The rise of the female sociopath

Cersei Lannister in ‘Game of Thrones’.

Cersei Lannister in ‘Game of Thrones’.


I will never appear in a movie. But if I ever find a magic lamp and a genie emerges to grant me wishes, I will soon star in a musical.  My genie will cast me as the crazy, cruel beeatch rather than the sweet girl.

I’d rather shoot castles of ice from my hands as Elsa than sing about snowmen like Ana in Frozen, I’d prefer to shoot flames at the scarecrow than dance over Dorothy’s rainbow and I’d sooner be the murderous narcissistic Stepmother than sweet stupid Snow White.

Claire Underwood in <i>House of Cards</i>.

Claire Underwood in House of Cards.

I’ve grown up both admiring and questioning the female villain.  The crazy, angry, loopy witches and bitches, the cruel stepmothers driven mad by jealousy and ageing, the spurned sad single stalkers turned bunny boilers and ankle breakers, the psycho mothers, the women on the verge or in a nervous breakdown, the ambitious wives who manipulate their husbands to murder. 


But even Lady Macbeth felt remorse.

The new female villainous character in town has none.  She is the sociopath.

Angelina Jolie as the sociopathic Lisa Rowe in <i>Girl, Interrupted</i>.

Angelina Jolie as the sociopathic Lisa Rowe in Girl, Interrupted.

Psychopaths and Sociopaths actually don’t exist anymore as a official diagnosis in the US and Australia.  In the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for professionals they now come under ‘Antisocial Personality Disorder’. Yet they remain in popular use as interchangeable labels for people who are social predators; those who charm, manipulate and ruthlessly plow their way through life, who lack feelings for others, take what they want, do as they please and have no guilt, regret or remorse.

Successful sociopaths can be very successful in business and finance, while unsuccessful ones end up in jail. Experts point out that female sociopaths are rare and men are seven times more likely to be diagnosed.

Yet a recent article pointed to their rise in popular culture. 

The writer theorises that female sociopaths have risen thanks to corporate feminism. I find that a bow longer and stronger than Sharon Stone’s sociopathic legs in Basic Instinct (yet I do concur with some of the points about women having to act like men to succeed).

So let’s look at the rise of the female sociopath.

Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones is the first that springs to mind. I’m going to out myself and say I’ve never really got GOT, but I’ve seen her scheming in sections and know she is the most hated character in the series (Well, maybe after Joffrey).   

Even those furious about her rape scene were more angry at the producers deviating from the books and going for shock value than at Cersei’s violation. (The wrath over the director’s argument that it was ‘consensual at the end’ was understandable.)

In 2012 it seemed every woman not devouring the Fifty Shades of sex books were gasping at the manipulative gall of Amy in Gillian Flynn’s phenomenally successful novel Gone Girl. In case you missed it, have no fear -- it’s soon to be released as a film.  

I’m one of those annoying people who always guess the twists in books (too many murder mysteries as a teenager) but I still remember being shocked while simultaneously annoyed at Amy’s mercilessly calculating behavior and elaborately cruel revenge.

On the one hand I understand writer Gillian Flynn’s frustration with one dimensional spunky or victim like female characters and her refusal to believe that women are innately good and nurturing.  I agree we need more female villains.  Yet I’m troubled by the fact the movie will no doubt be adored by men’s groups who point to evil women who make fake allegations of violence and entrap men.  Amy is a misogynist’s pin up.

Elsa is not my favourite ice queen this year. Robin Wright’s portrayal of Claire Underwood, the Machiavellian wife of Kevin Spacey as President in House of Cards makes me shiver.

While she and Frank are equally calculating and conniving in the way they use, abuse and destroy others to gain power, she has none of his Southern charm. As I recoil from her infinitely calm and infinitely cruel persona I do question whether she’s more scary than Frank because we expect more softness from an ambitious woman than a man desperate for power.

We have seen sociopaths in film before.  I realised that Angelina Jolie was going to be huge when she acted Winona Ryder into the ground playing sociopathic Lisa in Girl, Interrupted.

And who could forget Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct? She was a sociopath so cool she could cheat a lie detector and wield an ice pick as a weapon. Interestingly several well known actresses turned down that role fearing that portraying a sociopathic bisexual killer would ruin their career. 

Perhaps Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest may have been a sociopath, but while she utterly lacked compassion, she had lacked any charm as well. I have to pay homage to Glen Close in Dangerous Liaisons (1988) which was based on one of the earliest depictions of female sociopaths in literature: the 18th century novel Les Liasions Dangereuses (pardon my French). 

I remember not being able to breathe as I watched Glen Close’s cruel vengeance play out in the ruination of a young Uma Thurman. Yet perhaps her grief in the end of the movie disallows the diagnosis. 

It’s clear these women have shock value nearly as powerful as the king of all psychopaths Hannibal Lecter -- despite their far less horrific crimes.  We expect women to be compassionate, loving and kind so it’s more confronting when they are remorseless, cool and calculating. More so when they use their sexuality to manipulate poor defenseless men.  Perhaps the sociopathic stars are rarer, more reviled and less admired because of those very reasons.

Last week, the real ‘Wolf of Wall Street’, the sociopathic skin crawlingly charming Jordan Belfort appeared on ‘60 Minutes’. It seems he was expecting an easy ride with the usual blokey jokes about all the whores, blow and blowjobs his money bought him while he lived the high life. Instead, he got Liz Hayes who roasted him slowly, asking him if he’s really paying back the victims of his stock market swindle.

Interestingly, the audience reaction was largely split along gender lines – most men tweeted and commented that he was a ‘legend’, a ‘master’ and a ‘king’, while women thanked Liz for taking ‘the thief’ to task.  He was given a much warmer reception by Kyle and Jackie O, where he took the opportunity to call Liz a ‘f-ckwit’.

Perhaps women like calculating, cruel characters who manipulate and deceive, ruin and hurt, just as much as the blokes.  Even so, I probably won’t ask my genie to cast me as someone too empty inside.