Written by Morgan Wrigley
In the words of Stephen Sondheim, “The outsider is basic to a lot of dramatic literature. This country is about conformity, and so nonconformity is a fairly common theme.” Sondheim was referring to the character type of loners, misfits and outcasts so often portrayed in literature.
From the vain, pompous Malvolio in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” to the deformed and frightening Phantom in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera,” to the tortured, maniacal Joker in Todd Phillips’ 2019 film, outsider characters have taken the stage in plays, books and movies for thousands of years. I chose to do my senior research study on the evolution of these characters over time. As society changes, the perception of what makes a character an outsider changes with it. Studying this led me to ask two questions: What defines an outcast character, and how has that changed over time?
When exploring this topic and reviewing previous research, I found that in the early days of cinema, these misfit characters often reinforced shallow, negative stereotypes about people who did not fit into the societal norm. They were often portrayed as having a one-dimensional personality, with their outcast status being their only defining characteristic. Failing to explore their backstory and experiences limited the humanity of these characters and created mere caricatures. As society became more accepting of diversity, the cinematic portrayal of outcast characters began to evolve. Characters who were once viewed in a negative light became heroes, and their differences were celebrated rather than mocked. In the 1980s, movies like “The Breakfast Club” and “Pretty in Pink” depicted teenage misfits who found strength in their individuality and stood up against the status quo.
In recent years, the portrayal of outcasts has continued to change. The focus has shifted from mental and physical differences among characters to other types of marginalization and standing up against oppression. For example, movies like “The Hate U Give” explore the experience of protagonists who face racial discrimination in their communities. Others such as “Call Me By Your Name” depict the struggles of gay teenagers coming of age in a homophobic society.
Ultimately, what defines an outcast or misfit character in film is not about their physical or mental characteristics as much as it is a reflection of societal expectations and norms. As the push to embrace diverse perspectives has continued, outcast characters are more often portrayed in a positive light with substantial backstories. The portrayal of these characters in films over time also speaks to the goals of society. In a time when the goal was to silence voices that did not conform to the status quo, characters who stood out from the vast majority in different ways were portrayed as shallow and unpleasant, sending a message that it’s wrong to be different. In a time when diversity is more and more widely accepted and celebrated, outcast characters take the spotlight as empowered protagonists who inspire others.