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.