The Female Sociopath: Myth or Monster? Mythic Monster?

Recent Billfold chatter Merve Emre has a new piece up on Digg about the explosion of female sociopaths in pop culture, from books (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl) to TV (House of Cards, Damages) and beyond.

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.

Emre’s using language very deliberately here: she starts a paragraph about feminism with Sheryl Sandberg’s motto “lean in” and ends with a nod to that hippie empowerment classic “our bodies, ourselves.” Even though she says here that “the female sociopath doesn’t want to upend systems of gender inequality,” later, she goes on to explore the idea that “as female sociopaths, these women are winning battles that benefit all women, everywhere, in their fight for equality.” In other words, sociopathy = feminism, taken to a logical extreme! Women become sociopaths to succeed, and even if they’re not doing it FOR feminism, it benefits feminism. I’m … not sure about that?

It might not be helpful to use the term “sociopath” in this argument. It is an extremely narrow and specific medical term that Emre is using to encompass a pretty broad array of traits. Lisbeth Salander for example is introverted, socially maladjusted, and quite capable of violence, but she’s not “glib and superficially charming,” “a pathological liar,” “incapable of love,” or many other things sociopaths typically are. Neither, I’d argue, is Tony Soprano — I felt disappointed, even cheated, by the way the final season of the show tied him up neatly with a diagnostic ribbon. At least creator David Chase showed his work, though: we watched seasoned psychiatrists weigh evidence as they came to their final conclusion about America’s favorite New Jersey mob boss. Still, it took Dr. Melfi seven years. How can we laypeople possibly diagnose pop culture characters from the couch? Can we really be trusted to recognize the subtle distinctions between “psychopath” and “prick”?

If we move away from “sociopath” as shorthand, though, Emre’s larger point becomes easier to stomach. She seems to be asking, Do women have to act like men — not nice guys, it goes without saying, but brash, narcissistic, manipulative, power-hungry, refusing-to-acknowledge-their-privilege guys — in order to succeed? Sure, anyone would find it easier to ascend a throne by being cold and calculating, at least to a degree. But Peggy has done okay on “Mad Men,” rising to a managerial position without trading in her ovaries for brass balls. So has Joan, now a partner at a major Madison Avenue ad agency. So have central characters on “The Good Wife,” “Parks & Rec,” “Homeland,” and even, the increasingly depraved Quinn aside, “Scandal.”

Contemporary feminism, in the form of apostles like Sandberg and the authors of “The Confidence Gap,” may be coaxing women to act more like men in some ways in order to succeed in traditional male spaces. (Those spaces being where power can be usually be found.) But women will not achieve social equality by being as cruel as the most ambitious male jerks. That is not what feminism advocates. No one burned their bra for the opportunity to be as big a prick as the guy in the corner office. No one burned their bra at all, actually, but that’s a post for another day.

Maybe the more interesting question is the degree to which any of us feels that we have to be a jerk, or act like one, to get ahead. Can we succeed and retain our more Mike-ish qualities? I really want the answer to be “yes.”

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