Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Monstrous Masculine and the Rise of the Pop Psychopath

I've spent the last few weeks, in addition to working around the clock, working on a post about gender and androgyny inspired by my Kids in the Hall nostalgia trip. It occurred to me, however, that I should wait to finish it until I've finally read Judith Butler's Gender Trouble (which I just purchased as an e-book) and Mark Simpson's Male Impersonators (apparently going up as an e-book soon). Who knows, I might even get a publishable article out of all this research.

So instead I'll return to the topic that was originally going to be my next substantial post: the emergence of the male psychopath as a pop culture figure. Even though the topic gets heavily into gender, too.

In my previous substantial post, I suggested that pop feminism has validated, even valourized, female anger, originally as an expression of radicalized anger at the situation of women (directed against men), later, vaguely, as non-traditional gender expression. The assumption underlying the latter vindication of female anger is that female anger is culturally demonized. Although male anger is considered appropriate gender expression, however, that has not made it less demonized. On the contrary, it's the strong association in popular culture between men, anger, and violence that constitutes its demonization. If we want to examine negative gender stereotypes, there is nothing comparable among representations of women (not even the femme fatale of film noir) to the psychopath, who in the popular imagination is overwhelmingly male. And this applies to the most famous examples from life as well as from cinema; although here I won't be trying to tackle the former or the relationship between the two, which is far too ambitious for a blog post. Like many of my posts, in fact, this will consist of preliminary notes for a topic that would require massive research.

Precursors to the Psycho

Few would debate that the psychopath craze in movies was started with Norman Bates in Psycho (1960); however, his immediate precursors stretch back into the 1950s. We can attribute part of this shift in the perception of masculinity (like so many others), of course, to Marlon Brando's Stanley Kowalski, who burst onto movie screens in 1951 in Kazan's film of Streetcar Named Desire. Brando's Kowalski was a more primal, immediate, visceral version of masculinity; a fantasy of working-class masculinity that was received as more "realistic"; and characterized by a propensity for animalistic violence which, coupled with a wounded emotionalism, suggested mental instability. Sexy mental instability, of course; sexy because dangerous.

In the 1940s, movie masculinity still wore a suit, no matter how seedy that suit might be in film noir. As everyone knows, American film underwent a considerable darkening in the 1940s compared to the previous decade. However, it also went inward: both the 40s woman's film and film noir (which appeared to influence each other and produce hybrids from Mildred Pierce to Gilda) focused on the fractured interior life of female or male protagonist, respectively, and the emotions on display were hysteria and anxiety, regardless of gender. This Expressionistic investigation of neuroses was influenced by the belated American reception of Freud, which, however, wouldn't fully blossom in American cinema until the next decade.

As innumerable film commentators have noted, this focus of noir constituted a deconstruction of American masculinity, proving it ridden by doubt and fear, as well as "feminine" hysteria and anxiety. However, in the 40s there was still no strong association between masculinity and psychopathic violence. The noir protagonist is often a murderer, but passive nonetheless, like Tom Neal in Detour, so dissociated from his own aggression (which instead is foisted overwhelmingly onto the most aggressive of all femme fatales, Ann Savage's Vera) that he manages to murder twice "by accident." When he is associated with glamourous, tough guy violence, like Bogart in The Big Sleep, he is unmistakably heroic. Instances of full-blown psychopathy, as opposed to neurosis, remain the preserve of the villain, who in type is still the European or Europeanesque dandy-villain of 19th century theatre and literature (from Balin Munson in Gilda to Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt).

Interestingly, two of the earliest instances of the psychopath as villain protagonist or the "heroic psychopath" occur in 1950s literature written by women. Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley appeared in 1955, the same year that Flannery O'Connor's A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories was published. (The pertinent O'Connor story, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," was first published in 1953, according to Wikipedia.) O'Connor's Misfit, a nihilistic, religiously inspired roadside killer who believes that his lifestyle choice is the only logically consistent fulfillment of his agnosticism (if I've correctly paraphrased his, and his author's, tortured and tortuous reasoning), along with Highsmith's Ripley, personality thief and occasional killer of ambiguous sexuality, are surely the first iconic psychopaths per se. In France, however, the country that legitimized (and gave the name to) film noir, we can find a killer representing post-religious modern absurdism in a manner comparable to O'Connor's Misfit all the way back in 1942, with Camus's Meursault; who, however, seems to be more in the tradition of Kafka's protagonist-victims of obscure determinism, but with a new violence.

1955 also marked the original publication of Lolita in Paris, to be followed in 1958 by its publication in America, where it instantly became a bestseller, again according to Wikipedia. Although Humbert isn't exactly a psychopath, and certainly not a serial killer, the appearance and American reception of Lolita signaled a growing popular fascination with criminal protagonists and taboo sexual subjects. A film version of Lolita had to wait until 1962, when Psycho had already cleared the ground for taboo popular cinema subjects, with new levels of onscreen violence and sexual suggestiveness (not to mention their conflation in the shower scene), completing a process that had begun with Streetcar in 1951. Arguably the contemporary cinematic equivalent to Lolita was Kazan's Baby Doll (1956), with a screenplay by Tennessee Williams (naturally), adapted from one of his one-acts.

Throughout the 50s, Hollywood kept pace with American literature in its growing interest in psychopathology, criminal psychology, and violence. Even before Streetcar made it to the screen, there was Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place (1950), which did for the Bogart persona (established only half a dozen years earlier with Hawks's To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep) what Rear Window and Vertigo would do for the Stewart persona at the end of the same decade. Bogart's pointedly named Dix Steele is prone to rages, mood swings, and violence that the film treats as pathological and problematic. Ray would go on to deconstruct male anger and violence again in Bigger Than Life (1956), in which James Mason is a benign, mild-mannered 50s patriarch who becomes a filicidal megalomaniac when he's prescribed cortisone.

Most famously from the perspective of popular culture, Ray also directed James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). The psychiatric orientation of the film is evident from its basis in a 1944 book, Rebel Without a Cause: The Hypnoanalysis of a Criminal Psychopath by Robert M. Lindner (which I found out just this moment on Wikipedia). To me it comes as news that there was such concern about the clash of generations already in the early 40s, two decades prior to "60s youth culture"; and that it was already being expressed, through psychoanalytic language, as concerns about "psychopathy" and delinquency. To me this strongly suggests that the pathologization and criminalization of masculinity were at least in part a creation of American Freudianism, which was already well underway in the 40s; although obviously this thesis would require much more research (or perhaps readers can direct me to works on this topic). Under this analysis, or psychoanalytic lens, in any case, masculinity (as well as youth) appears as a social problem, well in advance of second-wave feminism.

Poster boy for "psychopathy"?

Dean's iconic performance linked Brando's new masculinity directly to the problematized and pathologized emergent youth culture (indirectly, Brando's Streetcar performance anticipated rock 'n' roll, on which the new youth culture would center). A year later, the bizarre late Joan Crawford vehicle Autumn Leaves anticipated the exploitation direction Hitchcock would take with Psycho: Cliff Robertson's character, like Norman Bates, is ambiguously neurotic or psychopath, whose violence and infantile neediness (both directed towards a martyred Crawford) exaggerated the two poles of Brando's Kowalski, as his relationship with Crawford exaggerated the steamy domestic abuse undercurrent of Streetcar. (Director Robert Aldrich was no stranger to pulpy exploitation: his 1955 Kiss Me Deadly brought misogynous asshole detective Mike Hammer to the screen, and his 1962 Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? did the same for female psychopathy, in fine Grand Guignol form.)

Mommy's masochism is a great big sponge, soaking up baby's anger.

The 60s, or the Classic Psychopath

It was Psycho, however, that canonized the psychopath of the popular imagination. From now on, "psychopath" primarily meant "murderer," and American fascination with the murderer as a pop culture figure (with a special fondness for the serial killer, and as opposed to murder, as something that an ordinary Joe like the hardboiled/noir protagonist might stumble into) became overt. Capote's In Cold Blood (1966) gave the topic the sheen of legitimacy of serious literature. In the meantime, the juvenile delinquent gained a stronger association with violence in Joe Orton's Entertaining Mr. Sloane, where the clash of generations is represented in no uncertain terms with the Grand Guignol coup de theatre of the unstable title character's spontaneous onstage murder of an elderly paterfamilias. Orton's debut was inspired by Harold Pinter's late 50s plays featuring menacing male intruders, and Pinter's screenplay for Joseph Losey's The Servant (1963), with a superbly menacing performance by Dirk Bogarde (alternating identities between gentleman's gentleman servant and lower-class low-life as Catherine Deneuve would alternate between icy upper-class prude and whore in Bunuel's Belle de Jour four years later), managed to beat Orton to bringing the "thug" back to his homoerotic origins in Williams's working-class Kowalski. Although as Morrissey's early 80s appropriation of James Dean proved, the juvenile delinquent or thug and his violence were implicitly homoerotic all along.

All masters love to be dominated.

Despite being a demonized version of masculinity, viewed as erratic, violence-prone, and criminal-tending, the psychopath was always vaguely queer, from his appeal as a vehicle for transgressive self-portraiture for female, but not "feminine," writers like O'Connor and (the lesbian) Highsmith, to the rumoured bisexuality of Dean (and his Martin-and-Lewisesque tender relationship with Sal Mineo's gay-coded character in Rebel), to Norman Bates's Mommy-dependency and cross-dressing (and portrayal by a homosexual actor), to Capote's legendary ambivalent identification with "sensitive" murderer Perry Smith. "Psychopathic masculinity" was associated not only with violence but also with queerness. The new, openly emotional masculinity to which Williams and Brando had given birth was in a perpetual identity crisis; and it was this, not male power or dominance, that prompted its violence. The new masculinity was more male (more sexualized, more violent) but also more female (more emotional, more "unstable"... and more pathologized).

Unruly Boys, Who Will Not Grow Up/Unruly Girls, Who Will Not Settle Down: the 70s

The apotheosis of the juvenile delinquent genre was Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971), in this case taking almost a decade to bring a controversial novel to the screen. Malcolm McDowell's iconic portrayal of Alex was bizarrely gender-bending despite its outrageous phallicism and misogyny (in my casual image search for this post, I found an image of a woman dressed up as Alex, alone among my psychopaths), and the psychiatric probing of and prohibitions against rebellious masculinity as a violence in itself is overt in book and film.

A nice, clean-cut boy

By the 70s, possibly as a result of radical feminism and/or popular backlash against it, portrayals of troubled female puberty and adolescence (other than as the j.d.'s sidekick) and female rage finally appeared with The Exorcist (1971) and Carrie (1976), and to make up for the lag in their appearance, they were several times more visceral (the former arguably the definition of "horror-porn," to use a term I got from Leslie Fiedler) than most portrayals of male psychopathy. I'm not sure if it was Camille Paglia or some other feminist theorist (or more than one) who pointed out that this is because of the direct link, in the cultural imagination, between femaleness and (voracious) nature. (An association that would be philosophically explored in many of Cronenberg's 70s exploitation films, as well as his "mature" work of the late 80s onward.)

Estrogen rage, and other side-effects

After taking the juvenile delinquent genre to its logical, operatic/bombastic conclusion with Clockwork Orange, Kubrick did the same with the male psychopath horror film with The Shining (1981). I assume I'm not the first to wonder if Orange and The Shining are counter-feminist bookends to the decade of radical feminism: the first literally reveling in misogyny (quite exhilaratingly, even for a female viewer, or at least this one), the second, the violent rage of the paterfamilias against prescribed domesticity. Although The Shining arguably accomplished, or enshrined, the cultural demonization of Daddy almost to the same degree that Psycho did for Mommy. Maybe along with Sylvia Plath. If the second-wave feminist movement was an influence on the horror movies of the 70s (which it surely was), it's in a variety of complex, contradictory ways.

The 80s to the Millennium

After the popular art film peaks of Taxi Driver (1976) and The Shining (1981), the male psychopath disappeared from pop culture for most of the 80s, with the exception of the slasher film genre that Psycho is credited with spawning. Perhaps filmmakers had to think of new twists, which started at the end of the decade with a couple of popular female psychopath films, Fatal Attraction (1987) and Misery (1990). Feminists cried "backlash" over the former, which represented the professional woman as a murderous stalker, desperately jealous of the domesticity she's denied herself; but maybe it's the modern horror film that's got an animus against domesticity. Remember, Daddy in The Shining has to get put down, too. Maybe the male and the feminist/phallic woman represent equal threats to a domestic unit imagined as being presided over by a sacred female guardian (not woman, but mother). (And not Norman's Mother, either.) In any case, Fatal Attraction was a last hurrah for the sacred nuclear family in the throwback-to-50s 80s, before everyone stopped caring in the 90s. Misery, meanwhile, has its roots in the Grand Guignol female horror tradition of Baby Jane rather than in Psycho. In fact, Kathy Bates's torment of an invalid (although male in this - post-feminist? - case) makes it a Baby Jane homage. Please allow me to pay homage to Mark Simpson's statement, "The feminist is Ms Whiplash" (found in context here), by suggesting that rather, the feminist is the woman breaking your ankles with a sledgehammer. At least in the male imagination (and legitimately enough).

A year later, the male psychopath experienced a giant resurgence with the film version of Silence of the Lambs and the publication of Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho. When you thought there couldn't be any more controversy over representations of sex and violence, Ellis managed it, and there was no movie version until 2000. Ellis's novel took aim at the sociopathy of yuppies and consumer culture, in other words looking backwards to the 80s, but the movie appeared at a different cultural moment and became a harbinger of the narcissistic, determinedy single masculinity of the metrosexual 2000s: Simpson namechecks it in the Salon.com article, "Meet the Metrosexual," that brought this figure (or rather, theory of contemporary masculinity) to American attention.

Metrosexual? Are you looking at me?

But Patrick Bateman was nowhere near as popular or iconic as Anthony Hopkins's hammy Hannibal Lecter (or differently, Britishly hammy, since Christian Bale is pretty damn hammy, Methodly hammy, in American Psycho). Lecter (especially in Ridley Scott's awful, arty-bombastic sequel) is something of a retrograde psychopath to set against the thoroughly up-to-date, anal-retentive psychopathy of Bateman: Lecter is the European dandy-villain, albeit with a grisly little habit. Yet Lecter's awesome powers of ass-kicking, combined with his old-fashioned appreciation of manners, somehow made him into the first psychopath to be not just sympathetic but a positive hero. A sort of hero antagonist in the first movie, he became an unambiguous hero in the popular imagination, presumably the reason for making him one in the sequel, which seemed (like the Psycho sequels, in fact) to essentially be fan fiction.


Lecter paved the way for the serial killer as sympathetic protagonist, even a sort of superhero, which was realized in the Dexter TV series, debuting in 2003.* There have been plenty of true crime and popular psychology books devoted to serial killers throughout the 80s and 90s, and I've read a few, and Dexter is portrayed far less as a sociopath (except for those urges to kill) than as an autistic person, alienated from social norms, including relationships. I would have to do some research to be sure, but my impression is that the popular fascination with real-life psychopaths or sociopaths surged in the 80s, whereas by the 90s autism presented the new challenge to our ability to conceptualize rare mental states that estrange the common notion of what it means to be human. On the other hand, if 80s yuppie consumers seemed a bit like benumbed sociopaths, carefully observing surface norms with Darwinian competitiveness surging underneath, maybe by the turn of the century autism was a better metaphor for an over-mediated pervading sense of numbness and unreality. Although how that differs from Meursault's sense of numbness and unreality circa 1942, I'm not too sure.

If on the one hand Lecter paved the way for the psychopath-as-superhero, he also paved the way for the superhero-as-psychopath, namely Lisbeth Salander. As a tattoo-updated version of the retrograde militant virtuous women of puritan imagination (for which see Fiedler's Love and Death in the American Novel), Lisbeth, as rape victim, is justified in doing absolutely anything she wants to: no amount of degradation or torture she inflicts on the villains can remotely soil her moral credentials. She is, therefore, the perfect action heroine or hero, which it took Larsson's apparently limitlessly masochistic (and sadistic) imagination to produce.

Homage a l'Orange

Lisbeth Salander doesn't quite fit the schemata of the male psychopath, although she may represent a fulfillment of the fantasy represented by Hannibal Lecter impossible for a male character, because rape, in the prurient puritan imagination of which the "rape culture" strain of feminism is simply a particularly pathological manifestation, is a crime worse than murder, morally justifying any retributive actions by the victim (at least in representation). And these retributive actions, like Lecter's acts of torture and murder in Hannibal (2001), are simply ways for the average viewer or reader to vicariously indulge in the guilty, pornographic pleasures of sadism and righteousness simultaneously.

Incidentally, I say all of this without having read Larsson's Millennium Trilogy; my impression of the series is based on Tim Parks's New York Review of Books article "The Moralist," which I read in the light of Fiedler's theory of the rape theme in English literature in Love and Death in the American Novel. I may yet read the series, and may enjoy it even if I'm right about it. After all, as Paglia pointed out, art and literature are full of sadism and perversion, often disguised as moralism, as in Spenser's Faerie Queene (which introduced the rape theme, according to Fiedler). (That I have read.)

I'm considering reading the series despite my experience of being disappointed by popular literature (as well as "literary fiction") because I can't get away from the weird similarities (which I've mentioned on this blog before) between Larsson's life and writing and the life and writing of Roberto Bolano, the millennial darling of the same literati who turn up their noses at Larsson and Lisbeth. Larsson was born in 1954 and died in 2004, aged 50; his bestselling trilogy was published posthumously, starting in 2005. Bolano was born in 1953 and died in 2003, aged 50; his epic masterwork, 2666, was published in 2004. Larsson fought as a journalist against right-wing groups in Sweden, and his anti-right wing crusade informs his trilogy; Bolano gives a bizarre account of imaginary right-wing zealots and crackpots in Nazi Literature in the Americas (1996; English translation 2008), which I have nearly finished reading and will review when I have. (Its dark fascination with violence and sadism has, I'm sure, coloured this post, which I conceived before I started reading it.) While for the average North American, Nazism seems like a curious, antiquarian interest, just over a decade in, the new millennium has seen the rise to mainstream influence of the extreme right-wing Tea Party in the United States and the fascism-inspired mass killings of Anders Breivik in Norway. Suddenly, right-wing "fringe characters" are of urgent interest to us all once again.

In fact, when I read the August 15 Newsweek article on Michele Bachmann, "The Queen of Rage" (the one with the notorious so-called "crazy eyes" photo), I was struck by a quote that the writer featured from one of her sympathizers, Donna Fouts, 73: "Well, I'm sick of all them other politicians that tell me what to do with my life. Something about her tells me to follow her." I could hear the very intonations, as well as the reasoning, of O'Connor's Grandmother in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," and thought, here we are back in 1955, with the socially and politically alienated responding to religious "rage"... while over in Norway, Anders "The Misfit" Breivik is going to make us all good people by putting a gun to our heads (and firing).

2666? 2011 feels pretty apocalyptic to me.

In addition to his fascination with Nazis, Bolano was also fascinated with serial killers, which is thematically prominent in 2066. Like Larsson, Bolano was a fan of crime and detective fiction who managed to transform it into something else: something with broader popular appeal, in Larsson's case, and something with greater critical appeal, in Bolano's. Bolano manages to give us serial killer fiction without a serial killer; the identity and motivations of the killer (or more likely, killers) remains mysterious despite several suggested "solutions." Instead of focusing on the killer, Bolano focuses on the crimes: the endless catalogue of forensically described dead bodies of raped, mutilated, and tortured women. The murders had a real-life model, and Bolano's portrayal of them is both feminist and misogynous: there's no attempt to hide, rather there is probably an attempt to evoke, a serial killer-like fetishism about these forensic descriptions and this exhaustive cataloguing, like Dexter's neat and orderly, fetishistic/ritualistic murder scenes on a grand scale (Dexter is, professionally, a forensic specialist).

The fastidious psychopath, for a hand sanitizer era

Conclusion: The Reign of Rage 

So here's where we're at in 2011 in terms of the psychopath in popular culture: a widely-acknowledged postmodern masterpiece (heavily informed by pulp and crime fiction) about serial killings with no killer, whose decadent art involves testing the limits of the writer and reader's tolerance for sadism; and the popular sensation of a psychopathic vigilante heroine who, thanks to retrograde attitudes to female sexuality that feminists have helped to keep in place when they should have been fighting them, is permitted through a double standard moral loophole to indulge the furthest extremes of the reader's sadism. Some of us may prefer plot momentum and cartoonishy charismatic characters, while others prefer literary experimentation and flourishes of the bizarre and erudite; beyond that, I think the fans of Bolano and Larsson are getting something suspiciously similar out of the authors' consciously millennial posthumous works. Namely, the underrated literary joys of vicarious sadism, disgust, and horror, especially as a reaction to millennial anxiety about where the hell the human race and is going (and has recently been).

All of the foregoing raises the question: why did the psychopath emerge as a pop culture figure, and will he ever go away? His appearance long predates second-wave feminism, reminding us that masculinity is not only a problem for feminism, and femaleness not alone in presenting a challenge to self-appointed guardians of society and culture. Gaining momentum during the 50s, he seems to have anticipated the cultural revolution of the 60s, which Paglia associated with "Dionysian energy," initially bringing a new surge of humanist optimism but ending in violence (much like the French Revolution). The 60s closed with the Manson Murders and Altamont. But the threat of violence was already there in the juvenile delinquent of the 1950s, who turned into the psychopath of popular imagination in 1960, at the start of the decade. In addition to Norman Bates, and with a direct relationship to 60s counterculture, there's Jerry in Albee's The Zoo Story, a visionary Village psychopath; the play was written in 1958 and first produced in the US in 1960. An acknowledgment of the energy of violence, and the violence of energy, was a part of the 60s (and the counterculture's hostility to bourgeois decorum and complacency) the whole way along.

But although the psychopath may have been a harbinger of the 60s cultural shift, he also long predated it (all the way back to the 40s, at least in psychiatric literature) and survived it. The sexual revolution was never just about "free love" and an increase of civil liberties regarding the private lives of individuals; it was also about a shattering of bourgeois decorum through an upsurge of sex and violence. Looking back on some of the classic movies of the 70s I mentioned above, the 70s would appear to be the decade of rage, and not just for women. One might also think of punk rock in the same decade. In the 80s, conservatism and decorum gained some ground again; while in the movies, hyper-masculine action heroes kept American free from Communism. Suddenly masculine violence was patriotic, rather than a threat to social stability. But the overall trend was still towards greater and greater social permissiveness, and especially permissiveness of representation. By the 90s, Rambo had been replaced as American hero by Hannibal the Cannibal, the first time the European dandy-villain was ever put in that service, and it was because he could kick ass better than anyone else. With Lisbeth Salander, we show no signs of backing away from that representational trend. I mean, in The Passion of the Christ (2004) even Jesus had to be represented as the greatest ass-kicker of them all, as logic-defyingly proved by his ability to survive the ass-kicking of all-time (including death!).

When I started this post I thought I might be able to discover a link between feminist misandry and the male psychopath figure of popular imagination, but it does not appear to be the case. Rather, feminist vilification of masculinity per se (men as rapists and abusers; violence as the essence of masculinity) seems to co-exist with a wider cultural perception of masculinity as a threat. Again, this suggests: not just femaleness (as feminism would have it), but masculinity are a threat to the status quo. To think that all of these years, I considered ways to modify the argument that Psycho is misogynous, and it never occurred to me to wonder if it was misandrous. (I also forgot to mention Cape Fear, Scorsese's 1991 bombastic remake of a 50s Robert Mitchell film in which a convicted rapist wreaks similar, but far worse, havoc on a nuclear family than Close in Fatal Attraction; or the 1955 noir classic Night of the Hunter, in which Mitchum plays a vile Southern preacher and widow-killer who is both a kindred of the Misfit and nearly his symbolic opposite, given his defeat by a virtuous version of the Grandmother, which O'Connor could never have conceived. Scorsese's cartoon violent male villains are counterparts to the psychopath-as-superhero: superheroic in power, they are nevertheless finally defeatable. The Coen Brothers seem to have picked up where Scorsese left off with this. Are films like Gangs of New York, which I saw, and No Country for Old Men, which I didn't bother to see or read because I figured it would be more of the same, critiques of the mythos of male violence... or additions to it... or misandrist epics? Or all three?)

(Incidentally, Cape Fear earned a photograph in Mark Simpson's blog post on misandry in popular culture, prompted by a tip by Quiet Riot Girl. You can find the post, which reproduces his 2002 review of a book on the topic, here, and below, tons of discussion, including my mild expression of initial skepticism towards the idea.)

By 2011 we love psychopaths more than ever before; in fact, they are our superheroes. Having accepted the tenets of moral relativism, the only morality we believe in when it comes to fictional characters is badassery, which is backed up by kickassery. I don't say that this is necessarily a bad (or worse) thing, or productive or reflective of actual increases in violence (private or political, on the streets or across the globe), nihilism, despair, or moral coarseness. Its fictive representation, however, is, at least, very non-Victorian. The violence, the sex, and the nihilism. (The despair is pretty Victorian though; as for levels of moral coarseness, I can't speculate.)

It's hard to know where the pop psychopath can go after Lecter and Dexter (a show I stopped watching after a few seasons because it turned out that I only had so much sympathy to spare for the moral dilemmas of a serial killer); but then, it was hard to know where he could go after Norman Bates, and really no one has ever surpassed the feat of Hitchcock and Perkins in making the first true pop psychopath always already lovable. But where masculinity studies might go is figuring out the precise nature of the threat that the masculinity embodied by "the psychopath" posed, and poses, to the status quo. (Unless it's already done that and I don't know about it.) God knows we've spent enough time and spilled enough ink and characters over the "feminine threat." What about the monstrous masculine?

Not So Original

In the internet era, you've barely had time to congratulate yourself on a clever concept before you've discovered that, of course, someone has already thought of it. So far I`ve only glanced at this blog post, "What We Talked About At ISA:  The Monstrous Masculine:  War Rape, Race/Gender, and the Figure of the Rapacious African Warrior," from the site The Disorder of Things, but it looks excellent, and far, far more politically informed than my modest little pop culture tour, though it also calls for further research. I can't even tell if the approach is feminist, or part of masculinity studies, or gender studies, or what. Clearly, cultural studies (or is it called international studies now, or is that different?)  has moved far beyond my meager version of feminism, as vanguardish as that was in 1991. (Wait, I'll find out that "the monstrous masculine" dates from, like, 1994.) However, if it's new to me, it may be new to someone who stumbles on this post, and it`s the first encouraging sign I've seen in what might be called contemporary "feminism," or might be better called post-feminist theory. (Bet that concept dates from 1972.)

(For a different example, I offer Quiet Riot Girl's intriguing post "Against Feminisms," and she may object to "post-feminist theory" in the comments if she wishes.)

Oh well, I'm not a cutting-edge theorist (in case you were deceived), just a blogger and a reader (and a film buff). So I'll leave you with instructions to puzzle over whose 1970s badass makeover was better, Robert De Niro's or Olivia Newton-John's:

*I feel like it was Jonathan Rosenbaum who gave me the idea that Lecter is a superhero, but in looking over his negative analysis of the popular and critical hoo-hah surrounding the film, the frankly titled "The Ill and the Sick," I can only find references to Lecter as as a religious figure, so perhaps "superhero" was my own gloss on his analysis.


  1. Interesting piece.But...

    Post feminist my arse! From that blogpost you reference:

    'After all, even naming a particular set of social relations as patriarchy might carry the whiff of the monstrous masculine, drawing all men as the zombie-like agents of a strange and terrifying power (this is, of course, the hysterical cry of anti-feminists everywhere).'

    You see, feminists call their opponents 'hysterical', the female hysteric being the oldest misogynous trope in the book!

  2. 'In fact, Kathy Bates's torment of an invalid (although male in this - post-feminist? - case) makes it a Baby Jane homage. Please allow me to pay homage to Mark Simpson's statement, "The feminist is Ms Whiplash" (found in context here), by suggesting that rather, the feminist is the woman breaking your ankles with a sledgehammer. At least in the male imagination (and legitimately enough).'

    I don't interpret Mark's essay about 'miss whiplash' in the same way as you. You are presenting a fictional, monstrous character as a representation of feminism as seen by men.

    But in Mark's essay, 'Miss Whiplash' is how feminism demonises and censors men and their sexuality. It is not the figure of miss whiplash that is important so much as the effects on how men are treated.

    And I don't think men on the whole do see feminism as 'miss whiplash' or as Cathy Bates. That is why Mark's essay stands out. it is a rare critique of feminist- dominated culture.

    I think you are suggesting men have a way of caricaturing 'feminism' in order to resist it. But I don't think they do.

  3. I don't think Travis Bickle is 'badass' I think he is intensely vulnerable, almost pathetic.

  4. The Lindner book doesn't seem to be about the 'clash of generations' at all. But rather about criminal psychopathology in adult men- or an adult man


    I think the 50s was the start of the narratives of generational conflict, really. The birth of the 'teenager' was very much post-war.

  5. That's too bad about the linked piece calling anti-feminists "hysterical." As I said, I'd only glanced at it so far. It's critique of feminism and attention to masculinity made me hopeful. Still looks interesting.

    When I glanced at reviews of the Lindner book, I thought I saw "clash of generations," but you may be right and I may be wrong. Naturally, I thought the birth of the teenager was post-war too, but any evidence otherwise is fascinating.

    As for Mark's comment, I'll take your word for what he was doing. As for me, I was making a joke! Although, I was serious in suggesting that the idea of being imprisoned by a terrorizing woman could have been a nightmare-fantasy produced by feminism. I was not suggesting that it was a conscious caricature of a feminist though, at all. I have no theory about how men "resist" feminism, and often when they do (in specific contexts), I support them. Like when my friend George Toles spoke up as a rare male voice directly challenging gaze theory in his essay "Mother Calls the Shots."

  6. Oh by the way, good morning, and thanks for commenting!

  7. For me, the difference between pre-feminist and feminist eras is in pre-feminist films, certain aspects of masculinity are presented as a problem - homosexuality, excessive flamboyance or consumption of e.g. drugs/alcohol, criminality,youth etc. But in feminist era culture, masculinity *itself* is presented as a problem. It's not the psychopaths who I worry about in feminist films but representations of 'ordinary' men. They are the ones who are pathologised.

    In Thelma and louise to name one example, yes a man who rapes is punished (with death!) but also Thelmas husband is shown to be an idiot, and a bully. And the truck driver is a sexist pig, and Brad Pitt steals Thelmas money, and Harvey Keitel is a wimp.

  8. Mark wrote about misandry in 90s Hollywood here, including Cape Fear I think.


  9. SORRY I missed the bit about Mark's post on misandry at the movies.

  10. With regard to your comments about pre-feminist and feminist era films, what I was trying to argue here is that masculinity *in itself* is pathologized and problematized well in advance of feminism (and in relation to the psychopath, this started at a specific, pre-feminist point). So my question is: a problem for who, or what, and how?

    Yes the caricatures of men in Thelma and Louise are pretty gross, however a) it was a feminist film by A MAN (if that makes any difference; Scott could have been overcompensating, or could have been trying to appeal to a female audience); and b) are they that much grosser than the caricatures of women (or for that matter men!) in the average Hollywood entertainment?

  11. You said on the misandry post of Mark's:

    'My tendency is to consider pop culture “misandry” as evidence of continued misogyny, perhaps given a new feminist-friendly sheen. As long as women are “the oppressed gender,” it will always be considered socially acceptable to lash out against men (well, acceptable anyway once you’ve reached a certain level of freedom of speech), because we always consider it acceptable to bash the powerful *in representation*. As theorists of comedy have pointed out (no, I can’t remember which ones right now), that’s why when a woman beats a man in comedy, it’s hilarious, but not when a man beats a woman. '

    Do you still agree with that?

  12. The script of Thelma and Louise is by a woman.

    And she spoke highly of the finished product as a loyal representation of the script.

  13. My statement on the post: No. I don't agree with it anymore. And that's your influence! By getting me to think about the topic more. Or rather: I think some pop misandry has that basis; that some women *and* some men allow women to "lash out" for that reason. But I no longer think it's a good reason.

    In the *history* of pop culture though, and comedy remains a good example, there has been that basis for letting women gain "the upper hand." For example, no matter how "misandry conscious" I become, I'm not giving up Preston Sturges's 'The Lady Eve' (directed, written, and produced by a man!), where the script calls for pompous male privilege to take a comic fall by having Henry Fonda get mercilessly knocked about.

    On the other hand, in film noir the man gets to shoot "Eve." In the stomach, in 'Double Indemnity.' And there are a lot of movies where women don't get treated very well ('Psycho' being an example excellent!) that I'm not giving up either. Art doesn't have to be p.c..

    And that's as much sense as I can make at the end of my workday, lol!

  14. yes but do you still think women are 'the oppressed gender?'

  15. I am not saying art should be PC. That would be a bit rich coming from a writer and editor of murder porn.

  16. Lol true. When I put on my theory hat I forget that we're both creative writers too. We'd both have a lot to answer for in terms of our representations of everyone!

    In the comment I meant to indicate that there is a perception of women as "the oppressed gender." I do not agree that in 2011 in the Western world women are "oppressed," although there remain certain perceptions of women I'm not happy about, especially concerning sexuality (a cultural construction in which men and women have both participated). Currently I'm in the process of trying to figure out what the feminist movement ever was by looking at its history and major examples of its theory, such as 'The Second Sex.' I'm not rejecting the very tenets of the movement until I can do so in an intellectually conscientious way. And until I've got a clear idea of what ought to take its place. Other than that, as we've been through *many* times, I rejected 90 per cent of contemporary feminist theory decades ago.

  17. Well maybe not 90%! There is no way Paglia rejects 90% of contemporary feminist theory. She certainly *acts* and talks like a feminist.

    Ok I guess you put 'oppressed gender' in quote marks I don't quite understand the point of that original comment, but you have changed your mind anyway.

    Feminism is not just theory it is also practice. You will have to study its practices too if you want to understand it. But some of them are hidden, by history and by careful rhetoric.

  18. The point of the original comment was to remark on gendered representations in the media. Which I thought was the topic under discussion.

    You, in turn, will have to define "acts and talks like a feminist" if I'm going to have any clue what *you're* talking about.

    And I'm well aware of the difference between feminist theory and feminist practice.

  19. sure - I am just saying studying theory isn't enough to understand 'the movement'.

    Acts and talks like a feminist - makes sweeping statements about men (and women), seems in competition with other women about who is the best 'type' of feminist/scholar, puts down whole sections of men academics and theorists, makes what I consider to be slightly if not homophobic then crass statements about gay men/queer theorists, alludes to 'patriarchy', says men should be 'put in their place', is against poststructuralism which has formed the basis of the most coherent critiques of and 'deconstruction' of feminist dogma.

    And that's off the top of my head!

  20. "Feminists" put down poststructuralism? Paglia dismisses groups of male academics (on the basis of their being male) and makes homophobic comments? Still have *no* idea what you're talking about. Paglia's animus against poststructuralism has got *nothing to do* with her feminism or anti-feminism. And "alludes" to patriarchy? Come on, you can do better than that. I can't even debate or discuss THAT. It even makes me wonder about trusting your statements about feminism.

    As for the "90 per cent" thing, that's a conservative estimate. I am capable of barely tolerating the idea of the "monstrous feminine," as a fun way to analyze horror movies, but that's the most interest I've ever taken in contemporary feminist theory, unless you count Paglia herself (which most feminists would not). Paglia accounts for 9 per cent of the 10 per cent of my interest in contemporary feminist theory. And I still haven't heard a single specific criticism of feminism from you (although admittedly I haven't read your entire blog) that I hadn't already heard from Paglia by the mid-90s. The basis of her general critique, and your rejection, of feminism, is actually *opposite* (you say: "feminism" supports the gender binary; she said: "feminism" rejects the gender binary) and your idea of rejecting feminism altogether it new to me, and interesting, but that's it.

  21. Yes Elise don't trust me. I don't know what I am talking about.

    But I bet you a million pounds that if Camille and her big Pagliaccis read my work she would not like it or relate to it much AT ALL.

    If you don't think poststructuralism relates to feminism you'd better read Butler quick smart.

  22. To be honest, Elise, if you thought all my criticisms of feminism had been said by Paglia, I don't know why you didn't just link to an article by her, instead of my 'intriguing' post Against Feminisms. What's intriguing about rehashing old feminist theory?

  23. I know feminism relates to poststructuralism. I'm sayin' that (as far as I know) Paglia doesn't hate poststructuralism because of her "feminism." Yeesh. Also, your post is the one that brings something new to the table for me - the general basis of your objection, not your specific criticisms.

    I swear to God, we're gonna break up over Paglia. Of all the things we could fight about. And all the things we could talk about without fighting. Like the e-friend I broke up with twice (the second time finally) over The Smiths. And neither of us were even saying anything useful or coherent about them. Much like us when we start talking about Paglia.

  24. It isn't just Paglia. She symbolises our differences over feminism and being women. That is major. Even more major than The Smiths.

  25. Well I was just about to add something else conciliatory, but looks like you want to split. I'll do it anyhow, although you may be right.

    First: you may be right about Paglia symbolizing those intractable differences. I, however, have been willing to supplement and change my thinking. But that doesn't mean hopping on either an anti-feminist or a poststructuralist bandwagon (or on your piece of driftwood floating out to sea, as you put it). It means a long-term process of reading, thinking, and probably coming up with my own synthesis.

    I have thought that you'd benefit from reading Paglia's two 90s essay collections so you'd know where your criticisms have already been made. But it's possible you won't even see it, since you and Paglia are so ideologically opposed on so many issues, *even though* it leads you to make similar criticisms.

    Also, in case you wondered what right I've got to talk about feminist theory at all since I claim to have ignored it, I got most of it through academic film criticism, which was unavoidable if you were an academic and a film buff. But I never subscribed to it, which is why I cheered on my friend George's essay criticizing Mulvey on Hitchcock. He wasn't just a lone male voice against feminism in film theory; he was a lone *voice* against it.

    The funny part is, when I find another Paglia fan, all we do is complain about her...

  26. I think the link between her animosity to post-structuralism and her feminism, is that post-structuralism provides people with the tools to critique the very basis of what she, and all feminists say and write. The 'deconstruction' of her discourse is what she is not prepared for. And most feminist academics are the same.

    I'd say Butler is the only one I know who could handle being deconstructed, but she is so reflexive and 'post-structuralist' in her method, it is pretty impossible to pull her work apart.

  27. Of course you'd say that as a poststructuralist. But not everyone agrees that poststructuralism is the only way to analyze and critique everything. There was a whole intellectual life before it, and remains a whole world beyond it! However, I will take what you say into consideration, especially as I read Butler.

  28. i don't know if I am a 'post-structuralist' it is not the only lens through which I view the world.

    But I can't take Paglia or anyone's criticism of post-structuralism seriously unless they show me another usable way of analysing language in discourse, or of showing how language in discourse is not very important in making meaning!

  29. I studied film. I know how important feminist film theory is. I have critiqued it myself, but mainly using Foucault and post-structuralism!

  30. The predominance of the image over the word is one of the themes of SP. But probably you weren't reading it through that lens at the time. Elsewhere, I think Paglia just rants about language not being the, so to speak, Alpha and Omega, but she may have a more reasoned essay on it. If I can recall it (I don't own any of her books anymore! I try to get away from influences by getting rid of books, and it doesn't work!), I'll give you the reference.

    We are coming from two REALLY different academic experiences, which is surely a more major source of our miscommunication than how we feel about being women...

  31. p.s. going to work now. If you comment I'll reply when I can.

  32. My Foucauldian education is all self-taught. My experience of using post-structuralism in academia was it caused me a lot of problems. Especially with feminist academics.

    I think our experiences in academia will have been different, in part, due to our different approaches to being women. We can only be ourselves wherever we are. These things are always impossible to untangle. But I know for sure my academic experience was affected by my sense of self, and identity.

  33. as for image v word, I think they are both equally important, and post-structuralism deals with the relationship between the two. eg Barthes.

    I knew Paglia prioritised image but she didn't explain why very well I don't think.

  34. "I think our experiences in academia will have been different, in part, due to our different approaches to being women." I have no idea. I was often ferociously combative and obnoxiously domineering in my classes and kept clear of feminist readings (I have never once in my life "applied theory" of any kind, I preferred close readings informed by a variety of often out-of-fashion influences, or comparisons of a variety of "texts" united by a "big theme"), and don't think I knew any really hardcore feminist theorists, although I knew some hardcore *feminists*.

  35. I wasn't combative or domineering. I was stubborn though.

    We talked about your absence of 'theory' before and I said there is always theory, it depends if you acknowledge it.

    Paglia is into the idea of pretending she is not using theory too! Or to be more generous, trying to escape its oppressive grip.

    Did she succeed? That's another question