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.







  • Well I am a guy and I would never think of the Wolf as a ‘legend’, or a ‘master’ let alone a ‘king’. As far as I can see he is just a douche who got manipulated by 60 Minutes into spitting the dummy then went out and complained about Liz Hayes and 60 Minutes to anybody who would listen.

    I reckon thats exactly the response 60 Minutes was hoping for. It builds on their "reputation" for hard hitting journalism. It made from some very startling promos which probably got people to watch 60 Minutes who normally wouldn't. I can't see any downside from this for 60 Minutes.

    Date and time
    May 20, 2014, 9:48AM
    • I think as we propel further and further into the cyber world where communication and intelligence is the new nuclear bomb women villians have come into their own because now they don't have to hide behind bombs and muscles. The fight is getting more equal and more equal every day.

      I do have a theory women will be running the world by the end of the century because of this.
      As a white middle aged guy "we;ve had a good run"

      Date and time
      May 20, 2014, 9:56AM
      • Shouldnt people be glad that we now have equality amongst the villains, and the women are not just the victims.

        And none of the ones you have named, perhaps other than Cersei, can match Hannbal Lector.

        Date and time
        May 20, 2014, 9:59AM
        • Psychopathy has never 'existed' in the DSM - that has not changed with the fifth edition. It is a diagnosis developed by Robert Hare, who also is responsible for the checklist to diagnose. However, psychopathy is a term generally accepted in the world of psychology, despite not being present in the DSM.

          Date and time
          May 20, 2014, 12:19PM
          • True, but "antisocial personality disorder" is recognised in the DSM-IV - it is on Axis II, cluster B. I am not sure if it has been kept in the DSM-V.

            Similarly, the ICD-10 has a diagnosis of "dissocial personality disorder" - its code is F60.2.

            To a substantial extent the diagnostic criteria for these reflect the concept of psychopathy.

            Dr Kiwi
            Date and time
            May 20, 2014, 3:47PM
        • What about the Homeland series where the lead character Carrie Mathison (Clair Danes) has this “modern madness". Funny how it used to be that external forces conspired to “mind control” the hero figure. Now it's the return of the female 'hysteria' of 100 years ago. Women can't be (seen to be) effective without the mask of madness?

          Date and time
          May 20, 2014, 2:03PM
          • It's got nothing to do with women and everything to do with portrayal of mental illness. Crowe's character in A Beautiful Mind couldn't perform as well on the medication that blunted his mind. Were the Powers That Be trying to show men can't be seen to be effective without madness? Of course not, you can see how silly that suggestion is by applying it uniformly. It's a bit of a trope, that the defect is their genius. Male or female it's just currently in vogue, or more realistic, or interesting or fun to write about having defective heroes. Will in Hannibal is "on the spectrum", Monk has OCD etc. No orchestration behind it other than to add flavour in TV land.

            Date and time
            May 20, 2014, 3:15PM
        • There are seven primary human emotions - guess how many of them are positive.

          Everything in the media adheres to these emotions. Says a lot really...

          Date and time
          May 20, 2014, 2:29PM
          • There's this weird strain of misogyny that suggests female sociopaths are somehow even "worse" than male ones. I remember when I used to work at a women's gaol, people would frequently exclaim, "Wow, that's even worse than the men's, right?!" They'd painted themselves a picture of a place full of psycho bitches and rabid bunny boilers, also on the
            (false) assumption that women need to engage in worse offending behaviours than men in order to end up in gaol, so they whole place must be swarming with the worst of the worst.

            I always found that totally baffling, as from my observations, this wasn't true at all! Actually, like in most gaols, the majority of prisoners were pretty much normal people, mostly there due to drugs, poverty and petty crime. Yeah, you got a few highly violent, personality disordered women, but actually rather fewer of this type than you saw in the men's wings.

            Still, the double standard remains. A woman behaving antisocially is still perceived as "worse" than a man because she's breaking a tighter mould of social expectation to be "nice" and prosocial.

            On an aside... can't WAIT for the Gone Girl movie! With Neil Patrick Harris!!! I just hope they can avoid the slant of making Nick look like a hero, when he's actually almost as repellent as Amy.

            Red Pony
            Date and time
            May 20, 2014, 2:40PM
            • Red

              The weird strain of misogyny would appear to be of your own making, as the article does not allude to female sociopaths somehow being worse than their male counterparts. As an avid feminist, perhaps you should be applauding that these roles are now being shared without gender bias.

              Date and time
              May 20, 2014, 4:08PM

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