Sexualization of Psychopaths
by Ali Johnston | published Apr. 4th, 2019
“Nice guys finish last,” right? Society taught us from a young age that the nice guy won’t be as successful and he won’t get the girl either. Women don't want the guy with a big smile on his face, they want the guy with the tattoos sitting on top of a motorcycle.
Of course, everyone is attracted to different physical characteristics and different personality traits. Why then, is the allure of a villain so strong?
Makini Beck, a sociology professor, considers what makes women more drawn to the “bad boy.”
“I wonder, is it in our nature to want someone who is going to protect us and take care of us, and if anything happens to us they’ll fight for us? People walk all over the nice guy. How is he going to protect me? How is he going to take care of me?” she asked.
Beck is not the only one who feels this way. History, television and movies have all portrayed the villains and the bad guys as the tough and attractive characters that are typically more aggressive. But, is the idea of protection via aggression towards others the only thing that draws individuals to the "bad boy"?
We generally place value on physical attractiveness, personalities and the connection or "spark" we feel with others. This can be exhibited through attraction to someone's style or attraction to something more subtle such as their body language.
More often than not, women find outgoing and bold men more attractive, qualities that are integral to the villain persona. Women often want males to have some sort of mix between engaging and aloof.
Nickesia Gordon, a media studies professor, expanded on why women may value an aggressive personality in males.
"[Society] has socialized itself from a gender point of view. There’s that gendered expectation of masculinity and femininity. We have all these characteristics of acceptable masculinity where aggression in males is seen as being normal and natural. Being dominant is seen as desirable,” Gordon said.
"Being dominant is seen as desirable."
Dominance and aggression aren't the only personality traits common in "the bad boy." Males that fall into this category also exhibit several alluring behaviors, such as confidence, humor and charisma. These positive attributes make it easier to overlook any faults, such as narcissism or stubbornness that a "bad boy" may also possess.
Elise Banfield, a psychology professor, mentions that not only is it attractive for men to have both kind and unkind aspects to his personality, but women tend to enjoy being the one person that the man is caring towards. She believes that individuals don't mind if their partner is cruel to everyone else, so long as that person treats him or her with respect.
But what happens when looks also come into play with someone who is evil yet physically attractive? This may cause conflicting feelings within ourselves. Nobody wants to admit that they find the villain attractive because many aren't sure why they feel this way. It turns out that in many cases, just like positive personality traits, physical attractiveness may overshadow the evil personality.
Banfield mentions a psychological effect called "the halo effect" — it occurs when people see someone who they consider to be physically attractive. Typically, when an individual is attracted to someone, that individual automatically assumes that he or she is going to be good, thus ignoring negative personality traits.
According to the "halo effect," physical attractiveness can make people believe that a person possesses many other positive qualities as well. Higher levels of success, intelligence and kindness are assumed when someone is seen as physically attractive.
Surprisingly enough, there is even more that can attract individuals to the "bad boys," some even being as peculiar as the fear they give us.
“I think that a lot of the time, people will see the ‘bad guy’ as attractive because it’s exciting and because it instills fear. Without being aware of it, when we’re in a situation where somebody scares us, not necessarily in the way that we typically think about fear, but if they intimidate us or put us on edge, it really increases the attraction,” Banfield said.
"I think that a lot of the time, people will see the 'bad guy' as attractive because it's exciting and because it instills fear."
In fact, fear plays a large role in nonsexual arousal. It causes a rush of chemicals that we typically associate with attraction — adrenaline, endorphins and dopamine. Arousal and attraction often have many of the same feelings attached to them. Sweaty hands and an acceleration of heart rate can be symptoms of both fear and attraction, therefore causing confusion between the two in some cases. According to Banfield, this mistaking of fear for attraction is called the misattribution of arousal.
In terms of the misattribution of arousal, some of the best first dates would be going to an amusement park and riding roller coasters or even watching a horror movie. These activities get the heart racing and make it difficult to distinguish between sexual arousal and a rush of adrenaline.
This doesn't necessarily mean that everyone enjoys fear-inducing situations though — some may just like the fact that they end. The participant can get off the roller coaster, and he or she can turn off the movie. Once the activity is finished, the fear fades away, but the positive effects of increased endorphins and adrenaline lingers.
Frank Deese, a screenwriting professor, talked more on the sense of control we feel while watching a suspense or horror film.
“I think there’s something about horror that brings you to this really ugly place, but then all of the lights come on and suddenly it’s not real anymore.” Deese said.
The “bad guy” trope is popular in a lot of the stories we hear and the movies we watch because they are stories that sell. There is an infatuation with the dark side of people — one that can be traced back to as early as childhood.
“In fairytales, who is the prince? The prince is always someone who is dashing, but there’s an edge of danger to this guy. He’s a knight, he’s a fighter, he’s a warrior — but he’s also romantic,” Gordon said.
A television show called “You” touches on the case of an attractive villain. In the series, a man named Joe becomes obsessed with a girl called Beck. He stalks her for quite some time before striking up a relationship with her that ultimately ends in him killing many people that she loves, and even Beck herself.
Still, the show gained an enormous fan base after it began streaming on Netflix. Since Dec. 26, 2018, there have been over 15,000 posts regarding the show. Much of the show’s success can be attributed to how well the character, Joe, entrances the audience. It becomes almost second nature to ignore all of the horrible things he’s done when it’s so easy to be fascinated by him.
“I think deep down, people wonder if they’ll ever find someone who loves them that much. On a deeper level, women want to be married and they want to be loved, whether it’s a toxic relationship or not,” Beck said, regarding “You.”
Similarly, a movie titled “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” portrays a villain as an attractive man. In the movie, actor Zac Efron plays the role of Ted Bundy, an infamous serial killer. Gordon was not surprised to hear that Hollywood was producing a movie about someone so evil, and was even less surprised to hear that Zac Efron would be playing the murderer. She attributes all of it to movies’ need for popularity; a television show or a film cannot survive without a fan base.
“It’s not surprising that [villains] are often portrayed by Hollywood stars that are considered to be traditionally handsome or beautiful, because those are the ones that sell tickets at the box office. It’s not a coincidence that Zac Efron was cast as [Ted Bundy]; he has star appeal,” Gordon said.
"It's not surprising that [villains] are often portrayed by Hollywood stars that are considered to be traditionally handsome or beautiful, because those are the ones that sell tickets at the box office."
Sex sells, so it’s typically in a casting director’s best interest to cast attractive actors even to the villains. Whether or not the character’s personality is attractive is unimportant. The audience’s immediate reaction won’t be based on how the character acts – it will be on what they look like.
Is the sexualization of evil just behind the big screen, or is it reaching the behavior and sexuality of the audience as well? Deese mentions that he believes the producers of works that glamorize evil should be carefully examined.
“The makers of these kinds of works should be taken to task. Ask these questions, get in their faces, make them examine what they’re doing. I’ve done that when I’m writing a script. I think about the responsibility and the consequences that come with it,” Deese said.
Deese is not suggesting censorship, but rather that people writing about such controversial topics should be able to take a step back from their work and look at the effect that it could have on the population. He believes it’s important that the makers of this type of content be held accountable for the reactions of the audience.
Although the decision to commercialize and sexualize infamous characters like Ted Bundy should require a lot of thought, the film industry has been doing it for years. The movie "Fifty Shades of Grey"takes an abusive relationship and romanticizes it. Young boys and girls have access to these kinds of movies, and they have the ability to apply the philosophies shown in the films to their own lives.
Banfield worries that the portrayal of evil in this manner could be a problem, because individuals tend to follow what they see through observational skills. Young and impressionable viewers place a considerable amount of importance on what they see on the screen, and Banfield urges caution when watching these types of programs.
The effects of portraying evil in such a manner reach beyond children. These films also have a habit of perpetuating negative and harmful stereotypes.
Gordon notes that race also plays an important role in how we react to a villain. More often than not, evil yet alluring characters are played by white men who are shown to be intelligent and typically invoke some form of a sympathetic response. In contrast, Gordon notes that people of color are rarely portrayed in the same way — their criminal activity is simplistic and they’re not presented as characters worthy of sympathy.
Not only does this pattern in film impact racial biases, but it also strengthens gender bias, according to Gordon.
“There is a stereotype that women are the better half. It is our duty to bring out the best in our men. Men are told to get married to become better people, and their wives are supposed to soften them and smooth out those rough edges,” she said.
"There is a stereotype that women are the better half. It is our duty to bring out the best in our men."
Gordon also emphasizes that the sexualization of villains typically isn’t equal between men and women either. Althoughvillainous men can be seen as strong and confident, desirable positive traits society correlates to being masculine, evil woman are seen as more of an outlier. They are not someone to be domesticated, but rather something that society will often challenge. Gordon says that typically, this kind of female character is used to satisfy a sexual fantasy or curiosity for a man — she isn’t as desired.
In the end, the main question is: does this portrayal and emphasis on attractive villains do our society more harm than good? Deese questioned whether movies, like the one about Ted Bundy, should have been written at all. He believes that some topics should remain in the dark.
Beck also supports Deese's views regarding the dangers of commercializing evil.
“I don’t know know why we feel that we need to highlight these folks who do really evil things in our society, but then it gets glossed over because they’re attractive. We highlight it, we kind of glorify it a little bit because if we didn’t glorify it, we wouldn’t have a film about it,” Beck said.
As we learned, sex sells. Using actors and actresses that are widely considered attractive to play villains may increase profits for the movie, but it may also normalize dangerous behaviors. They commercialize evil, romanticize abusive relationships and make the villain sought after.
The sexualization of psychopaths may reward Hollywood stars with bigger paychecks, but what is it costing society?