In “Mad, Bad Romance” an article published in The Sydney Morning Herald, a large Australian paper, Christopher Scanlon explores the popularity of male characters that have the markers of “compensated psychopaths.” While Scanlon admits that mad, bad male characters have long populated literature and film, he argues there is a new twist to the male baddie – he is now framed specifically as “boyfriend material.”
While Scanlon’s article focuses on Edward Cullen (and kindly quotes my take on Twilight), the compensated psychopath Cullen represents is widespread in popular television dramas as well.
The article describes compensated psychopaths as people who have a “limited emotional repertoire,” are “incapable of feeling compassion or remorse,” are “socially withdrawn,” “controlling,” and “psychologically immature,” and, perhaps most dangerously, are “able to ‘pass’ as normal.” Don Draper of Mad Men, Damon and Stefan in The Vampire Diaries, Sam and Dean of Supernatural, Eric and Bill of True Blood, Dr. House of House, Dexter Morgan of Dexter, heck, even Simon Cowell of The X Factor all accord with many of these descriptors of a compensated psychopath. (Granted, The X Factor is not a drama in the traditional sense, but there is plenty of drama on the show that has, thus far, pitted the male judges against the female ones. Cowell has lately been trying to “play the nice guy” and frame Abdul as the baddie, presumably to hide his compensated psychopath attributes that have been readily apparent for many seasons of American Idol).
In addition to the fact the psycho males in television drama are framed as mate material, these characters (and reality show celebrities) are becoming MORE bad while simultaneously being more often framed as romantic, desirable, and sexy.
The bad-boy Byronic hero (which has been particularly associated with Edward Cullen) is by no means new.* However, in older iterations this type was undoubtedly “mad, bad and dangerous to know,” (as famously described by Caroline Lamb, one of Lord Byron’s lovers), but he was also punished rather than rewarded for his badness. Edward Rochester is blinded (a metaphorical emasculation) in Jane Eyre. Heatchliff did not get the girl.
Yet, today’s dramatic bad boys don’t suffer much literal let alone psychological punishment. Moreover, though they may not be familiar with open communication or able to articulate their open relationship desires (hello Don Draper!), and though they lie, commit extreme acts of violence, and largely treat females as pawns (Eric, Bill, Damon), they are generally represented as oh-so-hot. This being the case, the mock personal ad that opens Scanlon’s article: “PSYCHOLOGICALLY immature and nihilistic M. incapable of love with barely restrained urge to murder seeks F. for fun times and possible romantic relationship” seems particularly apt.
A few of these “bad boys” are, though frequent killers, less “bad” in other ways. For example, Dexter, a serial killer, is more “nice” than many current bad boys. Sure, he has murderous compulsions, but he is a good brother to Deborah, a caring father, and a committed partner. As a bonus, he has a zero tolerance policy for rapists and pedophiles. Sure, this zero tolerance translates into murder, but the underlying message is Dexter is “punishing” those the law fails to.Sam and Dean also have good intentions — they are trying to make the world demon-free with their badness. And they do feel remorse and display psychological and emotional maturity. Simon Cowell? Not so much.
However, even these “likeable” compensated psychopaths are hardly uber-positive models of masculinity. Where, in today’s television drama, is a good partner, BFF, or good brother/father/son material? (Please share your “good guy” characters in comments!)
Thankfully, there are a few good men out there in TV-land. It’s just that most of them reside in comedy and sitcom, not drama. I would gladly invite Cam, Mitchell and Phil of Modern Family over to dinner. Sure, they have their hang ups, but controlling women and lacking compassion are not among them. And I would love to have Kurt, Finn or Arty of Glee as male voices in my women’s studies classes.
The new fall line-up isn’t looking too promising so far in terms of positive male characters in dramas goes – at least not in shows such as The Playboy Club, Pan Am, Terra Nova, and Charlie’s Angels. Pan Am has the (so far) fairly likeable Dean, but my gut-reading tells me his co-pilot will turn out to be a compensated psycho. In Terra Nova, the “paradise” of the past that is supposed to represent hope for an entirely fresh start, militaristic white dudes still call the shots. This poster says it all, with Jim Shannon in a hyper-masculine stance and Commander Nathaniel Taylor standing on an armored vehicle wielding an automatic weapon. Jim’s family? They’re in the background.
Scanlon asks in his article, seemingly only partially joking, “Should the Twilight books and films come with a health warning?” Admittedly, not all males in media are mad and bad, but many are – more problematically, these baddies are now framed as THE good boyfriends, good fathers, and good leaders – as the heroes rather than the rakes.
Scanlon closes the piece noting that “as the father of a two-year-old girl I would prefer that her future media diet isn’t saturated by men whose emotional lives resemble those of the undead.” I echo his sentiment, hoping that all of our television diets can be made more palatable via the inclusion of positive male characters – not only for our daughters, but also for our sons.
Heck, reshaping norms of masculinity to be less violent, or less psychopathic, would be beneficial to society as a whole. And yes, before someone chimes in saying “it’s just entertainment,” let me pre-empt – nothing is ever just entertainment – as the sociologist quoted in Scanlon’s article eloquently puts it – “The media play an important pedagogical role in the socialization of young people” – and, I would add, in the socialization of all of us.
*For more on this line of argument, see “Rewriting the Byronic Hero,” by Jessica Groper in Theorizing Twilight.