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Why Do We Idolize Jerks?

The new book "Ascent of the A-Word" traces our love affair with “iconic assholes” like Steve Jobs, Donald Trump, Mark Zuckerberg and others.

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Those scenarios are reproduced, with variations, across many of the genres of reality television, from American Idol to What Not to Wear to Gordon Ramsay’s Restaurant Makeover (which offers, Gina Bellafante said in the New York Times, “the thrill of . . . witnessing someone so at peace with his own arrogance”). In each instance, the format keeps the “reality” close enough to the actual so that the asshole’s behavior is distressing to his targets without ever reaching so deep into their lives that it becomes genuinely disturbing to the viewer. They allow us to enjoy the spectacle of social aggression without experiencing any vicarious moral risk, in the same way that “dare” shows like Fear Factor allow us to watch contestants attempt to jump from one building to another without any real physical danger. On the contrary, our indignation over the behavior of the designated assholes on the job-search shows like The Apprentice and the documentary-style shows like those in the Real Housewives franchise isn’t diminished by knowing how much of it is engineered by the producers or simulated for the camera. It’s the same suspension of disbelief that makes possible the Comedy Central roasts, in which some celebrity, ideally a high-profile asshole himself, winces good-humoredly as comedians who have never met him take turns making pointed put-downs at his expense. (“When Trump bangs a supermodel, he closes his eyes and imagines he’s jerking off.”) There have been eras that took a far more intense interest in spectacles of cruelty than ours, but none that was so transfixed by watching people act like assholes.

That fascination is fed in equal parts by our fantasies of rock star self-indulgence and the resentments and anxieties that assholes evoke. Both are popular themes in recent cinema. I’m not thinking so much of the innumerable comedies and dramas that feature assholes as their stock villains, but of movies in which the assholes are the focus of dramatic interest. Some of these are tales of asshole redemption, like Rain Man and all those other Tom Cruise vehicles. Others are more equivocal about the condition, like The Company of Men, The Politician, Greenberg, Margin Call and Rules of Attraction, as well as the mean-girl movies like Heathers and Mean Girls itself, which break new generic ground. Meanwhile, television has made a mini-industry of the dirtbag sitcoms that I mentioned earlier. And one should make a special place for The Office, especially the original version with Ricky Gervais, which created one of the most incisive modern portraits of the asshole’s clueless self-delusion. Gervais’ David Brent elicits contempt and irritation, pity, even affection — a sign not so much of the complexity of the character but of how conflicted we are about the type he personifies.

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Some of these assholes are just old curs warmed over, but others are creatures new to film. The Social Network, for example, could have been subtitled Asshole 2.0. There are obvious resemblances between Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs as driven high-tech creators, but the character of Zuckerberg created by Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher (which by all accounts is substantially different from the real Zuckerberg) belongs to a different genus of assholes. No one would be tempted to describe him as a “master of psychological manipulation,” as Newsweek did Jobs; he’s arrogant, self-absorbed, and insensitive to the point of near-autism. In the opening scene, he preens and condescends to his girlfriend, Erica, in a Cambridge bar (“You don’t have to study . . . You go to BU [Boston University]”). She tells him he’s an asshole, breaks up with him, and walks out. As if to prove her right, he goes back to his dorm and posts some unflattering and sexist remarks about her on his blog, then, in a misogynistic follow-up, creates the “Facemash” application that allows people to rank the women students for hotness. Later we see him cutting out his best friend, who put up the money for the project, and responding with prodigal snottiness to a lawyer who’s deposing him: