After (far too long of) a time perusing Tumblr and a misguided decision to see That Awkward Moment, it has dawned on me recently that our pop culture male romantic ideals are steadily moving into two major groups: the delightfully curmudgeon mess– the “Manic Pixie Dream Guy” (more on this later)– and The Sexy Sociopath. Generally suffering from some level of antisocial disorder, borderline personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, these characters teeter between hero and villain. Examples include:
Sherlock’s Sherlock, 50 Shades of Grey’s Christian Grey, Mad Men’s Don Draper, Justified’s Raylan Givens, the characters of CW’s The Originals, Vampire Diaries’ Damon Salvatore, True Blood’s Eric Northman, Loki the supervillain from the Avengers, That Awkward Moment’s Jason (Zac Efron’s character), even to a certain extent How I Met Your Mother‘s Barney Stinson (yeah, I don’t care how romantic he and Robin are, it’s still true)
The Sexy Sociopath might have a counterpoint in the “Too Noble For This World” Guy (examples include Thor, John Watson, Scott Foley in any role ever), but often enough, he exists determinedly alone, cutting himself off from the world for the world’s own good. Their calculating, emotional death might be in spite of his heroic nature, might be a root of his destructive evil, or might just cause him high levels of contemporary douchey selfishness. The most defining trait is Self-Interest Above All, Even to the Detriment of Those Around Me. And (forgive me the Carrie Bradshaw reference here) I couldn’t help but wonder: why on Earth would we want to do this to ourselves? Are we all becoming masochists?
To be honest, I never believed I had the empathy needed to become fictionally infatuated with high functioning sociopaths, probably because I have a touch of sociopathy myself. The amount of work involved in trying to fix one of them sounds exhausting. And I hope this keeps me from dating Jeffrey Dahmer and characters like Zac Efron’s in That Awkward Moment. That damn movie. It’s not inherently terrible, so if you’ve incurred brain damage and have decided to see it, I don’t want to spoil it for you, but let me just say: the film was eye-opening. Zac Efron’s character Jason is what makes dating in your 20s a hellscape. He rotates girls on his “roster” to keep his game fresh, he blissfully ignores his bedfellows’ feelings or pain, no matter how he feels about them, he damages and seems to despise even his best friends. Jason is a monster and the film’s hero. And while I wanted to be outraged at this, I saw the path that led to him paved by all the attractive men of TV and movies that came before.
It reminded me of an age-old argument I used to have with an old friend from high school about the Gilmore Girls. She loved Jess, I loved Dean. To her, Dean was safe, clingy. To me, Jess was self-destructive and selfish. But its obvious root was basic: the Good Boy Next Door vs. The Bad Boy. And we have taken the idea of the “Bad Boy” and run with it. Think of the leaps and bounds that that definition has made– Jess was a bad boy because he skipped class and smoked. Maybe was a little promiscuous. Now it seems to mean you are a mass murdering vampire who is… a little promiscuous. The “Bad Boy” has progressed from rebelling from the conforms of society to rebelling from the conforms of basic humanity. I understood then that the bad boy appeal stems from not only the desire to change him, but from the deluded idea that you could be the only one TO change him. His love for you is so strong it overcomes his baser instincts. It means something to be loved by a bad boy, you’ll always be loved. I get that, it’s appealing. It’s also bullshit. And little by little, it seems to be having some horrible ramifications in reality.
It may be partially resentment that stokes my ire about this pop culture phenomenon. I am sick of the gender bias– a quality that is demonized in female characters is almost idolized in males. Male sociopathic characters, hero or villain, have an outlet for their worst traits, one that either helps the public at large, or successfully destroys it, depending on motive. Women in their orbit are drawn to their coldblooded brilliance, their lack of feeling. To my knowledge, the overly analytical and emotionally distant sides of myself have never made anyone fall in love with me, and I would be disturbed if it did. And I cannot argue that we should eradicate this type– it is fascinating and makes for richer characters. It’s the embrace of them that is disturbing. I find Loki (The Avengers and the two Thor movies) and his inferiority complex riveting and seductive. I personally think Justified’s Raylan Givens and his odd blend of Galahad complex, warped sense of justice, and brutally violent anger issues sexy as hell. But then I think how those reactions are bizarre and unhealthy.
Note the gender difference in reaction between Sherlock and Hannah Horvath from Girls. Sherlock is a self-proclaimed sociopath, but that is a mask he wears. In my opinion, he is closed-off naturally to a certain extent, and he leans into it both to unclutter his mind processes to succeed at what he loves to do, and as a sort of defense mechanism. In “The Sign of Three”, Sherlock’s best man speech is revealing. He sees himself as rude, offensive, unlikeable. He is surprised anyone is his friend, because it seems Sherlock has a knack for putting people off at first blush. He’ll offend you before you have a chance to dislike him. All this helps him be brilliant. And Sherlock is indeed a hero, albeit an imperfect one. He cares deeply and is self-sacrificing to those who have earned his trust and affection. At the end of the day, his good usually outweighs his evil. But there is still a lot of evil. He manipulates people, preys on their insecurities, verbally abuses those he loves along with everyone else. Sherlock’s treatment of Janine in “The Last Vow” was appalling to me, even though the show seemed to whitewash it, corrupting her potential heartbreak at her false engagement by paying her off with a cottage. Sherlock’s soul is saved by his interest in a “societal good”, but there’s very little evidence that his interest stems from a desire to do good itself. So why does every 20something girl I know sigh at the mention of him?
There seems to be no such leeway for Girls’ Hannah Horvath. And indeed, my gut reaction to Hannath Horvath and her seeming lack of human compassion is that she is despicable. If she is a sociopath and not just severely emotionally stunted, it serves no greater good. But it strikes me as bizarre that she is so unforgiven, that her (true, near pathological) self-involvement is equated to sociopathic detachment. She too has a guiding principle and that is her “art” or her “truth”. And one could say the creative process is selfish by nature, and the show gives almost no evidence that she is gifted, but therein lies the problem. Sherlock is a show that is 100% on the side of its sociopath, and Hannah is on a show that comes close to condemning her. And there is barely a male-centric show out there not on the side of its antisocial lead. Sherlock, Raylan Givens, Don Draper, Loki, Walter White, Tony Soprano– these men aren’t a cause for outrage at their antipathy, they are classic “antiheroes.” They are compelling, attractive even. We root for these men. We fall a little in love with them. No one seems to root for Hannah. Formerly disastrous and narcissistic Mindy Lahiri had to become likeable for The Mindy Project to be palatable, and the same is true of Leslie Knope and Parks and Recreation. Two of my favorite recent films with deeply flawed, sociopathic heroines, Bad Teacher and Bachelorette, were critically panned and audience ignored. And even those films felt the itch to redeem. The female versions of the sociopath aren’t given a direction or heroic outlet to use their wild personality disorders, they are either tamed or damned.
But more important than my pseudo-feminist issues with the Sexy Sociopath are my much more practical problems with being surrounded by them. These men are worshipped by men and by women, and I think it makes dating hell. In That Awkward Moment, Zac Efron’s character explains the idea of the “girl roster”– a bevy of women you sleep with regularly, so that when one gets to serious and has to be ditched, there are still plenty in supply. And I thought, “My god, it’s remarkable Don Draper doesn’t have that.” If you don’t believe that this has real world consequences, look up @VegasDave on Instagram and prepare to be appalled. In one scene in TAM, a girl asks Jason where their relationship is going during sex, and he gives her the “you’re a great girl, but” speech WHILE INSIDE HER. And my friend’s and my reaction to this was “Well, she really shouldn’t have asked him right then.” That might be pragmatic, but why are we accepting this callousness?
Did this kind of jackassery exist before? I’m certain. I still get annoyed when women swoon over Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights (he kidnapped a teenage girl and dances with a corpse, people). But as far as I can tell, we’re now encouraging it all the more. With all the fanpages and Tumblrs and obsessive swooning over manipulative, closed-off assholes, what else is there to think? Michael B. Jordan’s character in That Awkward Moment, a recently divorced “nice guy” deserts his friends at a New York bar depressed because “the girls all seem to prefer the assholes.” As a girl who has gone out with her friends at New York bars and talked through many OKCupid relationships and potentials, I can say that despite the annoying “nice guy martyr complex”, he’s not all wrong. 50 Shades of Grey remains the most upsetting book I’ve never read because of this. (I read about half). Yes, in theory, a bestselling book expressing a woman’s sexual fantasies for women by a woman is empowering, blah blah blah. But the fact remains that the female character is REMARKABLY naive, sexually and otherwise, and her male sexual dominant takes advantage of this. This is not the relationship of equals exploring their sexualities, this is handsome Christian Grey manipulating a young immature virgin into becoming his contractual BDSM sex slave. Whatever happens after this is irrelevant to me, even if he literally morphs into Jesus. What is the world in which we accept this person as some sort of literary dreamboat?
In Crazy Stupid Love, Ryan Gosling tells Steve Carell that the war between the sexes was won by men “the second women started doing poledancing for exercise,” but he is wrong. It’s not lost, but we are losing with Christian Grey. And Klaus Mikaelson. And Eric Northman. And Loki. Yes, there is a line between your average human brokenness that should be forgiven and mended (Ryan Gosling’s man-skank character in Crazy Stupid Love springs to mind), and a complete lack of empathy and genuine instability. As a jumping off point, I’ll suggest that any character who has killed more than 6 innocent people outside the theater of war shouldn’t be your next imaginary husband. And as a guilty party, I am avowed– no more confusing interest with allure, complex characterization with attraction. Because dreaming about and fixating on fictional men with so many red flags of personality disorders is probably seeping into my subconscious and real life.