Sunday, October 7, 2012

Trope: Folkloric Psychopathy



One of the things I find most annoying in popular storytelling is how people don’t seem to understand that psychopathy both exists and has a lot of scientific literature based around defining it. People often treat psychopaths like vampires or werewolves: some folklore figure that can be defined by the individual author. Vampires didn’t look handsome until Bela Lugosi, they didn’t die in the sun until Nosferatu, and it wasn’t the sun that killed them until the 1958 Hammer Dracula. Since then, vampire movies play around with the seductive figure and the aversion to sunlight, making them have everything from eyesight unsuited to bright light to diamond skin that sparkles. Writers have free reign with the vampire myth because there are no real vampires out in the world. For some reason, writers seem to think that psychopathy is also just a popular story that they can play around with, which can have some problematic consequences.


Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which was adapted into the movie Blade Runner, features androids: artificial creations that look exactly like humans and can only be detected by their lack of empathy. There’s a passing reference to them being impossible to tell apart from schizoids, but there’s the assumption that all schizoids would be imprisoned in asylums. That’s stupid, as psychopaths are everywhere and wouldn’t just be rounded up. There is, in fact, no reason for the androids at all, as the androids could just be called psychopaths. He treats the idea of people without empathy as a novel idea that he could explore with his fictional life form, as if he were the creator of psychopathy himself and has free reign with the idea.

It’s also popular to say that empathy is part of the human soul, and that psychopaths are people without souls. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Supernatural, and the latest incarnation of V have all used this subtrope. Buffy has people switching their souls in and out fairly often, usually to explore the characters when they suddenly lack empathy, but there is an Angel episode that confirms soulless human beings can be born in this universe. On the other hand, Supernatural and V treat human psychopathy as if it never actually happens. Supernatural has Castiel accidentally make a psychopath when he yanks Sam’s body out of Hell without Sam’s soul coming along. Several characters react with shock because Soulless!Sam is something entirely new. In V, the aliens are all psychopathic until they wear human skins and get souls, and Anna is trying to figure out how to get rid of the soul so she can control humanity, as if psychopaths wouldn’t be ten times harder to control.

The book series Dexter and its show adaptation start out as good portrayals of a psychopathic serial killer, who is amusing to have as a protagonist because of his insightful commentary on the inanities of American culture, but after the first two installments—first two books and first two seasons—the quality rapidly declines as this trope comes into play. Author Jeff Lindsay decided that what his series really needed was to have Dexter’s psychopathy explained as him being possessed by the spawn of Satan and to have a plotline involving him being targeted by devil-worshipers. The show fortunately avoided this route, but it did start changing Dexter to make him more lovable by the non-psychopathic audience through making him become more and more empathetic as the show goes on while still calling him a psychopath.

This trope manifests in a sexist way when psychopathic traits are given to female characters without actually making them psychopaths. Our patriarchal mythology is filled with examples of evil women who must be strictly controlled, and horror stories about evil women tend to have similarly sexist themes. Even though modern stories are influenced by feminism, classic story themes are often still retained in problematic ways. There’s a pervasive sexist meme about women being granted too much power because they can lie about being raped or abused or pregnant or whatever to control men. The few women who actually do things like this display a nature I would characterize as psychopathic or otherwise indicative of some form of mental illness. I’m fine with fictional depictions of evil, controlling women when they actually indicate that the character is psychopathic, as in the case of Lila from Dexter. Due to psychopathy being treated as folkloric, however, many such evil women are depicted as really being good deep down and just fell into bad behavior at some point, as in the case of Siobhan in Ringer and ambiguously with Yo-Saff-Bridge in Firefly, and this perpetuates misogynistic themes.

As with people in general, a lot of feminists don’t understand psychopathy very well and just point at female characters that display these certain traits and label them anti-feminist. Then some MRAs will come along and scream about how they have anecdotal evidence that women really are like that, and the feminists will call them liars, and it turns into a big shouting match. The truth is, they’re both partially right and wrong. Psychopathic women do exist, and they do things that match up pretty well with the fictional depictions of evil women. Female psychopaths should be acknowledged as part of the world and realistically depicted regardless of anti-feminist tropes that run along similar lines. However, they need to be accurately depicted as psychopathic or else they are simply the anti-feminist trope.

Those unfamiliar with studies of psychopathy can follow this simple guideline: Is the character rotten to the core or do they show flickering signs of empathy? Are you dealing with the sadistic Emperor Paplatine, or Darth Vader, who will kill Paplatine to save his son? Are acts of justice performed because of cold reason about how society functions or because of innate feelings? Generally, the character about which you would say yes to the first questions would be a real psychopath, while the second would be a psych!-opath.

My main concern about this trope is from a feminist standpoint, but I also have concerns about people falling victim to psychopaths because they believe lies of modern storytelling. Could someone think psychopaths are really good deep down because they saw Dexter or Ringer depict such? If it’s such a pervasive meme, I think some people would consider it part of the wisdom of common knowledge. While normal victims of common knowledge have them doing stupid things like waiting an hour after eating before swimming, the effects aren’t really harmful. When talking about psychopathy, the storytellers have a duty to warn people of real significant dangers. This duty will always be neglected when we treat psychopathy as folkloric.

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