I tend to fall in love most with a certain type of character, and those characters are usually assholes. Oh yes, sometimes there are exceptions like Scott McCall in Teen Wolf, who is practically a literal Disney prince, but most of the time I love the asshole characters. Usually this is because I find them hilarious and I love that they don’t seem to give a fuck about what anyone thinks of them.
And let’s be honest, there is a reason that we love characters like this. To some extent we all wish we could get away with saying exactly what we are thinking, no matter how awful it is, and not give a fuck about any of the consequences that comes from that. But we still want to be liked, and we certainly do not want to be evil (not necessarily anyway) and thus we get the Lovable Asshole trope. The character who doesn’t give a fuck and makes hilarious quips about people they don’t like, but everyone still loves them for the most part, even if they know they’re a bit of an asshole. Characters like Deadpool, Jayne Cobb, and Iron Man fulfill this trope to a tee. I usually think these characters are awesome and they certainly have an interesting amount of complexity to them. Sometimes, though, this awesome trope can be used for evil. And by evil I mean that writers can use these characters to make prejudice and bigotry seem cool and acceptable.
Yes, we love the Lovable Asshole, and as I stated earlier that is partly because they get to say things that we can’t and then don’t even feel bad about it later. Sometimes this is harmless and even progressive, like having Deadpool wear a maid costume in front of Spider-Man simply because he wants to (and he wants to impress Spider-Man). He has no shame or remorse about his choices and that’s something we can admire at least to some extent. But sometimes things get pushed into a territory with this trope that makes me decidedly uncomfortable. Writers always want us to think that the Lovable Asshole character is genuinely a good person and that they are very cool, otherwise they just end up being an asshole. This can present a problem because what society designates as cool can be extremely bigoted and insensitive.
Probably the first issue that we have here is that the Lovable Asshole is almost always a white, cisgender, abled, heterosexual male. Obviously there are some exceptions: even in the short list I gave you we have characters like Deadpool, who is pansexual and disabled. But even with Deadpool, or any other Lovable Asshole character, you have the problem of sometimes needing your character to do things that are awful and insulting, whether that means unrepentant murder or say… making a sexist joke. The problem here is that writers have to tread these waters very carefully, and even when they do fans might not always take it the right way. As a writer you hope to establish that this character is not a good person so that people know that when they the character acts a certain way or says certain things, the reader/viewer/whoever can pick up on key cues that tell us their actions are not to be condoned. However, we all know when fans love a character enough they will try to justify or overlook anything that they do. Fans can even idealize the negative things. Think about it. We all know one person will see Deadpool punch a girl in one panel, then laugh, and say something like, “Ha ha, see, Deadpool believes in equality. He punches women and men equally.” It’s not always as obvious as this; sometimes it’s something as simple as a fan dismissing or writing off the sexism of Adventure Time’s Ice King, simply because, well, he had a tough life.
Then, of course, there is the issue that the writers themselves live in a society that is full of bigotry and prejudices, and many of those beliefs are internalized. So it’s not difficult for a writer to create a Lovable Asshole character and not only have them do or say something incredibly racist or sexist, but also show this as not being a problem, and maybe even portray it as a good thing. Having Lovable Asshole characters objectify women is a great example of this. With characters like Tony Stark we see him objectify and demean women constantly. Sometimes it is critiqued by other characters, but sometimes it isn’t, and that’s when things become a problem. Our society’s toxic understanding of masculinity claims that a man is cool if he can have sex with a lot of women. You can still have sex with a lot of women and be a feminist (see: Captain James T. Kirk), but when the character is shown using women and treating them as objects and that’s portrayed as cool and suave, then we have a problem.
I don’t think the Lovable Asshole Trope is inherently sexist or problematic, but I think given the current state of our society it’s extremely easy for problems to arise with these characters. I still love characters like this and I think they can serve a great function in storytelling, but we need to keep in mind that we can’t just give these characters a pass because they’re “supposed” to be an asshole.