Pop Culture’s Problematic Portrayal of Psychopathy

In modern society, a person who blackmails, stalks, assaults, tortures, rapes, or murders their peers would not typically be someone you would want to associate with, much less sexualize and glorify. But for some reason, these reasonable social expectations have not managed to extend to movies or television, where characters distinguished by these psychopathic tendencies are seen as enviable, attractive and even erotic. 

Psychopathy, sometimes referred to as antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), is a term used to describe a psychological condition characterized by a lack of empathy and conscience. People who have this disorder are typically callous, manipulative and drawn to criminality, yet often give the semblance of normality or charm, a major reason why psychopathic characters in the media draw so much intrigue—a strange fascination that has extended over centuries. 

Some of the first representations of psychopathy in media were in the early 20th century, a term horridly misused to describe homosexuals, the unemployed and hypersexual women. As medical and social understanding improved in following decades, psychopathy took form in characters of the likes of Psycho’s Norman Bates, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’s Nurse Ratched, and East of Eden’s Cathy Ames (although it should be noted these characters were only recently officially diagnosed due to a more concrete understanding of the condition). With the widespread infamy of serial killers Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy, public perception of an obsession with psychopaths further evolved, characterized as high-functioning, intelligent and attractive. While modern representations are presented as more complex and refined, evidenced by characters such as You’s Joe Goldberg, Euphoria’s Nate Jacobs and Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne, traditional issues with their depictions persist—specifically mischaracterization of ASPD and romanticization of violent behavior. 

The romanticization of violent personas especially has endured as a historical oddity. This phenomenon was brought into the spotlight during the trials of serial killers Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer. Both men received thousands of love letters, proposals, and gifts from lovestruck female fans who seemed more than willing to dissociate horrific violent crimes from an attractive face. This behavior has been broadly translated into modern culture. Teenage girls continue to express their love for Bundy through social media, such as a TikTok trend where they pretend to be his victim. This obsession is also mirrored in infatuation for the equally attractive and inhuman fictional characters of Nate Jacobs and Joe Goldberg, a behavior that may not be as harmful as those relating to Bundy or Dahmer, but is still quite problematic and unsettling. 

In current culture, people are letting traits like intelligence, attractiveness, or sad backgrounds act as a pass for murder and assault. (Goldberg stalks and murders his love interests, and Jacobs blackmails and assaults peers to satisfy his sexual depravity, yet both are seen as desirable.) According to senior Stella Haskins, this is likely because “in today’s culture, people are fascinated by shocking and disturbing things… It’s more interesting in media for someone to be violent than for someone to be a good person.” Senior Stella Hofferman seconds this understanding, adding, “writers [often] subtly encourage their audience to sympathize with these characters.”

This romanticization can be especially harmful to victims of abuse or assault, seeing characters who may resemble their abusers not only being glorified but also defended and forgiven. Additionally, it creates bizarre standards of desirability and skews perceptions of what is acceptable behavior. Haskins explains, “Media showing attention to these things makes people think maybe they will receive the same attention for doing similar actions.”

Cinematic portrayals of psychopaths are also harmful because they seriously mischaracterize those who truly have ASPD. Psychopaths are automatically presumed to be intelligent, cunning and sophisticated, an assumption that is not only inaccurate but paints a picture of only one possible fate for people suffering ASPD. Other misconceptions due to pop culture stereotypes are that psychopaths are always men, always criminals and completely lack emotions, none of which is medically accurate. Most importantly, a few psychopathic traits displayed in someone do not indicate psychopathy, probably one of the biggest issues with modern portrayals in which anyone who acts in a remotely unsettling way is automatically labeled as a psychopath. 

However, it is important to portray psychopaths in the media, if nothing else, to bring attention to these types of behavior and make it clear that it is not an acceptable ideal. Additionally, it’s important for everyone to feel represented in pop culture, even people with ASPD. Especially as depictions get more complex and accurate, this representation will continue to be of great consequence in society. 

Overall, the balance between representing psychopaths accurately and pushing harmful stereotypes is fragile. As always, we must be extremely cautious when it comes to telling stories that aren’t our own.