The 25 Most Important Characters of the Past 25 Years
August 15, 2019 10:42 PM   Subscribe

The detectives, monsters, and racist waterfowl who’ve changed our world.

"What makes a great character? We tend to think of the figures whose outlines are carefully filled in over hundreds of pages of a novel or dozens of hours of a prestige series, until we understand them in all their psychological complexity. But there are many ways for a character to be important."
posted by hippybear (56 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
 
Oh, yeah, this is a single page Slate link, not a slideshow, and it's remarkably thoughtful although I'm sure MetaFilter will have Opinions to share. It's better than most such lists, IMO.
posted by hippybear at 10:59 PM on August 15, 2019 [3 favorites]


The Jar-Jar bit was too stunty, but I’ve written extensively on this site about my feelings regarding Carmela. And, yeah. That tracks.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:13 PM on August 15, 2019 [1 favorite]


Weird feeling to discover that the defining character of your most-pop-culture-relevant-years is one on a show that you've never watched.
posted by Going To Maine at 11:30 PM on August 15, 2019 [10 favorites]


My first thought was Beavis and Butt-Head. And then I did the math. And now I feel ancient.
posted by babelfish at 11:35 PM on August 15, 2019 [18 favorites]


I know that calling something US-centric is low hanging fruit in terms of criticism, but it would have been nice for them to even vaguely acknowledge that this is an American list, given they're claiming it's the characters who left a mark on the 'planet'. Personally, I am unaware of 11 of the list of 25. I guess I don't watch enough US TV series?
posted by AFII at 12:02 AM on August 16, 2019 [16 favorites]


Reading "racist waterfowl" and feeling like Duckman was robbed, but actually I don't remember him being particularly racist.
posted by Space Coyote at 12:05 AM on August 16, 2019 [9 favorites]


I am American and watch a ton of US media and I am only familiar with 11 of these, with a sort of very loosey goosey awareness of some of the rest. I agree that it's a very American list but it's also really dependent on your genres of interest. Like, Willow from Buffy and Pikachu and Hermione? Of course. Someone from the Sopranos? Never watched it. Similarly I never watched the Apprentice but I counted Trump anyway, alas.
posted by Mizu at 12:26 AM on August 16, 2019 [6 favorites]


I’m familiar with almost all of these, although I don’t care about some of them.

Anyone paying attention to, idk, mass culture or current events or whatever in the last decade might understand why I think it’s a travesty that Daenerys Targaryen isn’t on this list. There’s a reason why a lot of people hated the ending of Game of Thrones, and yes, that reason is mostly bad writing! But past the bad writing and whether or not she was “always going to go that way” (a debate we don’t need to have in this context, IMO), she was a really important and zeitgeisty icon in recent years. The video Lindsay Ellis just put out does a good job of explaining why — and why I’d point Daenerys out, specifically, and not, say, Tyrion.
posted by verbminx at 12:49 AM on August 16, 2019 [6 favorites]


Reading "racist waterfowl" and feeling like Duckman was robbed, but actually I don't remember him being particularly racist.

Neither do I, but he also just misses the 25 year cutoff
posted by TedW at 12:51 AM on August 16, 2019


I wouldn't have minded seeing the Dowager Countess of Grantham included (or perhaps her doggedly resilient granddaughter Lady Edith).
posted by fairmettle at 3:11 AM on August 16, 2019 [3 favorites]


I feel like the article doesn't do a good enough job saying why their #1 choice is actually #1. Their argument is that she's the template for the long-suffering wives of peak TV? Okay, sure, but that's a much weaker reason than "broke Cool Japan in the West, as the mascot character of the most lucrative creative property in the world" or "helped the worst president since Warren G. Harding to the American presidency". Like, she's not even the most influential female character on an HBO show. There's a lot more Khaleesis out there.

Would be interested to see some less-US centric candidates. Does anyone have any suggestions?
posted by Merus at 3:13 AM on August 16, 2019 [3 favorites]


I was familiar with all those but man that was a weird list.
posted by soren_lorensen at 3:30 AM on August 16, 2019 [11 favorites]


I guess the fact that I've never seen 90% of these shows or movies but still recognize the characters says something about their ubiquity in culture.
posted by octothorpe at 3:43 AM on August 16, 2019 [3 favorites]


Reading "racist waterfowl" and feeling like Duckman was robbed, but actually I don't remember him being particularly racist.

My first thought was Mallard Fillmore.
posted by Faint of Butt at 4:07 AM on August 16, 2019 [28 favorites]


Apparently, I've been deeply sleeping through most of the past 25 years. Though I was aware they existed, I never saw Sopranos, Wire, Twilight, Hamilton, Rent, Election, Scandal, Inside Out, Apprentice (thank god). Have no freaking clue what a Babadook is. No idea about the duck thing. Only saw half of Wolf Hall. Never even knew about Serial.

Now, get off my lawn. I'm going back to bed.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:45 AM on August 16, 2019 [7 favorites]


I might as well recommend How Fiction Works even though I've only read half of it-- it argues that our ideas of great fiction are a social construct, just like so much else. In particular, the idea of literary fiction (from memory) has something to do with Flaubert.

There are examples from literature which break the rules-- fascinating monomaniacs like Ahab can be great characters.

As for racist waterfowl, I have no idea, but the phrase was great clickbait.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 5:00 AM on August 16, 2019 [2 favorites]


I get the feeling that Trump was originally #1 but someone decided that was too depressing.
posted by theodolite at 5:38 AM on August 16, 2019 [14 favorites]


Surely Tyler Durden deserves a spot on this list. Regardless of the author’s intention in Fight Club, he had a big hand in shaping disaffected young men into the alt-right of today. He’s why “snowflake” has become the go-to insult in political discourse.

Also he’s why every movie or show has fan theories about a main character being imaginary. Which is arguably a worse accomplishment.
posted by ejs at 6:16 AM on August 16, 2019 [17 favorites]


> My first thought was Beavis and Butt-Head. And then I did the math. And now I feel ancient.

seriously though beavis and butthead is worth revisiting at this point and with our knowledge of how the intervening quarter century or whatever has worked out. mike judge saw the whole incel thing coming, way way way before it was on the broader cultural radar.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 6:19 AM on August 16, 2019


It's basically trolling to suggest that Donald Trump, Jay-Z and Sarah Koenig "originated in a work of culture sometime in the past quarter-century." Okay, then why not Obama? RuPaul? Stephen Colbert? Taylor Swift? I guess none of them have the cultural cachet of milkshake duck.

It seems obvious that we're considering importance in the real world, not in fictional worlds – otherwise the list would be full of Earth-destroying monsters (SkyNet?). Yet Olivia Pope "became one of the most influential people on earth when she helped install her on-again, off-again lover in the Oval Office." Okay.

Lists like this are always weighted heavily to the present. They might not be as zeitgeisty, but I would replace Thomas Cromwell with Stephen Colbert, and Sadness with SpongeBob SquarePants.
posted by oulipian at 6:24 AM on August 16, 2019 [7 favorites]


While it's good to see Carmela recognized as a character—she drew such vitriol from a corner of Sorpranos fandom for dampening Tony's fun—Slate downplays her moral dilemma and the show's implied judgement on her for decision to remain with Tony despite his criminality.

By the way, Angie Bonpensiero serves as a double counterexample to Carmela. Yes, in an early encounter following her husband's death, Carmela is secretly repulsed by her handing out samples at a grocery, ostracized by the Soprano crew purely for her husband's disloyalty (which Slate mentions). This comes up again and again when Carmela contemplates leaving Tony—and, tragically, she almost, but not quite, makes it out and sets up her own life—but Slate spends almost no time on this aspect of her character arc, instead simplistically reducing her to a complicated "figure of admiration" who "fully lean[s] in". Meanwhile Angie, by the end of the show's run, has successfully disengaged from the crime family and is running her own successful, legitimate business—to the point where she has little time for Carmela's Jersey mob version of a "ladies who lunch" lifestyle (which Slate omits). Chase absolutely holds her in as much moral judgement, possibly more than, Tony for refusing to leave mob life.

My first thought was Beavis and Butt-Head.

Beavis and Butt-Head nailed the MTV zeitgeist as alienated teenage dirtbags, but they were emphatically pre-Internet and pre-smartphone alienated teenage dirtbags. The generational shift since them has been profound.
posted by Doktor Zed at 6:26 AM on August 16, 2019 [5 favorites]


I really enjoyed this list, though I think we're poorly served in general by the superlative "most important x" format. I try to frame these sorts of things as "Hey, here are a bunch of characters who have served as important cultural touchstones" rather than necessarily the most important. But I imagine "top 25" gets more clicks.

Anyway, nice link, thanks for sharing.
posted by sugar and confetti at 6:27 AM on August 16, 2019 [1 favorite]


RAY SMUCKLES YOU DIRTY BASTARDS
posted by COBRA! at 6:50 AM on August 16, 2019 [8 favorites]


Literally every entry except Omar made me ask, "Whut?!" -- and I know who all but the duck are. Most of those characters are inconsequential to the majority of America, let alone the planet. Feels more like a list of characters on shows the author(s) like.

I'd agree with the above that Tyler Durden is a glaring absence, as is Neo from the Matrix, and Lisbeth Salander. Too early for most people, but if it were my list, Fleabag would be on it. She's amazing.
posted by dobbs at 6:54 AM on August 16, 2019 [4 favorites]


Honestly, I feel like the character of Morpheus or even Smith was a greater cultural influence than Neo (and I feel like the concept of the Matrix was a greater cultural influence than any of the characters in those movies, who I found mostly forgettable with the exception of Smith, thanks to Hugo Weaving's masterful mastication of the scenery).

Also, Beyonce is CLEEEEEARLY a bigger character in our collective imagination than Jay-Z. C'mon.
posted by sugar and confetti at 7:00 AM on August 16, 2019 [9 favorites]


Reading "racist waterfowl" and feeling like Duckman was robbed, but actually I don't remember him being particularly racist.
posted by Space Coyote


Only 90s kids will get this.
posted by Reyturner at 7:09 AM on August 16, 2019 [2 favorites]


Also he’s why every movie or show has fan theories about a main character being imaginary. Which is arguably a worse accomplishment.

Surely Jim Watterson deserves some of the blame for this.
posted by acb at 7:18 AM on August 16, 2019 [2 favorites]


If we are going to argue historical figures who are perceived differently now due to the musical Hamilton!, surely the character to be discussed is Alexander Hamilton himself, as before the musical, who, other than historians, was even interested in Hamilton? And I believe the shift in dislike of Thomas Jefferson is due more to us becoming more aware of the details of his relationship with Sally Hemmings. It is one thing to note the disconnect between a man who writes "All men are created equal" and will not free his own slaves, it is another step entirely to be that man who will not free the mother of his own children.
posted by dannyboybell at 7:27 AM on August 16, 2019 [6 favorites]


racist waterfowl

If we're talking about Opus, flightless is the right adjective. Now if we're talking about Steve Dallas, I fear the worst.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 7:30 AM on August 16, 2019 [3 favorites]


Feels more like a list of characters on shows the author(s) like.

If Warby Parker was a person it would write this list.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 7:50 AM on August 16, 2019 [3 favorites]


> I know that calling something US-centric is low hanging fruit in terms of criticism, but it would have been nice for them to even vaguely acknowledge that this is an American list, given they're claiming it's the characters who left a mark on the 'planet'. Personally, I am unaware of 11 of the list of 25. I guess I don't watch enough US TV series?

I've only watched/heard three, maybe five of the things on the list. (The Milkshake Duck tweet has become copypasta and Pikachu is a more of a trans-media-merchandise property.) And I've lived in the US all my life.

There are a few British entries and one Japanese. It would have been fair to contend these are the 25 most important or influential characters in US culture right now, but yeah I'm really struggling to wonder why non-English speakers outside the US would really give a shit about the characters of the musical "Hamilton" regardless of whether they like the music.
posted by ardgedee at 7:52 AM on August 16, 2019 [1 favorite]


Given the current controversy over Bruce Lee's depiction in Hollywood, we should maybe think twice before casting a real (and living!) person as a "character."
posted by grumpybear69 at 7:58 AM on August 16, 2019 [1 favorite]


All lists on the Internet are meant to be argued over, right? From my perspective, I find lists such this interesting as they are an attempt at quantifying a set of shared cultural ideas. Yeah the list reflects the participants' interests, nationality (so American...) and likely their age (Hermoine...) but there's some unusual choices there. Characters like Olivia Pope, from Scandal or Angel from Rent I'm barely even aware of while Omar from the Wire, despite never seeing the show, I'm highly cognisant of his character and can understand when Omar is used as a bit of cultural short hand. Some of the others, though weird, I can concede are important especially within some subcultures such as the Babadook, Sadness or the Milkshake Duck. Hamilton and its characters are likely important to Americans but to the rest of the world? I didn't even know who Hamilton was until the musical came out so I guess there's that. I'm still kind of unclear who he was and why he's important, he's got a good singing voice though. Sarah Koenig as a character seems like a stretch. The only people who talked about Wolf Hall & Thomas Cromwell that I was aware of were white senior citizens.

The absences from the list tell an interesting story I think. While this is strictly a list of characters and Beyoncé is arguably one of the most important artists for this time but surely the importance of her "character" in Lemonade easily dwarfs say Thomas Cromwell (if not Jay-Z) in terms of cultural importance to us right now. Lemonade was a massive culturally seismic event and even if you never heard it, the album and its related material has had loads of cultural reverberations. If we're talking about Jay-Z why not Kim Kardasian and her family surely they've become more characters to the wider culture then actual people. They certainly get talked about like they are characters in any respect. Daenerys too I think is a notable absence. Regardless of how you felt the final season went down, Daenerys as a character was easily the most talked about of a cast that included other highly discussed characters, even on an international level. When a large number of people name their children after Daenerys or, ridiculously, after her title I think that says that there is something going on there culturally. Or why not that stupid Pepe the Frog? Surely that's taken up more of our cultural space then any of us would like but even my most out of it / apolitical friends knows about the alt-right frog even if they don't know its name.

In anycase, YMMV I guess. I would like to hear more from international Mefites who they feel might be more important cultural characters in their own countries if not on an international level.
posted by Ashwagandha at 8:10 AM on August 16, 2019 [1 favorite]


Thinking on this even more: If Milkshake Duck counts, why doesn't Pepe, which has had a lot more influence in popular discourse (even if that influence is corrosive)? Don Draper's fictional history has left a greater noticeable imprint on contemporary American culture than the novelized version of Cromwell has. More Americans quote Peter Griffin every day than Tracy Flick. "Mad Men" is passé, and "Family Guy" is retrograde (in several senses of the word), but their influence is undeniable whereas you'd be hard pressed to find many Americans who could cite "Election" even if prompted.

The listmakers here seem a lot more interested in using this to hype up the characters they like or wish had more public attention, which is OK, but isn't even vaguely in the spirit of the premise of the list.
posted by ardgedee at 8:10 AM on August 16, 2019 [7 favorites]


He’s why “snowflake” has become the go-to insult in political discourse

Yeah I used to think this when the term first became popular. Don’t remember where I read it, but someone traced down the origin of the modern usage, and it’s not Fight Club.

“Snowflake” there was a sarcastic description of the Durden-bros being unique. The modern usage comes from snowflakes being fragile and how they melt at the slightest heat.
posted by sideshow at 8:12 AM on August 16, 2019 [1 favorite]


I appreciate this list. It seems to have spawned interesting discussion. But mine would be quite different and would have to include the top dragon from Game of Thrones, because wow, did otherwise rational people I know lose their shit over that stupid dragon!
posted by philip-random at 8:20 AM on August 16, 2019 [1 favorite]


acb: "Surely Jim Watterson deserves some of the blame for this."

*Bill* Watterson.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:34 AM on August 16, 2019 [1 favorite]


This list doesn't have Peggy Olsen on it and is therefore completely invalid.
posted by Automocar at 9:15 AM on August 16, 2019 [1 favorite]


I've seen most of these shows and this is a weird nonsensical list.
posted by The_Vegetables at 9:57 AM on August 16, 2019 [5 favorites]


acb: Surely Jim Watterson deserves some of the blame for this.

Chrysostom: *Bill* Watterson.


Jim Davis, perhaps? Or was the original comment not referring to Garfield minus Garfield?
posted by sugar and confetti at 10:19 AM on August 16, 2019


Never heard of: 5 characters

Know some version but not this one: 2 characters (including potus45; the only bits of "The Apprentice" I've seen are clips shown by Trevor Noah.)

Know of (or know of canon); haven't seen canon: 11 characters

Have seen this character in this setting: 7 characters
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 10:43 AM on August 16, 2019


No Walter White? Really? I was expecting Trump to be #1.
This should really be "The 25 most important for the US" because really, also, how is Malcolm Tucker not on this list...

Humans are funny little creatures with our lists.
posted by symbioid at 11:20 AM on August 16, 2019


Too biased towards western pop culture and shudderingly unaware that it is so.
posted by dazed_one at 1:37 PM on August 16, 2019


sugar and confetti, the original comment referred to Calvin and his imaginary tiger friend Hobbes.
posted by ejs at 2:25 PM on August 16, 2019


Would anyone care to explain The Babadook being on here? Ignoring that it's maybe a little too soon to include on a list with the qualifier of "past 25 years" without knowing if it will hold up as a property for even 10, but whatever, it's a list, not a... uhh important sort of document. Reading the wikipedia synopsis I'm not really seeing it as a super poignant and timely metaphor or something obvious like that. I remember vaguely people said the monster itself was gay, I guess there are other babadooks and they have their own relationship constructs similar to ours? The wiki synopsis mentioned none of this and I'm so curious about how it all came about.
posted by GoblinHoney at 3:08 PM on August 16, 2019


The Babadook on MF previously.
posted by Mizu at 3:45 PM on August 16, 2019 [1 favorite]


I would argue that Pepe the meme is too divorced from Pepe the character, if it's supposed to be a list of characters. Where Milkshake Duck's meaning as a meme precisely aligns with their character within the (very) short story in which they originally appeared. And more people have probably read the Milkshake Duck tweet than have read Matt Furie's Boys Club comic.
posted by RobotHero at 4:52 PM on August 16, 2019 [2 favorites]


I'd nominate Heath Ledger's Joker. I mean we're all sick to death of it by now and I'm sure that you've wanted to smack someone who said "why so serious" more than once but I can't think of a more iconic portrayal of a character in the last 25 years.
posted by octothorpe at 5:30 PM on August 16, 2019 [4 favorites]


Some of my choices for most influential are cartoon characters:
Steven Universe
Cartman
Unbeatable Squirrel Girl
Spinnerette (the trend toward Strong Female Protagonists started in webcomics and migrated to comic books)

Multiply-Rebooted Characters (pre-existing but noticeably changed)
Spock
Captain Marvel
Loki
The Joker
The Doctor (Who?)

and others previously noted and worth repeating
Walter White
Malcolm Tucker
"Stephen Colbert"
Peggy Olsen
Ray Smuckles
Neo
Spongebob Squarepants

sadly, many of the more memorable characters are part of ensembles in productions where the most influencial is a two-to-four-way tie (I'm looking at you Parks and Recreation and NOT Game of Thrones).
posted by oneswellfoop at 6:54 PM on August 16, 2019


Stephen Colbert seems like a really crazy absence, except the list is a grab bag of nonsense, so why would he be there? I think the only entry that convinced me after reading it was Willow's, but I'm a huge BtVS fan so I'm an easy mark. (I'd still go for Buffy first.) Omar and, ugh, Trump, are reasonable inclusions. And I don't know if milkshake duck really counts as a character, but it's such a devilishly useful term that I can imagine humans still using it in a couple hundred years. (Assuming we survive that long.)

In the spirit of the "add whatever I like" list, I'd say this list is missing Mad Max: Fury Road's Furiosa, Elizabeth from the Americans, Selina from VEEP, Toby from the West Wing, and Maebe Funke from Arrested Development. Is Eleanor from the Good Place the same character as Maebe Funke? (If so, sub in someone else from the Good Place.) Nathan for You gets in, too.

In the spirit of "objectively, this list could be better," it's pretty crazy that RDJ's Iron Man didn't make the cut, nor any Sex and the City characters. No Lesley Knope from Parks and Rec? (Is Carmela more relevant than Carrie? Really?!) I agree that Daenerys is a striking exclusion. And... I'm not a huge fan of the Sherlock TV show, but modern Sherlock feels like a natural inclusion.
posted by grandiloquiet at 8:23 PM on August 16, 2019 [3 favorites]


It's wild how many comments here are basically in the form of "This list is bad because actually the characters on it aren't influential enough and are just ones the author likes, so it should have had <list of characters that are far less influential and are just ones the commenter likes>."
posted by IAmUnaware at 12:44 AM on August 17, 2019


Is Eleanor from the Good Place the same character as Maebe Funke?

Holy shirt...
posted by Etrigan at 3:45 AM on August 17, 2019


This list is mostly wrong, and what is right is explained wrongly.

(Please feel free to c&p for every "The Top $NUMBER $ANYTHING" list posted from this day forward)
posted by tzikeh at 5:54 AM on August 17, 2019 [1 favorite]


I had put The Good Place as one of those ensemble shows that's a multi-place tie for Most Influencial, but I've changed my mind... Janet is THE star of that show.

I like the inclusion of people on "Reality TV" (because it is all totally NOT real) and pop/rock music stars (is Lady Gaga recent enough?) to open it up. But no, there's no way any one writer or even a team of writers will ever make a "definitive" list of Most Influential, but the nature of this list is great for inspiring everybody else to assemble their own lists.

And Milkshake Duck would have to win a meme-off competition against Grumpy Cat and "This Is Fine" Dog.
posted by oneswellfoop at 6:37 PM on August 17, 2019


...and if you assemble the list a few months later, TVHead Man will probably be in contention among memes
posted by oneswellfoop at 6:46 PM on August 17, 2019


The 25 Most Important Characters of the Past 25 Years (according to me, who watches mostly stuff from the USA)

Jack Box, from Jack in the Box commercials
Andy DuFresne, from The Shawshank Redemption
Ruby Rhod, from The Fifth Element
Walter Sobchak, from The Big Lebowski
Milton Waddams, from Office Space
Amelie, from Amelie
Donkey, from Shrek
Alonzo Harris, from Training Day
Regina George, from Mean Girls
Buddy, from Air Bud
Substitute teacher Mr Garvey, from Key and Peele
Dwight Schrute, from The Office
Saul Goodman, from Breaking Bad
Tina Belcher, from Bob's Burgers
Willie Soke, from Bad Santa
Jigsaw, from Saw
President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho, from Idiocracy
Miranda Priestly, from The Devil Wears Prada
William Hung, from American Idol
Russell, from Up
Stewie Griffin, from Family Guy
Felisha, from Friday
Reggie Warrington, from the Nutty Professor
Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, from Downton Abbey
Charlie Kelley, from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia
posted by 23skidoo at 6:16 PM on August 30, 2019


« Older You'll look sweet / upon the seat   |   A Walk in Hong Kong Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments