Onscreen characters who believe in improving things through progressive ideas are frequently depicted in a pretty negative light, ranging from being obnoxious punchlines to outright villains. These Annoying Liberal characters are often smug and self-righteous, condescending, and insincere. So what are the characteristics of the Annoying Liberal, and why are films and shows (which tend to be made by a lot of supposedly progressive people) so committed to portraying this hateable character?
Why are liberal film and TV characters always so annoying? Onscreen characters who believe in improving things through progressive ideas are frequently depicted in a pretty negative light, ranging from being obnoxious punchlines to outright villains. For a place that’s often derided as being too liberal, Hollywood seems to actively dislike the very idea of “wokeness” – which, for our purposes, roughly refers to an interest in social justice and wanting to disrupt the status quo to make the world a better place. These Annoying Liberal characters are often smug and self-righteous, turning everything into a platform to loudly declare their views. They’re condescending, claiming to support causes while remaining above the people they say they want to help. And they’re insincere – often, they don’t even truly care about those causes in the first place, and quit at the first sign of trouble.More than anything, they’re just irritating. So what are the characteristics of the Annoying Liberal, and why are films and shows (which tend to be made by a lot of supposedly progressive people) so committed to portraying this hateable character? Here’s our take on why movies and TV try to present themselves as being in the reasonable middle—by punching at anyone trying to make a change.
“So what you call insanity, we call solidarity!”
You’d think it would be an attractive quality if a character wants to make the world better–but do-gooder characters are frequently depicted as irritating, hypocritical, and downright wrong.
Often, these characters come from a place of privilege, and try to present themselves as heroes while mostly ignoring those they’re supposedly trying to help–take lazy Lindsay Bluth on Arrested Development for whom activism and progressive causes are just a superficial vanity project. Even when the Annoying Liberal character is generally sympathetic they’re still so superior that characters still love to gang up on them and prove them wrong—like when everyone at Dunder Mifflin teams up to help Michael humiliate Oscar because they’re simply fed up with Oscar’s show-offy knowledgeability and constant need to be right.
Britta on Community is another example who’s mostly liked by her friends, but her progressive, activist side is treated like an annoying quirk they have to put up with, and is frequently the butt of the joke.
“I refused to give Santa a Christmas List because I didn’t want to depend on a man for anything”
In their less sympathetic version, these characters are often exposed as hypocrites whose righteous rhetoric is revealed to be hiding cold self-interest–and they go from punchlines to menaces. In many respects, the Annoying Liberal character who’s driven by twisted self-interest is a reflection of the current usage of “woke.” Though the term has its origins in black culture, in recent years it’s become a stand-in for caricatures of left and liberal politics, often tied to the idea that anyone who claims to care about social justice is merely pretending to do so in order to be seen as righteous. But this type of the bad or evil fake-liberal has been around for a while: Powerpuff Girls villain Femme Fatale originally makes some reasonable points about gender imbalances for superheroes. But ultimately, she’s just another villain who wants an excuse to steal things from the people of Townsville, even when her victims are, themselves, women. This kind of straw feminist is a whole distinct subtype of the Annoying Liberal–the hypocritical or Fake Feminist who benefits from empty “girl power” rhetoric and is actually destroying women far more perniciously than any man.In a similar vein, movies love to fight against the Climate Villain, who’s motivated by some variation on wanting to stop climate change or preserve our planet and human life on earth. But they’re inevitably revealed to be some kind of monstrous killing machine, so the hero ends up fighting them in order to maintain the status quo and not actually address the core problem.
“I am Nature’s arm. Her spirit. Her will…it’s not nice to fool with Mother Nature.”
- Poison Ivy
The overall aggression and hostility toward liberal characters is even more striking when you contrast it with film and TV’s popular Lovable or Cuddly Conservative trope. The Cuddly Conservative may distinctly express that they don’t want to improve the world and are just out for selfish gain but they’re typically depicted as “real” people we can relate to because perhaps they’re living by values or emotions that are recognizable. These characters try to appear tough, so when they get emotional or show their vulnerable side, we’re more inclined to like them.
Even when these conservative characters are clearly ethically compromised they’re presented as being charming and upfront about their self-centered values. Often the Annoying Liberal is paired with the Lovable Conservative so that the liberal can get taken down a peg and the conservative can come out winning the strongest audience affection. Take the sparring between Liz and Jack on 30 Rock, where even though Liz is often right, she’s always much more irritating, while Jack is portrayed as disarmingly honest and charismatic. Transgressing boundaries or saying the wrong thing is also often funny–that’s why, in Hacks, though young comedy writer Ava is usually right in her arguments with her boss, the politically incorrect comedy icon Deborah Vance, Deborah is almost always funnier and more likable. There’s definitely some truth to many of the jokes at liberals’ expense. After all, everyone is capable of being sanctimonious and annoying in support of what they believe, and it can be a release to see those qualities depicted on-screen. But the consistent choice to depict the impulse to improve the world as hypocritical, evil, or ridiculous is ultimately incredibly damaging. After all, if anyone trying to make the world better is absurd, why should any of us even try?
“Oh come on Lemon. Embrace your elitism. What do we elites do when we screw up? We pretend it never happened and give ourselves a giant bonus.”
- 30 Rock
So Why Does Hollywood Hate Liberal Characters?
Hollywood is widely perceived to be too liberal and is frequently the subject of criticism for this. So it would seem like a contradiction that liberal Hollywood would spend so much time denigrating liberal characters. But these two facts are actually intimately related: The entertainment industry wants to avoid being perceived as liberal at all costs. It’s true that there was a period of time when Hollywood genuinely was a haven for liberals. In the 30s and 40s, leftists like screenwriter Dalton Trumbo did espouse more communist or socialist ideals. But during the Red Scare and McCarthy Era of the late 40s and 50s, Hollywood was essentially purged of most people who held truly radical socialist or leftist beliefs—unless they were willing to name names. In fact, Ronald Reagan testified before HUAC when he was president of the Screen Actors Guild and, along with John Wayne, played a large role in moving Hollywood to the right.
“We have done a pretty good job in our business of keeping those people’s activities curtailed.”
- Ronald Raegan
Remnants of this fear have stuck around: ever since then, TV and film have worked hard to insist that, even when it advocates for certain policies, it’s not like those liberals.
This also makes sense from a broader financial perspective: Hollywood’s anxiety mirrors a broader concern among politicians and business overall, which works much harder to win over conservatives and hypothetical “moderates.” Mass media is ultimately made by companies that are responsive to shifts in mainstream politics, rather than attempting to initiate any strong agenda—take Disney, which at first refused to take a stance on Florida’s homophobic “Don’t Say Gay” bill, then responded to backlash by trying to do the bare minimum, which in turn got it targeted by conservative backlash.
There’s also an extent to which liberal people want to be made fun of. For one thing, they want to distance themselves from other liberals–a trait parodied in one of the most iconic examples of this kind of character, Bradley Whitford’s Dean in Get Out.
“By the way, I would have voted for Obama a third time if I could.”
- Get Out
It’s something of an inside joke to acknowledge that large swathes of the country don’t share those same tastes.
“The television audience doesn’t want your elitist, east coast, alternative, intellectual, left-wing–”
“Jack, just say Jewish. This is taking forever.” ”
- 30 Rock
The film The Forty-Year-Old Version explores how white liberal elites crave seeing themselves reflected (and mocked) in art about topics like racism. Black playwright Radha originally writes a play that’s focused on a nuanced black experience of gentrification, but finds herself forced to not only make the suffering of the black characters more sensationalized, but also add an Annoying White Liberal character to appeal to Annoying White Literal audiences.
“What’s a girl gotta do to get some soy milk around here?”
- 40 Year Old Version
Similarly, popular conservative characters give liberal audiences the chance to imagine an ideal conservative who simply has different principles but is still fundamentally on the same page–rather than someone who’s planning to overturn elections. But it’s striking that this subversion of expectations typically only goes in this direction–where the supposedly selfish Conservative turns out to be a kind human being with a good heart, and the Annoying Liberal opportunity to be more relatable is through softening their stances and embracing friendship with the Conservative.
Thankfully, there are characters (especially recently) who aren’t totally mocked or vilified for engaging in activism or expressing liberal beliefs, but still manage to come across as
Jacob on Abbott Elementary is mocked for being a little too earnest and cringeworthy
but the show is clear that ultimately he’s a good teacher who tries hard to connect with his co-workers, and his idealism and desire to contribute are framed as positive qualities.
Some slightly older characters managed to be positive, too–Leslie on Parks and Rec may have been laughed at for her excessive enthusiasm (and paired with a charismatic Cuddly Conservative) but over the course of the series, her drive to help people went from being a source of annoyance to being framed as a superpower. The characters on West Wing were almost an exaggerated liberal dream of how smart, caring, and driven progressives could be at their best.
But importantly, over the last decade, we’ve seen a shift toward more characters with liberal values who aren’t defined by this, especially in younger generations. In the millennial comedy Broad City, Abbi and Ilana are progressive and open-minded, and for them it’s just a natural part of their outlook and how they approach everything. And while Abbi and Ilana still have some awkwardness or self-criticism about how they’re coming across for many of today’s Gen Z characters on shows like Euphoria or Better Things, what older generations consider “woke” ideas are just a given. They’ve simply grown up believing in things like speaking and behaving respectfully of other people’s sexuality or identity, and this isn’t something most of them even have to question or debate with each other. Instead, they get to reflect on what gender means to them. On shows like the new Gossip Girl, it’s also taken for granted that the characters have causes—even if they don’t always do the best job fighting for them.
This progression is in line with depictions of social movements, which often start out being viewed as incredulous or comical until, as more and more of the mainstream gets on board over time, everyone eventually pretends we supported it all along. It’s much easier to make dramatic stories about gay characters after many of the biggest fights in the struggle for gay rights. Entertainment about racism frequently celebrates the abstract power of simply sitting down and talking to people valorizing America’s past dealing with racism without looking deeply at the more complicated problem of the racism Americans still deal with today. And still other times, feminist “icons” in movies are women who happen to have been deeply conservative and not even feminists at all.
TV and movies take a long time to make and require a lot of funding, so it makes sense that they’re usually responsive to changes that have already happened, and only really take a stand when the battle’s already been won. But it’s worth asking: what would things look like if Hollywood actually committed to its supposed ideals, and tried to genuinely get out ahead of issues and promote causes that creators believe in? The TV and movies that engage with sincerity would, at the very least, age a lot better.
“I’m sorry if I can be a little annoying at times, but one person’s annoying is another person’s inspiring and heroic, so you know, who are we to judge?”
- Parks and Rec