaums is the scene where Margot steps off a bus and sees her brother Richie. This is a classic example of the male gaze, with the camera immediately taking up Richie’s view looking at his sister. But importantly, the camera alternates, also showing Margot’s point-of-view. In Moonrise Kingdom Suzy invariably demands a lot of shots from her perspective, and whether it’s on the beach or in the forest or looking down a chimney, she gets just as many as Sam. Even in The Grand Budapest Hotel the female characters with significance have their share of point-of-view shots. Mr. Gustave trades shots with his elderly patron, while Agatha does the same with Zero. A female perspective is shown again and again across these films and presents a single conclusion: Wes Anderson’s movies do not disproportionately favor male point-of-view shots.

This leaves us in a strong position to reject most of Mulvey’s claim, at least in Wes Anderson’s films. It’s true that in his films, women are objectified and used in shots where they are to be looked at by the audience and the characters in the film. This is not the most significant part of Mulvey’s claim however, and in at least the three movies mentioned in this piece, Anderson’s work rejects the other facets. Men don’t get more point-of-view shots proportionally. They do get more, but that is due to their overrepresentation in the films. Anderson seems to see this as a product of what he’s good at, though it’s likely a product of a business that still produces preference towards men, not the actual means. Moreover, Anderson’s unique style is at odds with he typical continuity editing of Hollywood. His “devices also ensure that from the outset the films are not necessarily attempting to construct a cinematic world aimed at verisimilitude, but are signaled as works of fiction, which also helps to foster a degree of intellectual and emotional distance” (Thomas, 9). Anderson’s movies are actually created to be less than realistic, limiting the illusion that any subliminal sexism is a facet of everyday life. This suggests that while Mulvey’s hypothesis may be true of movies of her time, or even certain movies of today, it doesn’t necessarily prevail in the work of Anderson. This in turn suggests that it has not so infiltrated the film industry that every type of movie is affected. Perhaps Wes Anderson is the sole exception, and his unique position makes him unfit to represent movie directors everywhere. It seems more likely that he represents many filmmakers, including both ones who do big movies and others who maintain their indie streak.

This brings us to the final conclusion that Wes Anderson’s films provide evidence to reject Mulvey’s theory. His unique place in the world of film makes him a good case to study due to his position straddling both mainstream Hollywood and more independent filmmaking. His films show that while bias towards women still exists, it mostly stays within portrayal on screen and underrepresentation. It doesn’t reach to the means of creating films, whether it’s filming or editing. This is important as Teresa de Lauretis argues in her book Alice Doesn’t, “cinema works most effectively as an imaging machine, which by producing images also tends to produce woman as image. The stakes for women in the cinema, therefore, are very high and our intervention most important at the theoretical level” (De Lauretis, 37). How women are portrayed in pop culture is important to understand, as only then can society properly go about fixing gender discrimination.


Works Cited

  1. Barrett, Colleen. “Wes Anderson Answers: Will He Ever Have A Female Protagonist?”Refinery29. Refinery29, 25 Feb. 2014. Web. 18 May 2016.
  2. Anderson, Wes, Barry Mendel, Scott Rudin, Owen Wilson, Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Bill Murray, Danny Glover, Luke Wilson, Alec Baldwin, Robert D. Yeoman, Dylan Tichenor, Mark Mothersbaugh, Karen Patch, and David Wasco. The Royal Tenenbaums. Buena Vista Home Entertainment, 2002.
  3. Anderson, Wes, Roman Coppola, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Bob Balaban, Alexandre Desplat, Robert D. Yeoman, and Andrew Weisblum.Moonrise Kingdom. Focus Features, 2012.
  4. Anderson, Wes, Hugo Guinness, Scott Rudin, Steven Rales, Jeremy Dawson, Molly Cooper, Charlie Woebcken, Christoph Fisser, Henning Molfenter, Ralph Fiennes, F M. Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Léa Seydoux, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson, Tony Revolori, Larry Pine, Florian Lukas, Karl Markovics, Neal Huff, Bob Balaban, Fisher Stevens, Wallace Wolodarsky, Waris Ahluwalia, Robert D. Yeoman, Adam Stockhausen, Milena Canonero, Barney Pilling, Alexandre Desplat, and Stefan Zweig. The Grand Budapest Hotel. Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2014.
  5. Deborah J. Thomas (2012): Framing the ‘melancomic’: character, aesthetics and affect in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore , New Review of Film and Television Studies, 10:1, 97-117
  6. De Lauretis, Teresa. Alice Doesn’t: Feminism, Semitics, Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984, 37.


Essay #2

Game of Thrones Fans: Pawns On The Chessboard?

What role do fans play in the culture they consume? This is the question I’ve been battling while exploring the relationship between the hit series Game of Thrones and its consumers. Do fans actively adopt the series and have a role as creators? Or are they simply part of the culture industry machine, one that churns out content and systematically commercializes certain parts of fan culture? Today more than ever, the convergence of culture into every corner of our lives has made the divisions between producers, content, and consumers more fluid than ever. Whether this gives fans new power or simply signals a re-ordering of the culture industry is a significant question; it implicates if fans are finding new ways to subvert the culture industry – or whether they are becoming more entangled in the web of powerless consumerism. By examining the relationship of Game of Thrones fans – and in particular a pair who have become important collaborators to the author George RR Martin’s writing – I hope to uncover what exactly the state of fans in our society is today.

Game of Thrones is the source of one of the largest and most active fan cultures today. The series, which is simultaneously a book series by George RR Martin (yet to be finished) and a television show, has a rabid fan-base that first grew mostly online when the first books were published and has recently exploded with the introduction of the show. Like other popular series the fan culture involves online forums, conventions, cosplay, fan fiction, and lots of active communication towards both the author and the show’s producers. The show, based on a fictional world known as Westeros that resembles a medieval time imbued with magic, is famous for its complex storytelling and repeated killing of popular characters. The many facets and plotlines, along with the extreme popularity of the show have given birth to thousands of consumer creations, from fiction to digital recreations of the fantasy world. The important question, however, is if these fans are simply consumers with little true agency or do they represent a wave of creativity that allows them to influence the show and simultaneously side-step the grip of the culture industry?

First I think it’s prudent to layout what some fans of the series are doing. When the series was just books, there was a large community of online forums discussing the show at great length. As the show has come into popularity this discourse has spilled over almost everywhere, blurring the line between casual fans and those engaging in true fan cultures. When I use the term fans I mean those that try to take some part of the chronicle and either re-interpret it or re-imagine it. This includes the plenty of online fan fiction pieces as well as alternative storylines that have been disseminated around the Internet. There are also thousands who create costumes, engage in role-playing, and meet other fans at both physical and electronic gatherings. Furthermore there are fascinating pieces of art dedicated to the series; everything from paintings to iron throne toilets now adorn various parts of the world. In one sense, this allows fans to interpret Game of Thrones anyway they want, and take it in new directions if they choose. Henry Jenkins describes fan creations by saying “Their works appropriate raw materials from the commercial culture but use them as the basis for the creation of a contemporary folk culture.” Unlike content created by the series itself, “fan artists create artworks to share with other fan friends. Fandom generates systems of distribution that reject profit and broaden access to its creative works.”[1] Jenkins argument is that fans are in fact independent and creative consumers, and they reject the money and control driven motives of the culture industry in one sense by creating independent art and writing.


The rampant fan involvement, however, can also be interpreted as a further arm of the culture industry. Sam Caslin argues in her essay on the culture industry in a multimedia age that these fans are simply occupying a space within the culture industry. She argues that while multimedia has given fans new methods with which the fans “have attempted to gain some power within the mechanisms of modern cultural production and Western consumer society as a whole”, the culture industry “is able to inculcate fans into assembling themselves into markets.” Drawing on the works of Adorno and Horkheimer, she says, “the culture industry is no longer about the passivity of the audience.” Rather, now “The fan in particular now has multiple roles to play, from consumer to advertiser and, if their own desires are fulfilled, producer.”[2] Essentially her argument is that all these creations and activity by fans now serve as marketing and advertising, and as long as they stay committed in their devotion to the series they will remain that way. It is an expansion on the “pseudo-activity” that marked the token resistance within the system as described by Adorno, replacing the former ‘passivity’ of the consumer.[3] Any influence the fans have over the storyline or artifact they create will remain a part of the industry machine, and only if they question the actual method of creation will they actually challenge the creators.

It is useful to compare these opposing views when we examine Game of Thrones, and in particular, two super fans Elio M. Garcia Jr. and Linda Antonsson. The couple first started reading the books shortly after the series began, and after being part of one of the very first forums, wanted to start a Game of Thrones game. To aid the game they started a fact-based website about the Game of Thrones world, Westeros.org. Soon the series exploded and the site became the number one destination for information on the Game of Thrones world. George RR Martin then started coming to them to fact check things for his writing, and now they have co-authored a book on the history of Westeros, the Game of Thrones world, with Martin.[4] On the surface, this justifies Jenkins, as their personal creation and additional take on the Game of Thrones world has ended up directly influencing the actual series. It shows they were able to “create works that speak to the special interests of the fan community.”[5] It was the ascension of fans to creator status that allowed them to directly influence the series as writers of the new book.


The journey of Garcia and Antonsson, however, doesn’t necessarily stand as evidence of fans subverting the culture industry. They didn’t create something new that was then adopted. Rather, they were picked by the creators of the series and simply made into producers. Before the book, Martin only came to them for fact checking – they weren’t influencing his plots.[6] Therefore Garcia and Antonsson are fulfilling the role described by Caslin where fans are elevated to ‘producer’ status. They haven’t changed the interests of the series with their ideas. Rather, it was decided their ideas would be the show’s next step. While Jenkins would see this as evidence for fan influence it is hard not to see it as the industry adopting the two fans as creators. They still have to operate in the pre-existing Game of Thrones world and among the same rules, only they are now responsible for the content. This can be seen in the criticism leveled at their work. Before, the criticism from other fans began a back and forth over a story that was open to be edited.[7] Now they publish a new piece of the Game of Thrones content and it is then criticized and debated, but since it isn’t a living piece but a mass-produced artifact, it won’t be changed. They’ve gone from fan to produce, and as Caslin would say, they’ve only changed their role in the culture industry.

So what is the verdict thus far? On the one hand, Jenkins is rather convincing when suggesting that fans express their independence by influencing the artifact itself. Certainly Garcia and Antonsson have a large influence on Martin and even write a part of the series with Martin. Additionally, Martin is known to have taken suggestions from fans before to make changes in the series when presenting pre-published work.[8] There, however, is the extent that the argument holds me. Caslin’s suggestion that the couple are simply being promoted from consumers to producers within the culture industry, and that no real change has occurred, is much more convincing as its hard to see how any of the fans’ actions change the interests or focus of the series. The idea that these fans were simply incorporated into the industry machine is furthered by the declaration by both the author and the show producers that fans will not influence their plot decisions.[9][10] Much of the alternative content created around Game of Thrones involves bringing back favorite characters who were previously killed, but as even as fans plead for their favorite characters back or for the killing to end the producers appear unmoved. This is actually significant because Game of Thrones represents the evolution of the culture industry in our multimedia age.


Game of Thrones reveals a new way in which the culture industry works in our day and age that illustrates why its fans are still very beholden to the industry. One of the phenomena that Game of Thrones has revealed is the way it’s reported by mass media. In the Internet age, we now are subject to constant dialogue where everyone has a platform to express themselves. This manifests itself in the way media outlets now report on Game of Thrones. The day after a show is inevitably full of recaps, but more and more the first headlines are not about the narration but about the reaction of the consumers. After various season five episodes a quick Google search returns dozens of articles similar to Mashable’s The Internet’s gut-wrenching reactions to the ‘Game of Thrones’ finale or Time’s The Problem with the Backlash to the Game of Thrones Rape Scene. [11][12] The media now focuses on the consumers’ reactions themselves, in particular their outrage and emotional outpouring that follows. Yes it manifests itself in videos and angry letters to the producers but every episode viewers come back once again, entranced by the show. The show has so perfected the emotional bond that half the entertainment seems to be the reaction of the consumer, yet they always lure them back for more.

It is from here that I come to the position that, in fact, the fan culture around Game of Thrones reveals consumers deeply entrapped in the culture industry. I still struggle to agree with Adorno completely; for example his claim that “Pleasure hardens into boredom because, if it is to remain pleasure, it must not demand effort… No independent thinking must be expected from the audience” suggests that he hapless consumer consumes with no effort and no intellectual creativity.[13] This, as Caslin mentioned, is no longer the truth. Consumers are now active participants and part of the spectacle themselves. Furthermore, they also contribute to the marketing of the series with their dedicated creations, though they never succeed in actually influencing the show to a degree that it actually subverts the aims of the culture industry. Rather the culture industry itself simply shifts consumers into other positions of significance if they deem it necessary or worthwhile. While I truly want to believe that these wonderfully diverse fan cultures are a method of breaking away from the pull of pop culture and the culture industry, I do not see any proof for it in Game of Thrones fandom. That would require something that not only influences the show but rejects its current form of creation at the same time. The fans detailed in this piece embrace the current form of creation. Instead I see a culture industry that is using our modern technological tools to further attract consumers and tighten its grip on our collective consciousness.


Works Cited

  1. D’Addario, Daniel. “Meet the “Game of Thrones” Superfan Who Knows Westeros Better than George R.R. Martin.”com. Salon, 28 Apr. 2014. Web. 18 Apr. 2016.
  2. Lutes, Alicia. “So, George R.R. Martin All-But-Confirmed a Big Ol’ Spoiler-y Fan Theory | Nerdist.”Nerdist. Nerdist, 14 Aug. 2014. Web. 22 Apr. 2016.
  3. McCluskey, Megan. “Game of Thrones Showrunners Say Fan Criticism in No Way Influenced Season 6.”Time. Time, 1 Apr. 2016. Web. 22 Apr. 2016.
  4. Colbert, Annie. “The Internet’s Gut-wrenching Reactions to the ‘Game of Thrones’ Finale.”Mashable. Mashable, 14 June 2015. Web. 22 Apr. 2016.
  5. Young, Cathy. “The Problem With the Backlash to the Game of Thrones Rape Scene.”Time. Time, 21 May 2015. Web. 22 Apr. 2016.
  6. Adorno, Theodor W. and Max Horkheimer. [1944] 1997.Dialectic of
     London: Verso.
  7. Caslin, Sam. 2007. “Compliance Fiction: Adorno and Horkheimer’s ‘Culture Industry’ Thesis in a Multimedia Age”. Fast Capitalism. Issue 2.2, 2007. Web. 18 Apr. 2016
  8. Jenkins, H. (1992). Textual poachers: Television fans & participatory culture. New York: Routledge.
  9. Bialik, Carl. “These Authors Know The ‘Game Of Thrones’ Backstory Better Than George R.R. Martin Does.”FiveThirtyEight. ESPN, 18 Dec. 2014. Web. 22 Apr. 2016.

[1] Jenkins, H. Textual poachers: Television fans & participatory culture. pg. 287

[2] Caslin, Sam. “Compliance Fiction: Adorno and Horkheimer’s ‘Culture Industry’ Thesis in a Multimedia Age”.

[3] Caslin, Sam. “Compliance Fiction: Adorno and Horkheimer’s ‘Culture Industry’ Thesis in a Multimedia Age”.

[4] Bialik, Carl. “These Authors Know The ‘Game Of Thrones’ Backstory Better Than George R.R. Martin Does.”

[5] Jenkins, H. Textual poachers: Television fans & participatory culture. pg. 287

[6] Bialik, Carl. “These Authors Know The ‘Game Of Thrones’ Backstory Better Than George R.R. Martin Does.”

[7] Bialik, Carl. “These Authors Know The ‘Game Of Thrones’ Backstory Better Than George R.R. Martin Does.”

[8] D’Addario, Daniel “Meet the “Game of Thrones” Superfan Who Knows Westeros Better than George R.R. Martin”

[9] Lutes, Alicia “So, George R.R. Martin All-But-Confirmed a Big Ol’ Spoiler-y Fan Theory”

[10] McCluskey, Megan “Game of Thrones Showrunners Say Fan Criticism in No Way Influenced Season 6”

[11] Colbert, Annie “The Internet’s Gut-wrenching Reactions to the ‘Game of Thrones’ Finale”

[12] Young, Cathy “The Problem With the Backlash to the Game of Thrones Rape Scene”

[13] Adorno, Theodor, Horkheimer, Max Dialectic of Enlightenment, pg. 137

Where We Can’t Define Our Path

We like to understand what we see on the screen in terms of archetypes, whether it’s tragic heroes, infuriating villains, or anything alike. We like characters that make sense; characters that get what they deserve. Our stories should provide us with lessons, or teach us something profound about the world. We crave understanding from what we engage with on the television. We desire entertainment, yes, but also the conviction that there are in fact ways in which to live, perspectives and methods of thinking that will lead to some outcome preordained by that very approach. Show Me A Hero is a television series that not only questions this, but tells us to feel resigned to disruptions in our ways of living that inevitably change our outcomes. It gives us our tragic heroes, our faithful sidekicks, and our unrelenting narcissists, who are willing to burn down everything around them if the smoke lifts them higher. But the show leaves the viewer unsure and troubled by how little control each of us has on the future of our lives. It suggests regardless of our choices there will be outside forces that we can’t overcome.

The show makes us question our agency. Show Me A Hero, a six part mini-series created by David Simon, chronicles the political debate around desegregation of public housing in the city of Yonkers, starting in 1987 and moving forward into 1994. Nick Wasicsko is a young council member running for mayor with almost no shot against six-term incumbent Angelo Martinelli. Everything changes, however, when a Federal judge rules against Yonkers requiring the desegregation of public housing, which Martinelli doesn’t appeal. The rest of the series pits the mostly white, affluent east side of the city and their council representatives against the order. The show isn’t kind to these people. Throughout the series they are defined as a one-dimensional white mob that are convinced that they aren’t racist, but rather are just protecting their property values and communities. The only one who is really explored is Mary Dorman, a long-time resident and community activist. One of the ‘heroes’ of the show, her journey from ardent opponent of the housing to the new residents’ biggest white advocate is heartwarming, if not a bit cliché. Her path to sympathizer once she gets to know the residents of the new public housing is praiseworthy but also reveals that, while she was a valuable resource in making the housing project a success, it didn’t matter. As she is told many times, and eventually repeats herself, “The housing is coming whether you like it or not” (Episode 6).


Perhaps more illustrative of the futility she feels is what comes earlier when she’s still opposed to the housing. Shoveling the walk to her front door, she remarks to her husband “We keep shoveling the same walk. It never ends.” She’s talking about the run of politicians who have promised to fight the court order on housing, but then turned when the reality of governing faces them in office. More broadly, it’s the same theme. The world moves, and try as we might, we have little real influence.

One of those politicians who turned on his word also happens to be the main character of the show. Nick Wasicsko beats the odds to become the youngest mayor in America, riding the support on his promise to appeal the housing decision. The scene in episode one where Wasicsko screams “I’m the fucking mayor” (Episode 1) surrounded by his friends and family on election night is his peak. He spends the rest of the show fighting for appreciation and self-worth as the world chews him up again and again. His term as mayor soon descends into chaos as he reverses course on the housing decision, and desperately pushes to get a plan through the city government to avoid fines that would bankrupt the city. Against him are the masses of east Yonkers who come out in mob form to every council session, and their representatives who have to choose between passing the housing or re-election. .


Wasicsko never had a chance at re-election after turning to support the public housing, but would never lose the addictive taste of his big election win. As his life spirals lower and lower – losing the re-election, ceding his candidacy the next cycle to be a councilman again, and eventually losing that seat too after one more term – he desperately tries to hold onto something, anything to validate his self-worth and turn his life around. Unfortunately, all he can see are politics and soon he starts to play with the lives of his friends and family. His wife Nay urges him to stop, saying “You can’t mistake votes for love” (Episode 6). Soon his political gambling costs Nay her job, and at his lowest ebb he challenges his best friend for her council seat. This is Nick’s tragic flaw. Votes and the affirmation of personal love that they bring is all that he values, and at his absolute nadir, with his political career finished and his closest relations being torn apart by his desperate political maneuvers, he takes his own life. He is a flawed hero, who stood for what was right and paid for it, and never could quite figure out that there was more to life than votes. The title of the series comes from a telling quote by F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Show me a hero, and I’ll write you a tragedy.”

What makes Wasicsko particularly compelling are his contradictions. He is a cynic yet never a realist. His optimistic spirit seems born out of an unending confidence in his ability to make things work. It’s not that he’s especially charismatic. His confidence seems more driven by his relentless desire for affirmation of worth. He both continually asks his wife if she’ll love him no matter what and espouses confidence she’ll never leave him. He makes repeated visits to his father’s grave, where his conversations scream of a relationship that lacked the desired affection. Perhaps this is the point, that his show of confidence is derived from a need to prove to himself that he can be loved, that he is worth the love that his father never gave him. But speculating on father-son dynamics is not the point. Nick is a man born for politics; he lives and feeds off of it. He has the self-belief and cunning edge required, but he doesn’t have the capacity to accept defeat. Instead of accepting the powerful political and social forces around him, he plows on directly into the storm. Only when he finds himself alone in the churning waves with a broken boat does he realize the damage he’s done. When he realizes how truly alone he is and can’t see a way out he breaks down in a particularly poignant scene. He has tried so hard, gambled everything he had to win back his political position and admiration, yet nothing, not even a Kennedy Profile in Courage Award nomination, could change his political fortunes. He was too scarred, having taken all the consequences of the housing case that would forever taint his name. This is the point the show is trying to make. Wasicsko was powerless against the political forces around him and unable to change that no matter what he tried.

More importantly Nick Wasicsko was not a martyr as the title might suggest. What took him down was his connection to the public housing project, yet when the first units are up and he visits a block of residents, only one even knows his name. Nor is his anonymity the cost of such social progress. Regardless of his decisions, the city was going to be forced to integrate. If it took making Yonkers bankrupt, the Federal judge was going to do it. So what can we learn from Wasicsko as a character? He’s not a martyr for progress, and his political career was destined to be limited by the negative influence of his affordable housing projects association. The reason he gambled his wife’s job was because his own party was already freezing him out when he was a councilman for the second time. His actions only hastened his demise and speak to his desperation to turn things around as political forces much larger than himself pulled him down. It is easy to characterize Wasicsko’s eventual suicide as the product of his flawed character. But hidden beneath that was that every mistake he made on the way down was an attempt to stop and reverse his slow decline already taking place.


The relative insignificance of an individual’s choices that the show implies doesn’t mean that people don’t have any choice in their lives. At any moment Nick Wasicsko could have picked up and given up on politics. One of the residents of the new public housing units, Carmen Febles, could have stayed with her family in the Dominican Republic. Doreen Henderson, another resident, could have continued to deal drugs. The unspoken message of Show Me A Hero is that regardless of personal choices, there will be larger forces along each path that will impact you. Febles tried to improve her family’s life but the power of poverty follows them to the Dominican Republic and back. Despite her endless hard work and conviction that “we are too good for this place”(Episode 5) (the projects), her family remains subject to a lottery to get a new home in east Yonkers. Billie Rowan, a resident of the new housing project who is doing her best to start a new life for her kids, is evicted because her boyfriend (and father of her children) commits murder back on the west side of Yonkers. Everyone remains victims of forces out of their own control.

It’s therefore not exactly a lack of agency or ability to shape our own lives that the series is trying to transmit. Show Me a Hero is instead convincing its viewers that regardless of their personality or what they do; whether they’re hard-working, endlessly optimistic, or practical, there is no guaranteed outcome. There no secrets to approaching life or character definitions that can assure you a certain experience. Instead every path is subject to forces one can’t control, be it political, economic, or social. Our individual destinies will not define, but rather be defined by the large forces they encounter. Some things are inevitable, others are variable. Nothing, however, will be controllable, and accepting that and “making the best of it as we can” (Episode 6) as Mary Dorman says is all that is left. This is what the series leaves with viewers, the idea that there are no ideologies that one can possess that will shape exactly how one sees or experiences the world. Instead there is only the ideology that we are always subject to the whims of forces greater than ourselves. It’s not a message to convince people they have no real world agency. It’s instead to convince the viewer that they’re ability to determine their future based on actions and character will always be insignificant relative to the complex and shifting political and social forces surrounding us.



  1. Show Me A Hero. Episodes 1-6. HBO. 16 August 2015. Television.