Amy Dunne of Gone Girl, Lisbeth Salander of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Cersei Lannister of Game of Thrones. If there's one thing these cold, calculating ladies can teach us, it's that we're captivated by the female sociopath. But how did she rise to such prominence in our cultural imagination? The answer has everything to do with corporate "feminists" and the way they teach women to "have it all."
Warning: Some spoilers ahead.
'Iconic Psycho Bitch' And Boss Bitches
There is only one fashion magazine in my apartment. It is the May issue of W Magazine, and I bought it for its cover, or rather for its cover girl, Rosamund Pike, who glowered at me from behind the grubby windowpane of a convenience store on Fulton Street.
When I went in to buy it, I remember thinking that there was something terribly wrong with her face. Half of it was perfect in the way that only a cover girl’s face can be, all long lashes and bold lips and cheekbones that slice so high and so clean they seem hand-painted. But the other half had been rubbed raw and flaky by a coarse towel, which she now pressed to her temple to draw her skin taut. One violet eye narrowed, her rouge smeared into ghost lips, she stared flatly at me as her face dissolved. But into what? Or rather, into who?
If you don’t know who Rosamund Pike is, you will soon. In October, she will appear in David Fincher’s film adaptation of Gone Girl, one of the most popular and addictive novels of the past decade, as Amy Dunne — the beguiling and cerebral housewife who stages her own murder and frames her philandering husband. Amy’s creator, the novelist Gillian Flynn, has proudly described her character as a “functioning sociopath,” which she is quick to distinguish from “the iconic psycho bitch.” The iconic psycho bitch, Flynn explains, is crazy because “her lady parts have gone crazy.” Think of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, so consumed with desire for Michael Douglas that she boils his daughter’s pet rabbit to death; think of Sharon Stone and Jennifer Jason Leigh (and Kathy Bates and Rebecca De Mornay) chasing men through dim rooms with sharp objects.
Unlike these women, the functional sociopath isn’t “dismissible” as a slave to her emotions. She is not outwardly violent. Patently remorseless, clear-eyed and calculating, she is chameleonic in the extreme, donning one feigned feeling after another (interest, concern, sympathy, simpering insecurity, confidence, arrogance, lust, even love) to get what she wants.
And why should she feel bad about it?
For M.E. Thomas, author of Confessions of A Sociopath, such affective maneuvers are tantamount to “fulfilling an exchange.” “You might call it seduction,” she suggests, but really “it’s called arbitrage and it happens on Wall Street (and a lot of other places) every day.” Whatever you choose to call it, its appeal is undeniable when linked to the professional and personal advancement of women. “In general, the women in my life seemed like they were never acting, always being acted upon,” Thomas laments. Sociopathy’s silver lining was that it gave her a way to combat that injustice, in the boardroom of the corporate law firm she worked for in Los Angeles, but also in the bedroom, where she marveled at how her emotional detachment let her commandeer her lovers’ hearts and minds. Somewhere along the way, pathology became recoded as practice — a set of rules for how to manage the self and others.
She is the apotheosis of the cool girl power that go-getter “feminists” have peddled to frustrated women over the last half-decade.
No wonder the female sociopath cuts such an admirable figure. Intensely romantic, professionally desirable, she is the stuff of fiction, fantasy, and aspirational reading. And while actual female sociopaths like Thomas are rare, and sociopathy isn’t even recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the female sociopath looms large in our cultural imagination. Amy Dunne may stand as the perfect example — a “Cool Girl” on the outside, ice cold within — but she is not alone. Of late, she has faced stiff competition from fictional females like Lisbeth Salander, the ferocious tech genius in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, or Laura, the shape-shifting alien who preys on unwitting men in Under the Skin. Network television has been even kinder to the female sociopath, placing her at the center of workplace dramas like Damages, Revenge, Bones, The Fall, Rizzoli and Isles, Person of Interest, Luther, and 24. Here, she has mesmerized audiences with how nimbly she scales the professional ladder, her competence and sex appeal whetted by her dark, aggressive, risk-taking behavior, and lack of empathy.
And so we lean in to the cultural logic of the female sociopath, for she is the apotheosis of the cool girl power that go-getter “feminists” have peddled to frustrated women over the last half-decade. The female sociopath doesn’t want to upend systems of gender inequality, that vast and irreducible constellation of institutions and beliefs that lead successful women like Gillian Flynn to decree that certain women, who feel or behave in certain ways, are “dismissible.” The female sociopath wants to dominate these systems from within, as the most streamlined product of a world in which well-intentioned people blithely invoke words like arbitrage, leverage, capital, and currency to appraise how successfully we inhabit our bodies, our selves. One could easily imagine the female sociopath devouring books with titles like Bo$$ Bitch, Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office, The Confidence Gap, and Play Like a Man, Win Like a Woman to hone her craft — to learn how to have it all. From atop the corporate ladder, she can applaud her liberation from the whole messy business of feeling as a step forward for women, when it’s really a step back.
The result is a self-defeating spectacle of feminism that finds a kindred spirit in Rosamund Pike on the cover of W, erasing her own perfect face to reveal that what lies beneath might be nothing. Like Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne, who confesses that she “has never really felt like a person, but a product” — plastic, fungible, ready to be consumed by anyone, at any time — the female sociopath is a product of a broken promise made to women, by women. She is a product poised to disappear into the immense darkness from which she came.
If You Can't Beat Them, Join Them
Female sociopaths are rare, making up only 15% of all those diagnosed.
Ask any psychiatrist, and he will tell you that the female sociopath is a rare, almost mythological, creature. Ask Dr. Robert Hare, perhaps the most prolific researcher in criminal psychology and creator of the Hare Psychopath Checklist (PCL-R), and he will place the ratio of male to female sociopaths at seven to one — practically unworthy of discussion, let alone veneration. The PCL-R, which Hare developed during his work with inmate populations in Canada, is widely considered the gold standard for identifying and discussing anti-social behavior — and by the same token, for identifying and discussing what constitutes “normal” social behavior. With it, researchers over the last decade have estimated that sociopaths comprise three to four percent of the U.S. population, or roughly 10 million people who regularly demonstrate a lack of empathy, a conniving and ruthless attitude towards interpersonal relationships, and immunity to experiencing negative emotions. A mere 1.5 million of them are women.
But when one reads the few serious monographs and many pop psychological treatises dedicated to the mysteries of anti-social behavior, it becomes perfectly clear that this line of scientific inquiry simultaneously assumes and replicates certain half-truths about how the average woman — the overly empathic, giving, nurturing, mothering “normal” woman — engages her interior world. What’s even more alarming is how these half-truths, authenticated by behavioral psychology, have snaked their way into our popular consciousness, only to emerge in the cross currents of a career-oriented “feminism” that has gained momentum over the past several years.
Part of the representational appeal of a female sociopath like Amy Dunne invariably comes from her relationship to a more recognizable female identity — the female as victim.
Consider how in his book Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us, Hare has far less to say about female sociopaths than he does about the kinds of women who are susceptible to the sociopath’s charms. Hare’s “favorite anecdotes” in this vein feature “nurturant women,” or those who betray “a powerful need to help or mother others.” Many of these women are in “the helping professions,” and thus have a tendency to seek out “the goodness in others while overlooking or minimizing their faults.” Teachers, social workers, counselors, and nurses — they all find themselves playing the empathic angel to the devil they know, but refuse to acknowledge. Hare warns that such women are “ripe” for being “drained” of their financial, sexual, and emotional reserves; swept off their feet, turned upside down, and violently shaken until every last feeling has fallen away.
To marshal evidence for his claim, Hare pauses to ventriloquise what these nurturant women might sound like. Some are too confident in their own abilities to change a man: “‘He’s got his problems but I can help him.’” Others are warm, fawning, and pathetic: “‘He had such a rough time as a kid, all he needs is someone to hug him.’” Do these lines come from individual and anonymous women, who were asked to dredge up painful memories as psychiatric testimony? (They strike me as too forward-looking, too cartoonishly optimistic for that to be the case.) Or has Hare simply crammed these stilted expressions into the mouths of all women whose professional or personal responsibilities involve some kind or any kind of emotionally laborious behavior? What woman would not fall into this enormous category? And what man, for that matter?
Perhaps I’m being unfair to Hare by treating these momentary lapses in language as revealing gender bias more broadly. (Or perhaps that last sentence unconsciously reflects my nurturant side taking over, anxious to find the good in others while downplaying their faults. After all, I too have lady parts.) Either way, it would be foolish to think that such sweeping alignments between the fact of one’s gender on the one hand, and the crude architecture of one’s emotional capacities on the other, doesn’t haunt the work of even the most conscientious researchers.
In the work of less conscientious researchers — or outright charlatans — these quiet biases are amplified as salacious, pseudo-scientific “facts,” and circulated in a thriving subgenre of self-improvement books, addressed to women who find themselves routinely bamboozled by sociopathic personalities: Women Who Love Psychopaths, Red Flags of Love Fraud, 10 Signs You’re Dating A Sociopath, How To Spot A Dangerous Man Before You Get Involved (which comes with a fill-in-the-blank companion workbook), The Manipulative Man, and The Sociopath In My Kitchen, to name just a few examples.
When women are being marginalized or exploited, the responsibility rests partially, maybe entirely on their trembling little shoulders.
From this bookshelf come accusations of psychical failure, poisoned arrows slung at the female reader in the second person. You scurry about the house or office in a “mild mannered — even passive” way. Your demeanor “lacks confidence.” You are “not assertive,” and thus you invite bullying. You must “learn to be resilient” and “detached” so you can sashay away from hard-hearted men “knowing that you can thrive.” Once again, the message is maddeningly consistent. When women are being marginalized or exploited — which they always are — the responsibility rests partially, maybe entirely on their trembling little shoulders.
More and more, you don’t have to have dated a bad dude to recognize this bleak logic. You need only click your way to the homepage of The Atlantic to read articles like Katty Kay and Claire Shipman’s “The Confidence Gap,” which begins with this rousing performance of finger-wagging:
For years, we women have kept our heads down and played by the rules. We’ve been certain that with enough hard work, our natural talents would be recognized and rewarded.
But the hard work has not paid off, nor have women’s natural talents been rewarded. The authors pin this on the idea of a “confidence gap” between men and women, a breakdown of female morale that explains why women are paid less and promoted less often than their male counterparts.
Instead of questioning the desirability of workplace “confidence” — instead of asking, for instance, why we valorize review processes that reward employees for overestimating their capabilities, or why we conflate braying “outspokenness” with doing a good job — Kay and Shipman eviscerate women for falling short of the expectations that their male superiors have normalized as workplace success. The authors conclude on an impatient note, exhorting self-reflective women everywhere to “stop thinking so much and just act.” One wishes they had thought a little harder before they wrote that sentence — a swift stab in the back for any woman who has ever heard a rueful, angry, or deflated man exclaim, “I can’t believe how much you think.”
On television, female sociopaths seem to be winning battles that benefit all women, everywhere.
If you can’t beat them, join them. This is the rallying call that issues from Kay and Shipman, and it has proven irresistible to the figure of the female sociopath. Emily Thorne of Revenge “behaves like a sociopath,” according to the actress who plays her, because she is “a vulnerable, hurt, angry young girl who ultimately wants to rid herself of those feelings.” Playing master manipulator Patty Hewes on Damages “toughened” Glenn Close, leading her to proclaim that the show and the women it depicted “were not for sissies.” Even Quinn Perkins of Scandal has, over the past season, managed to cultivate a “high-functioning sociopathy” that has transformed her from former CIA agent Huck’s damsel in distress to his adversary — a preternaturally gifted hacker who manages to make the art of torture sexy.
Given what we see when we turn on our televisions, it seems hard not to endorse the idea that, as female sociopaths, these women are winning battles that benefit all women, everywhere, in their fight for equality.
Disgust, Denial, Blame
On screen, female sociopaths — and the women who admire them — may seem like they’re gaming systems of inequality in their personal lives or in the workplace. They are coolly, briskly confident. They are dismissive of the labor performed by mothers, homemakers, or workplace softies. They leverage their emotional intelligence; they toy with the vulnerabilities of their co-workers, lovers, and family members to secure positions of power denied to women more generally. But when the language of corporate success and “feminism” are so closely aligned, old biases have a way of striking back at women.
Just ask M.E. Thomas, the pseudonymous author of Confessions of A Sociopath and founder of the website Sociopath World, which Thomas started as a modest blog in 2008, but quickly morphed into the leading online forum for sociopaths looking for a community of sympathetic listeners.
That this virtual and ironic form of intimacy should radiate from Thomas’s writing is less unusual than it may seem. A full-time law professor somewhere in the southern United States, Thomas describes herself as a high-functioning, pro-social sociopath — an apostle for the belief that under the right circumstances, sociopaths can prove beneficial to society as ingenuous thinkers and ambitious leaders. If this doesn’t put her fellow sociopaths at ease, there’s also the fact that, when I spoke to her over the phone in March, she seemed unfathomably nice, her voice shot with just the right amount of charm.
Confessions narrates Thomas’s upbringing as a budding sociopath in a devout Mormon household, and her dawning recognition that “the label of girl was too limiting to contain my own grandiose conception of myself.” Sociopathy became a way for her to score small victories over the men who tried to limit her agency in a variety of domestic and professional contexts: her emotionally overbearing father; the lascivious principal of her high school; the partners at a prestigious Los Angeles law firm, where she billed long hours while luring her hapless supervisors into thrilling and untenable sexual liaisons.
“I couldn’t stand that such unfit people could have authority over me,” she complains. “And that was the double injustice of being a young sociopath and girl, too.” But the upside seemed clear. Female sociopaths, Thomas writes on her blog, could afford to be “less influenced by some of the defeating (and self-defeating) lessons that young girls are taught about a woman’s place in the world,” making them “very successful in their careers.” More than anything else, her statement recalled Sheryl Sandberg’s proclamation to women in her introduction to Lean In that we are “hindered by barriers that exist within ourselves. We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small.”
Despite its uncanny resemblance to a book like Lean In, which was released two months before, Confessions of A Sociopath debuted to mixed reviews, many of which fixated on Thomas’s gender. Writing in The Boston Globe, Julia M. Klein noted the fact that “the author is female somehow makes Confessions of A Sociopath even more chilling. It is hard to shake the sense that the book is the work of a male, so cool is the narrative voice. One might argue that sociopathy […] is maleness taken to a dysfunctional extreme.” Jon Ronson pointed out in The New York Times that we have “only her word that Thomas is the woman she says she is,” and, by extension, only her word that she is a woman at all.
Perhaps in response to these suspicions, Thomas appeared on the Dr. Phil show, handsomely made up and wearing a long, off-centered blonde wig. As she answered Dr. Phil’s blustering questions with poise and self-possession, the camera cut to audience members — all of them women — who wore not looks of horror, but of appreciation, even of admiration. Unlike the book’s reviewers, Dr. Phil’s strategy for disarming his guest was not to undermine her status as a woman, but her credibility as a sociopath. Throughout the interview, he frequently interrupts Thomas to drawl in disbelief, “That’s not a trait of sociopathy,” to which she genially replies, “Have you known many sociopaths?” (His answer: “Yes. Oh, yes.”)
The two lines of attack converge at a perverse and illuminating angle, revealing the reluctance of scientists, psychiatrists, critics, and the public more generally to grant this identity to a woman. Thomas recalls that when she came out on Sociopath World as female, she received messages of fierce irritation from readers who followed her blog, many of whom insisted that she was a borderline case masquerading as an archetype. The situation she found herself in was a peculiar one; being a sociopath was one of the only means of asserting her strength as a woman, but everyone seemed determined to deny her that kind of power.
There’s something oddly touching about Thomas’s fight to be recognized as a sociopath; a fight that, for her, is as much about equal opportunity for women as it is about personal legitimization.
Among Thomas’s skeptics is Dr. James Fallon, neuroscientist, author, and bonafide psychopath. A big, bearish man with a dizzying breadth of scientific knowledge, Fallon is something of a legend in the psychiatric community for inadvertently diagnosing himself, the result of an experimental comedy of errors that he details in The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist’s Personal Journey Into the Dark Side of the Brain.
While studying the brain structures of violent criminal offenders in his lab at the University of California-Irvine, Fallon made the mistake of comparing PET scans (positron emission tomography) of his subjects’ brains with a scan of his own — the “normal” brain of a family man, respected professor, and law-abiding citizen. Except that it wasn’t. Fallon’s PET scan revealed the same structural anomalies of the psychopaths whose brains he had pored over, but unlike the psychopaths he studied, Fallon was not, and never had been, a violent criminal. In distancing himself from his subjects, Fallon jokes that his behavior conforms to what he describes as the socially useful and “female” art of manipulation — bartering compliments for loyalty, ingratiating his way into the lives of influential colleagues, posing as a sympathetic listener so that people will divulge their best gossip.
Read alongside Fallon’s appropriation of femininity to cast his sociopathy in a positive light, there’s something oddly touching about Thomas’s fight to be recognized as a sociopath; a fight that, for her, is as much about equal opportunity for women as it is about personal legitimization. Toward the end of our conversation, she wondered if Fallon had struggled with coming out in the same ways that she has; whether he has had to endure disbelief, recrimination, or the messages she receives from strangers — some of them self-identifying “empaths” — calling her a whore, a monster, a slut, the devil herself. She wondered if she would be able to advance her career as a legal scholar, after she was outed and ridiculed on the popular legal website Above The Law. She wondered if she would ever be allowed to adopt children.
Disgust, denial, blame. Bad mothering. This was what emerged when the female sociopath was championed overtly.
Fallon, on the other hand, seems to be doing just fine. In April, he attended the Tribeca Film Festival to speak on a panel called “Psychos We Love.” To his right sat Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad fame, and to his left, Terence Winter, the show runner for Boardwalk Empire and screenwriter of The Wolf of Wall Street. The moderator was Juju Chang, a television journalist who recently won an Emmy for covering gender inequality in the sciences. After the panel batted around some questions about the male psychos we love — Tony Soprano, Walter White, Jordan Belfort, Nucky Thompson — I raised my hand and asked if we, as consumers of culture, had a different affective relationship to female sociopaths and their ambitions to success. Winter looked confused and mumbled something about evil stepmothers. Fallon reached for science, explaining that one of the primary genes that encodes anti-social behavior is transmitted on the mother’s side. “You know when criminals tell their psychologists or a jury, ‘My mother made me do it?’” he asked jovially. “Well, there’s some truth to that.” Chang rolled her eyes at the audience, and then, perhaps remembering her duties as a moderator, sarcastically chimed, “Y-e-e-a-h-h, why don’t we have more female psychos?” and called for the next question.
Disgust, denial, blame. Bad mothering. This was what emerged when the female sociopath was championed overtly, and it looked nothing like the triumphs of Amy Dunne or any of the other smooth operators who make their weekly appearances on our television screens. But this is hardly surprising. When we accept as “revolutionary” the well-worn conditions that dictate how a man is allowed to be, and how a woman ought to change to match his success, there is no progress. Strong though she may be, even the female sociopath can be pulled back into the same old structures of sexism.
The cultural logic of female sociopathy may seem like a way to combat the injustices of being a girl, but the victories are always pyrrhic, the victors bloody and bruised from fighting hollow battles, alone, and on someone else’s turf. One can only imagine a future in which women lean in, speak up, and stand on their own teetering stilettos as boss bitches. Undoubtedly, there will be some other thing to blame them for — unquenched aggression, single-mindedness, cruelty, tiger motherhood — some other mechanism of self-sabotage to explain away decades of gender inequality by blaming its victims. And by then, what hope can we possibly hold out that the female sociopaths of the world will unite?
1. Women are less likely to carry the so-called “warrior gene”: a variant of a gene on the X chromosome that encodes monoamine oxidase A, otherwise known as MAO-A. MAO-A is an enzyme the brain uses to degrade neurotransmitters like adrenaline, serotonin, and dopamine — the biological compounds responsible for our pulse-fluttering, knee-knocking, fight-or-flight reactions. Carriers of the “warrior gene” produce lower levels of MAO-A, meaning their brains do not break down these neurotransmitters as quickly as the brain of someone without the warrior gene. Like obedient warriors, they are always primed to fight. And because men have just one X chromosome, while women have two, men are far more sensitive to the effects of the “warrior gene,” and thus far more likely to exhibit anti-social behavior. But there are also other warrior genes, about fifteen total so far, that are located on the X and Y sex chromosomes.