Femme Fatales, ‘Female Psychopaths’ and Narrative ‘Science’: Part Two —Tristam Vivian Adams
Film and Television’s methods for hinting or alluding to the non-conforming private life, to the ‘deviant’ inner world, reveal an intrinsic sexism. There is, generally, a gross inequality in terms of deviance from the conformist norm. A character doing something appalling usually conveys a male psychopath’s ‘bad side’: Hannibal’s cannibalism or Underwood’s canicide, for example. But female psychopaths’ tells are less extreme.
A trope of depicting female psychopathy is to show a woman doing something considered traditionally ‘male’; like being sexually independent and going to a bar to pick up a partner. The Last Seduction (1994, Dahl) is a great example of this. Bridget Gregory, a telemarketing manager (played by Linda Fiorentino), leaves her husband Clay (played by Bill Pullman). Bridget takes a large sum of cash that Clay made that day by selling pharmaceutical cocaine to drug dealers. She essentially dupes her husband, promising him sex before taking off with the cash whilst he is in the shower. Previously Clay, when returning with the money, physically abuses his wife. Bridget’s opportunistic thieving and fleeing is bold but understandable. After some driving her car runs out of fuel and she finds herself in Beston, near Buffalo. Bridget Gregory is by no-means a fulltime charming psychopath. She deceives and cheats, but only does so with charm and social niceties – only conforms to expectations of being a vulnerable and demure young woman – when it will immediately advantage her.
When she walks into a local bar in Beston, filled mostly by local blue-collar worker type males, she asks for her Manhattan without chit-chat, social prelude or manners: ‘Gimme a Manhattan’ she says flatly. The barman, Ray, ignores her. ‘I know you hear me, pal.’ She presses. The barman then begins checking if anyone wants a drink, feigning obliviousness to Bridget. ‘Jesus Christ. Who’s a girl gotta suck around here to get a drink?’ despairs Bridget before asking again, ‘Gimme a Manhattan!’ At this point Mike, taking his chance to save this out of town damsel in need of a Manhattan, steps in.
Ray, a Manhattan for the lady please.
What – that’s the game? I gotta say please?
Er, yes, it helps.
You’re not from around here?
Of course, after this brief encounter, Mike follows Bridget back to a booth hankering for attention like a once fed stray. At first Bridget is dismissive, but even when she changes her mind her too-direct frankness feels sociopathic. She doesn’t play the role of the to-be-wooed nice-little-lady, instead she takes the advantage. ‘Could you leave? Please.’ She asks…
Well I haven’t finished charming you yet.
You haven’t started.
Give me a chance.
Go find yourself a nice little cow-girl, make nice little cow-babies and leave me alone.
I’m er, I’m hung like a horse. Think about it.
Mister Ed, let’s see.
Bridget checks Mike is as equine-good as his word, and that he has his own place, and that it is clean and has indoor plumbing. Mike, a little taken aback, confirms all of these. Bridget then finishes her drink and tells him to meet her outside.
But let’s switch the gender roles round, suppose a young out of town male went into a local bar. Suppose he ordered a drink and picked up a partner for the night. Would this scene tell the viewer there is something deeply manipulative, conning, narcissistic or ‘cold’ about the character? If a male walked into a bar and picked up a partner for some casual sex he would just be another ‘red-blooded’ male – but not necessarily a psychopath, to be that the man would have to do something much worse (like killing a dog or cannibalism, to recall the previous examples). It seems that the tells directors opt for to tell viewers a character is psychopathic are murderous and criminal for men, but merely a case of over independence or confident sexuality for women. For male psychopaths the sociopathic tell scene is always undeniably bad. Yet for female psychopaths the sociopathic tell scene is subtle – it is often merely a case of not conforming to traditional expectations of female characters: or, to put it another way, being a bit too ‘male’, being too equal to the heteronormative male equivalent.
Saga Noren, a vaguely autistic sociopath type (like a Replicant in dire need of a social protocol systems update), is another example. In The Bridge (2011, Rosenfeldt) the private-life scenes that tell the viewer Saga is different are, again, based around picking up partners for casual sex in bars. The scenes play out in much the same way as Bridget’s in The Last Seduction. Saga is all too frank and single-minded – to the point of being blunt and rude at times. Saga is not interested in finding a nice man to marry; she wants ‘just sex’ as she orders, more than once. Her attitude intimidates and baffles the nameless male characters from the bars. This is a 2011 series from a liberal European country. Why is a women’s freedom to independently pursue casual sex presupposed as being outré, significantly outré enough reveal the character as socially ‘deviant’ to the viewer? What sort of archaic gender role assumptions are being presupposed in this choice of ‘tell’ scene?
There is an additional facet of intrinsic sexism at play in depictions of female psychopathic characters. There is the resurgence of the femme-fatale in ‘men’s-rights films’. Not only are independent women demonised as being manipulative or psychopathic – by being ‘too male’ (i.e. equal), but in a cruel double bind their very femininity (adherence to a feminine ideal) is pitched as being manipulative. When women are being too independent they are demonised for not being placid good-girls, yet when they play up to the good-girl role it is taken as being manipulative, conniving and disingenuous.
To Die For (1995, Van Sant), Knock Knock (2015, Roth) and Gone Girl (2014, Fincher) all tow this double-double standard for women. In To Die For, Suzanne Stone-Maretto, played by Nicole Kidman, is too career driven in a man’s world. She is too ruthless, too goal oriented and single minded and not ready to fulfil the traditional role expected of her: ‘housewife’. However, Suzanne also plays on the heteronormative assumptions of her gender role. She flirts and utilizes the construct of her femininity (much like Bridget in The Last Seduction at times) – but, and this is what is supposedly wrong, for her own personal gain.
In Knock Knock, two young women appear at the door of a family man, Evan Webber (‘played’ by Keanu Reeves). They ask to use his phone, they are cold and wet, then over the course of the evening, after escalating favours reminiscent of Haneke’s Funny Games, begin flirting, then sleeping with, then torturing and blackmailing Evan. The average viewer might suppose that Evan has been duped, he has fallen for the womens’ feminine wiles. But at each turn in the first hour of the film Evan has choices, he doesn’t need to entertain them with his DJing skills. He doesn’t need to engage in lengthy conversations that lead to flirting and banter – but he does. This leads up to consensual sex, before Evan’s regret, before his being held hostage, before blackmail. The viewer’s sympathy is supposed to be with Evan, the poor old affluent and physically stronger man who has been unlucky enough to fall for these temptresses.
The opening line of Gone Girl is a husband’s sadistic fantasy of dispelling the mysteries of what lurks behind his wife’s, Amy’s, pretty face:
When I think of my wife…
…I always think of her head.
I picture cracking her lovely skull…
Unspooling her brains…
Trying to get answers.
The primal questions of any marriage.
“What are you thinking?”
“How are you feeling?”
This is, albeit violent, the ponderance of an epistemological blind spot. How to know for sure if others feel and think like oneself – the anxiety about empathy in others, of other’s capacity for iso-experiential connection – the sharing of the same feeling. Gone Girl tells the story of Amy Elliot Dunne, played by Rosamund Pike, and how she, after staging her own disappearance, leaves her unfaithful husband framed for her suspected murder. Whilst on the run, she stays with an ex-boyfriend, Desi, whom she frames as her rapist and captor – but not before murdering him. When Amy utilizes the heteronormative assumptions others hold for her it is manipulative and conniving – in a domestic correlate of our CCTV’d and selfie’d online existence she uses the surveillance of Desi’s luxury home to her advantage: knowing where the cameras are she performs the aftermath of a rape. Bridget, in The Last Seduction, also leads others to believe she was at risk of being raped. Her husband’s (black) private detective catches up with her and forces her to drive them back to her place where the money is. After noticing that the vehicle is driver-side airbag only, Bridget pesters the man into confirming the old myth about penis size. At this point she accelerates and steers the car into a lamppost. The detective is thrown through the windscreen. Later, in hospital, Bridget leverages small-town racism to her advantage:
There’s only one more question I need to ask. I don’t mean to pry…the man with you appeared to be not entirely in his pants at the time of impact. Can you tell me what happened just before you went off the road?
Well, like I told you before he tried to get me to contact my husband and… I refused of course. Well he became… you know, ‘motherfucker’ this, ‘motherfucker’ that…
Like in the movies?
Exactly. Next thing I knew… I only remember bits and pieces of it but he… the jist of it was that he was going to…impale me with his…big…
The prevalence of supposed female psychopaths making false accusations or framing male characters is notable. But the mode of framing or accusation is always an ultra-reflexive return to the damsel in distress role. The opposite of the woman’s, all too equal, too independent, ‘sociopathic’ and ‘deviant’ tell scenes. This is the cruel double bind for women protagonists in films that have a whiff of men’s rights propaganda about them. When acting the girl they are manipulative, conniving types, temptresses – yet when refusing to conform to a gender stereotype they are framed as sociopathic deviants.
When Amy or Bridget refuse to kowtow to dated expectations of gender it is within sociopathic tell scenes – directorially presupposed as divulging there is something sinister about their character, something amiss. Yet, on the other hand, when they do adhere to heteronormative expectations of subservience and neediness, it is manipulative, conning – psychopathic. Amy and Bridget are psychopathic by virtue of both hamming it up, playing on patriarchal gender expectations, and by virtue of refusing to conform to such asymmetrical expectations and value sets.
The term psychopath is frequently employed in commentary about these three films, to refer to and describe these, at once, too independent and manipulatively feminine characters. The limbo of too feminine to too equal is the double bind. The former temptress facet of the narratives is one informed by a history of femme-fatales in film and television. However, the too equal facet, the case of being psychopathic solely by doing/behaving in a way that is traditionally reserved for men has correlates in how the sciences, particularly criminal psychology, attempt to define female psychopathy through physical traits. Many studies effectively seek to equate female maleness with psychopathy and/or criminality.
An above average testosterone level in women is frequently posited via correlation and comparison with psychopathic, sociopathic and criminal behaviour proclivities. Here we meet the political reductions and warped logics of ‘science’ that seeks to find physical traits in an individual for ‘their’ social failures (criminality). Of course, this assumption between testosterone (or the physical traits associated with the hormone) is not right on a number of levels. Testosterone has, at a stretch, only a semi-firm relation to aggression and confrontation in males, however, much of this data is mostly gleaned from an atypical – read incarcerated – set of subjects (as is the case with most clinical data regarding psychopathy).
However, for women, there is even less cause for such a connection. Even in incarcerated females little connection between testosterone and aggression is found – yet increased testosterone in females with an anti-social personality disorder is pervasive myth. A similar lack of causation holds true for many other hormones and neurochemicals. Nonetheless, studies and cultural commentary exist that seek to equate the physical traits of testosterone with masculine characteristics before retrofitting the fiction into a correlation of say, below average hip-waist ratios, laryngeal prominence, clitoris size and chin/jaw profile with psychopathic character traits in women. Cultural conservatism and politicization of science thrive in the penumbra between etiology and fictioneering (Simon Baron-Cohen’s The Essential Difference is a case in point – the thesis being that there is a genetic essentialism behind the differences in gendered adult brains: ‘from page 1: The female brain is “predominantly hard-wired for empathy” and the male brain “hard-wired for understanding and building systems.”’ – let’s not let the wealth of research into gender qua social construct or epigenetics or neural-plasticity get in the way of a popular science hit.) Less creative than mythopoeisthesizing, this is the crude jerry-rigging of traditional constructs into biases of causal scope. The tale wagging the dog.
Testosterone is not the sole cause of maleness in terms of behaviour. Acting masculine is not solely due to chemicals or genes but a kaleidoscope of developmental, social, personal and political experiences and histories. This is not to say that gender is a personality, but that the characteristics (with varying degrees of validity) of physical and behavioural gender are as subject to historic environments as any empirically based proclivity (be it chemical or genetic) within individual. Plasticity and epigenetics are of more relevance here than the out-dated yet stubbornly continuing click-bait simplicity of simple correlations and the reductive determinism of ‘hard-wiring’. The politicized and essentialist mode of much criminal psychology that seeks to equate female criminal psychopathy with subjects being too male or not quite feminine enough are examples of how the ASPD variant of psychopathy is a gendered concept with ultra-conservative social undertones.
The diagnostic criteria for psychopathy are deeply political and conservative. Cleckley and Hare (the two major checklists for the personality disorder) both list sexual behaviours and proclivities as characteristics. ‘Promiscuous sexual behaviour’ is one of Hare’s criteria, as is ‘Parasitic lifestyle’ and ‘Many short-term marital relationships’. Cleckley lists ‘Sex-life impersonal, trivial and poorly integrated.’ Cleckley’s conservative bias out to be regarded with more tolerance than Hare’s – the former’s ground-breaking work on psychopathy, The Mask of Sanity, was published in 1941 whereas Hare’s Without Conscience, in 1993. Each list paradoxical criteria; psychopathy is a subset of anti-social personality disorder, yet so many of the criteria seem pro-social. Hare’s and Cleckley’s flip-flopping from anti-social to seemingly social personality facets is the same mode of oscillation we see in the television shows and films mentioned previously. The dynamic of shifting from seemingly charming, intelligent, empathetic and social character to deviance and anti-social behaviour is the privilege of a narrative structure.
Cleckley’s The Mask of Sanity spends a great deal of time analysing works of fiction (e.g. characters in the works of Dostoevsky, Dickens, Faulkner…). Hare’s Without Conscience utilizes many examples from True Crime literature and newspaper reports. Perhaps, then, it is unsurprising that the established psychopathic checklists read like impossible fictional narratives (where we see a character behave both perfectly socially and grossly anti-socially) rather than objective arrays of consistent observations. It is this fictionalized mode of character definition that allows cultural bias into the concept of female psychopathy. Just as the catch-22 of psychiatric evaluation renders those who say they are not mad to be regarded as mad, the same double bind operates for women in the examples cited – even when the characters are seen as a the ideal heteronormative cis-gendered feminine they are just as suspect as the sociopathic antithesis. (Precisely this issue is found in the damned either way injustic Amanda Knox, explicated in the eponymous 2016 Netflix film. Mongibello via Perugia; Knox’s lack of upset was cited as evidencing her guilt, yet when she was upset this was regarded as histrionics, conning, performance and manipulation).
The intrinsic sexism of screen portrayals of female psychopathy share much in common with clinical approaches of criminal psychology and other ‘sciences’. The reinforcing of gender inequality and the demonization of at once femininity and non-feminine equality are prevalent in each (conformity is just as suspect as deviance). However, perhaps the more troubling parallel is the utilization of narrative strategies for telling a story about the differences between the sexes that serves to impose asymmetrical values and inequality for women. Akin to how the problematically masculine threads of Sci-Fi and Fantasy genres don’t let explicit sexism get in the way of the good story, neither does these character portraits of psychopathy both on screen and in textbook. Sadly, the non-fiction popular science shelves contain as much creative story telling for the purpose of reinforcing gender constructs as the DVD library.