Femme Fatales, ‘Female Psychopaths’ and Narrative ‘Science’: Part One —Tristam Vivian Adams

This is part one of two of ‘Femme Fatales, “Female Psychopaths” and Narrative “Science”‘ by Tristam Vivian Adams, author of The Psychopath Factory. Adams discussed the topic of this essay in a recent episode of Very Loose Women on Resonance FM. Read part two here.

In The Psychopath Factory I make a distinction between psychopaths and sociopaths. Ordinarily, in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and in culture more generally, the two terms are interchangeable. But sociopathy is distinctly distinguishable from psychopathy. Sociopaths fail at behaving socially; they might do or say the wrong thing, they might be awkward or just plainly dangerous and anti-social. Sociopathy requires an audience. The dominant consistency of sociopathy is that it is observable, it is about interaction – we know when someone does or says something they shouldn’t. In a sense young children are adorably cute mini sociopaths; they don’t always know what is acceptable and what isn’t – they might say something a little rude or embarrassing for parents. I would class Alan Partridge, David Brent, Larry David (the character in Curb Your Enthusiasm) and Mr. Bean as comedic examples of harmless sociopathy – they are also quite childlike, their cringey blunders stem from their social myopia and self-absorption. Nonetheless, sociopathy is conspicuous.

Psychopathy is different. It cannot be detected through behaviour; it isn’t obvious. Psychopathy is more about the inner world – being cold hearted or lacking empathy. If sociopathy is about the external social realm psychopathy is more about the inner psychological realm. More precisely, psychopathy is about how a hidden psychology is not reflected in behaviour. Take Patrick Bateman, Frank Underwood or Hannibal Lecter – they seem nice at first, charming even, but of course beneath their superficial manners lurks a truer personality: anempathic with dangerous impulses or uncaring narcissism.

It is this anxiety about the disjunct between behaviour and character that is fascinating for us. People say ‘take care’ or ‘have a nice day’ after we buy coffee from them – but how does one know for sure that they mean it? Most of the time we might expect that they do not mean it, it is just what people say – normalized psychopathy. Psychopathy is about the disjunct between external presentation, behaviour, and inner intents that we cannot fathom.

Of course, we are quite like sociopaths and psychopaths on some level. In terms of the former, we have all made a faux-pas at some point and accidentally offended someone – if not that then perhaps we failed at the minutiae of social code: manners and the ‘correct’ ways to dine (elbows off the table, don’t slouch Miss Ward…) But we are psychopathic at times too – our behaviour doesn’t always reflect our wants; we curb, temper and conceal ourselves sometimes. Haven’t we all lied a little for the sake of politeness? Further still, we may even have lied plainly and brazenly during a job interview: ‘genuinely I, myself, am personally passionate about admin’ or suchlike is now a mandatory performance – its disingenuous nature more acceptable than the truth: ‘I don’t care about admin. I just need the money.’

The at once fascinating and unnervingly relatable facet of psychopathy is this disjunct between a person and their behaviour. This, of course, leads to an anxiety about the empathy of others – sure, they seem nice, they seem genuine: but how can one tell for sure? We do not have Voight-Kampf machines in this boring dystopia of ours, instead we have Facebook, Twitter and Tinder.

Dating sites seem to evidence an insatiable appetite for ‘banter’. But banter is anything but honest or genuine… isn’t it more a mode of evasive social sparring: a jolly and smirking façade? In a similar vein, social media sites like Facebook and Twitter that ingeniously monetise both relationships and loneliness, we project a life of holidays, achievements and Disneyesque Apple-pie positivity. We sycophantically like, love and praise yet omit our woe, bitterness, jealousy or vexation whilst, IRL meet/meat space we erect a wall of sarcastic (so-caustic) banter. This is normalized disingenuousness; to call it the lowest form of wit is too generous. Online selfhood qua self-promotion is indefatigably optimistic and ‘fun’. We gaze affectless, icy-eyed and apathetically type ‘lol’. ‘Lol’ is commonly accepted to mean audible laughter yet doesn’t this de-abbreviated acronym of laugh-out-loud also refer to silent supine apathy? The de-abbreviated acronym of ‘lol’ was originally intended to signal energy and fun, yet now it is employed in a sense closer to the older homograph of lol – signalling a lack of energy, a passivity, a lateral indifference with shades of languor, lethargy and torpor. One can pivot around the term ‘lol’. One can strafe to regard the antithesis of its accepted online textual staging, the z creeps in orphaned from its multiplied guise as comic shorthand for snoozing (Zzzzzz), in a term that cites, re-cites and makes legible the opposite of laugh-out-loud lol/lolz: narco-lolzzzzzz (can’t we, then, now, Jacques?).

Our online self is an unblinkingly positive projection, a resolute departure from our ‘true selves’. A contemporary register of this is the online dating profile that claims to adore everything: the calculated personality match trawler net pitch of ‘loves laughing, going out and staying in’. In life, it is difficult to know people for sure, because people increasingly present an edited (a shopped) version of themselves. When we type lol is it a testament to the inadvertent convulsion of hilarity or the passive placeholder of sleepy isolation and interactive avoidance? When people urge us to ‘take care now’ is it a caring personal sentiment or a void-scripted platitude or is it a vaguely authoritative reference to the stipulations of health and safety regulations (‘caution HOT beverage’)? What do others really mean and feel?   

TV, Film and literature are different. We get to see multiple aspects of a character’s personality. We can read of, even in first person fiction, the inner world on one page whilst learning of the social interactions of a character on the next page that are at odds with their ‘true’ character. Film and television is particularly quick at flipping from depicting inner self to social self. Time is of the essence for the digitally twitching and attentively fickle box-set viewer. One must watch a character trick, con, and lie and know that they are doing so; if the film or show does not allow the viewer to be privy to the character’s true intent then how do they know the scene they watch is one of deceit, conning or manipulation? Film and television must show the viewer that despite a character acting one way, they do not mean it – they are lying, it is a ruse.

This is the satisfying difference between the fictional psychopaths and the polite people we speak to every day. TV and film always provide a clue that someone isn’t what they seem. The viewer is shown the disjunct between behaviour and intent. The psychopath’s disjunct is manifested in film and TV’s penchant for mirror scenes, masks and various other methods that show a character is one of façades and pre-meditated self-projection. The mirror scene trope or the mask metaphor tells the viewer in the opening scenes of a film that whilst a character appears normal they, as well as being hyper-reflexive, are hiding something. They might be charming, polite and perfectly social… but really…

The mirror scene trope in serves this purpose well. Patrick Bateman’s mirror scene in American Psycho (2000, Harron) tells the viewer that the man is all show, that what he does and says is all an act, a façade, a mask. The same trick is employed in Malice (1993, Becker). Tracy Safian, played by Nicole Kidman, stares into the mirror mimicking emotions – she is practicing her façade, rehearsing the ‘right’ ways to react, preparing her performance for when it is needed within a social context. Friedkin’s Cruising (1980) also deploys the same trick of reflectively divulging character.

Another strategy employed to convey a character’s janus faced double life is the fourth wall break. Francis “Frank” Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey in HBO’s House of Cards (2013), breaks the fourth wall to tell the viewer he’s only pretending to be nice so he can get his way; as does Stuntman Mike in Tarantino’s Deathproof (2007, Tarantino). Note the smirking irony of Underwood’s preferred name ‘Frank’; he is anything but. Stuntman Mike is similar – his job is to con the viewer: he’s a stuntman, like magicians and actors his trade is deception. In comedy a more recent example can be found in Fleabag (2016). The eponymous protagonist, wrote and played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, quick-fires asides to the viewer relentlessly. Fleabag is schizo-narrative, an Adderalled up oscillation of the fourth wall. The break of the forth wall is a satisfyingly plain way to show that even though a character is doing or saying one thing they mean to do another. They might seem social… but really…

Peep Show (2003-2015) depicts deceit and social performance in a different, more multi-faceted manner. The show is essentially multiple first-person perspectives replete with inner monologues. A character strolls about, forcing smiles and convivial greetings one second, but in the next moment we hear their inner thoughts – often derogatory – about the acquaintance currently being charmed or ingratiated to.

But the simplest example of this showing a character one way whilst also depicting them to be opposite is in Silence of the Lambs (1991, Demme). Hannibal Lecter, played by Anthony Hopkins, is perfectly polite – but we are primed before hand, peripheral characters explain just how bad he is. As FBI Agent Clarice Starling, played by Jodie Foster, is walked through the labyrinth of the prison holding Lector she is informed of the abhorrent nature of his crimes by Dr Chilton (Anthony Heald). The spiel is as much for Clarice’s benefit as it is for the viewer. Moments later Clarice stands before Lecter. He is softly spoken, polite and eloquent. He stands in stark contrast to both the incarcerated ‘degenerates’ in the neighbouring cells and the history of his crimes recounted moments previously.    

Certain interactive antisocial behaviours in film and TV also tell the viewer a protagonist isn’t entirely what they seem to be. The opening scene of House of Cards shows ‘Frank’ Underwood killing a wounded dog with his bare hands. Right from the start, we see that despite his stately magnanimity and deep southern crooned charm Underwood is a cold man. In itself the act is sociopathic, Underwood shouldn’t kill a domestic animal quite so readily and with such ease. However, only the viewer is privy to this act – the other characters remain unaware of such behaviour. This strategy is a step away from the mirror scene, fourth wall break or diegetic priming. We see a character act in different ways in different contexts. The two-scene trick evokes their mercurial personality.

Often the two-scene trick involves the protagonist being antisocial, or nonconformist, with someone who is not involved in the main narrative thread. Most commonly this involves an out-of-hours sociopathy. By day the characters are polite conformists, but at night they indulge in whatever wants they have, be they nonconformist, misanthropic, antisocial or dangerous. These are the TV equivalents of the boring office suit whom by day talks the pseudo-Deleuzian late capitalist jargon of business speak – all abstractions and metaphors – but whose nights are antitheses whiled away feverishly fretting a Burzum din or writing atrocious modernist poetry or similar avocation.

TV and film must depict both sides of someone’s double life: the viewer must be shown how a character might seem fine at work, but after hours, when a conning charm is not necessary, they might do something unusual or ‘bad’. This is the troubling parallel between Stella Gibbons and Paul Spector in BBC’s excellent The Fall (2013-2016). Both lead, for most of the first season, double-lives. Spector is a counsellor and family man by day but a rapist and torture-murderer by night. Stella is a shrewdly demure and sensitive detective, knowing to bite her lip when dealing with institutional and personal sexism by day, yet at night she is portrayed as being sexually independent, and, in notable juxtaposition to the heteronormative machismo of the police force, bisexual. The mode commonly employed in TV and film to convey a psychopath often involves some slight slips into sociopathy, of doing something ‘wrong’, to allude or hint that their truer personality, the person behind the niceties and charm, is anti-social, non-conformist, heartless or anempathic.

But, again, is this not how we behave on a ‘daily basis’? In an office one might feign or cultivate an interest in something that, had one not had to ingratiate oneself to the many others treading water in the open-plan jungle of pointless work, wouldn’t interest one otherwise. The reflexive double lifer, the Ripleyesque pretender (‘I just love Jazz!’), is essentially a fantastic and exaggerated version of our working selves – the self that performs passionate enthusiasm for customers and clients by day but lives a private life by night, whinging about managers or colleagues, indulging in niche interests, fringe pursuits and underground cultures.

Continued in part two here.

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