Lady Killer: Why Society Has Trouble Accepting The Female Sociopath
This past year hosted a surge of on-screen depictions of sociopathic female antiheroes — from the calculating and homicidal Amy Dunne of "Gone Girl" to the nameless but no-less-frightening main character in Taylor Swift’s "Blank Space" music video.
This idea is not a new one; it taps into a particular stereotype that has been longstanding in our culture.
It's that of the crazy woman, the psycho girlfriend, the hysterical Salem witch and the "one minute she was cool and the next she destroyed my car with a golf club" ex-lover of locker-room lore.
At its root, the association stems from a male fear of loss of control and power to the unpredictable woman. Men fear the one who might turn on them without warning, or who calmly bides her time before unleashing a cunning plan of vindictiveness that ruins their lives forever.
In contemporary misogynistic framing, this is the girl who seemed into it last night, then cried rape this morning. Calling these women crazy is, sadly, a common defense.
Is it any wonder women have, for so long, been and continue to be perceived as suffering from barely-concealed lunacy?
The word "lunacy" is derived from the sinister effects of the moon’s transit on those sensitive to cyclical, monthly, astronomical changes. This circumscribes a category of characters that includes lunatics, werewolves and pre-menstrual women.
The crazy woman stereotype is no less dangerous for its persistence and ubiquity.
A column by Yashar Ali discusses the way in which our culture systemically “gaslights” women by waging relentless campaigns of telling women they are crazy until they believe it themselves, and even ultimately apologize for it on behalf of themselves and the rest of the gender.
(The term “gaslight” comes from the movie of the same name, in which a man tries to convince his wife she is crazy by continually dimming the lights in their home, and then telling her she is imagining it.)
But, the latest pop-culture fascination with the sociopathic girlfriend counterintuitively turns this stereotype on its head. It does so by treating the notion with a sardonic and self-aware irony that includes just a hint of warning to those who continue to perpetuate it.
Taylor Swift plays to her own tabloid reputation in the "Blank Space" music video, deliberately exaggerating the gossip and put-downs directed her way into a caricature of monstrous proportions: the Godzilla of crazy ex-girlfriends.
The fact that the video, in four minutes, tells the story of a relationship, from flirtatious beginning to train-wreck end, gives visibility to the fear driving the stereotype: the deception of a cool girl. She's beautiful and charming at first, but becomes jealous, crazed and uncontrollable by the end.
This is a fear born by those who have seen Taylor date men, end relationships with men and write songs about them afterward. Never mind the majority of songs are devoted to the subject of love lost.
One could argue music exists as a medium to describe heartbreak, but as far as the media is concerned, what this singer does is vindictive to the extreme.
The now-infamous “Cool Girl” speech in "Gone Girl" addresses the same pernicious belief, concluding in resonant cynicism that there is no such thing as a Cool Girl, only girls who pretend to be cool until they can’t hide their crazy any longer. If it is true hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, then Amy Dunne is hell personified.
Even the feel-good, girl-power Disney creation, "Frozen," is not immune to playing to some of these crazy girl clichés.
The two main characters exhibit the two most common negative associations within women: crazy with fear and rage, like Elsa with her supernatural, destructive powers; irrational and helpless, like Anna, who becomes engaged to a man she only just met.
The fear of the girlfriend sociopath could, perhaps, be summed up as going to bed with Anna and waking up with Elsa.
Internet pontificators have discussed whether these projections, that of "Gone Girl," in particular, represent a feminist achievement or a success in promoting women as real, complex characters who can kill and torture (physically and emotionally).
We must be careful to note the distinction between feminism, which is a belief in equality between the sexes, and femininity, which is the power of the female.
In that sense, then, talking openly and unapologetically about female sociopaths seems not about equality so much as about a machismo of the feminine: a celebration of women in all their infinite (and entirely human) strengths and complexities. It's a frightening concept for many, especially men.
But, maybe this is about equality, after all. From "Psycho" to "American Psycho," the male sociopath captivates us.
It focuses on a man living a double life, convincing those around him he is normal, even popular; yet, in his dark moments, he pursues savagery of mind and body that is both grotesque and fascinating. Isn't it time women get some of this screen time, too?
Perhaps, rather than an incarnation of the well-established, crazy-girl nightmare, Amy Dunne is more of a Tyler Durden type, by resonating with the inner-vengeance-driven animal in all of us, and speaking to the angst of a generation of women who have grown tired and jaded by the “women-be-crazy” trope.
After all, the first rule of Cool Girl is you don't talk about or claim to be the Cool Girl.
Is this art form a win for women, or a loss of ground?
It can easily be construed as a cultural acceptance of the belief that all women are secretly (or not-so-secretly) crazy. Yet, the creators of these characters are not men with axes to grind against terrifying ghosts of girlfriends past. They are all women: author Gillian Flynn, screenwriter Jennifer Lee and Ms. Swift, herself.
Have women accepted the stereotype, only to carry on the mission to convince ourselves we are crazy? And, more importantly, are we endangering future women by perpetuating a standard that justifies bigotry and misogyny, the dismissal of women as unhinged and further conditioning young women to grow up believing it?
I would argue this is not, in fact, a moment of acknowledgment or resignation by women that the stereotype is true. Rather, this is a moment to appreciate that complex, evil, revenge-obsessed characters are not just a province of men.
Women can be sociopaths, too, with middle fingers raised to those who find that concept redundant.
This is also a moment to recognize we do not accept the societal implication that women inherently harbor sociopathic tendencies, or "cool girls" always turn into homicidal freaks.
Or, that women will continue to allow themselves to be backed into characterizations that are unfair, untrue and rooted primarily in male fears of a loss of power and control.
Embracing Amy Dunne and "Blank Space" is not about championing crazy, jealous, vengeful women, but about publicizing and generating discussion on what has been a quietly accepted generalization for far too long.
Will we ever overcome the gaslighting of half the population by bringing a spotlight to the questionable stereotype of the female sociopath through deliberate exaggeration of that characterization?
Can I say something crazy? Yes.