Tristam Adams – Femme Fatales, ‘Female Psychos’ and Narrative Science


The next K’ex lecture will be:

Femme Fatales, ‘Female Psychos’ and Narrative Science
Tristam Adams

Thursday 23rd March, 15.00 – 17.00
Media Research Building, Room 10, Screen 2
Goldsmiths, University of London
Located behind the Stuart Hall Building: Site Here Available Here


Psychopathy is about an individual’s private desires being at odds with their behavior or performance. Sociopathy is about how a person interacts. The former is not apparent, whereas the latter is conspicuous. We know when someone falls foul of social code but we don’t always know if people really mean what they say. For psychopathic characters in TV and film the narrative must divulge their inner discrepancy – the viewer must be provided with ‘tell scenes’ that show the viewer how, even though a protagonist seems nice, they are quite different at root. There are many ways of doing this; out-of-hours scenes, inner monologues, mirror scenes and fourth wall breaks are all employed. But a survey of these narrative strategies reveals double standards. For male psychopaths the tell scenes are quite obvious; they are often violent an unempathic. Film and TV juxtaposes horrific tell scenes opposite the characters polite façade and conning performance. However, for depictions of female psychopaths the tell scene is less striking: it could be something as simple as going to a bar alone, being sexually independent or being ‘too’ career-driven. We shall explore the intrinsic presupposition of gender inequality in tell scenes. We shall find that the tell scenes of male psychopaths are anti-social abominations whereas their female counterparts’ tell scenes are more a case of women not adhering to an outmoded feminine ideal – acting in a manner too equal to the heteronormative male equivalent.

Further to this, in recent films femme fatales are trapped in a cruel double bind. One the one hand if they are too equal – too independent, aggressive or sexually driven – then this (sociopathic tell scene) supposedly constitutes them as being psychopathic. Yet upon reverting to traditional modes of femininity they are framed as being temptresses. This is the ‘men’s rights’ dialectic in film. When women act the femme-girl they are manipulative, conniving types – temptresses – yet when refusing to conform to gender stereotypes they are framed as sociopathic deviants or psychopaths.

Finally we shall turn to clinical studies of psychopathy that actively retrofit a heteronormative paradigm over studies of physical traits. Cultural conservatism and the covert politicization of science thrive in the penumbra between etiology and fictioneering. There are many studies that seek to equate the supposed physical traits of testosterone with female psychopathy, sociopathy and (I make the distinction but others do not) criminality. Yet we should not be surprised at this politicized narrativisation being imposed upon studies of those deemed psychopathic or sociopathic. The literature behind the personality disorder subset of psychopathy is rooted in narrative fiction.

The diagnostic criteria for psychopathy are deeply political and conservative. Cleckley and Hare (the two major checklists for the personality disorder) both list sexual behaviours and proclivities as characteristics. ‘Promiscuous sexual behaviour’, ‘Parasitic lifestyle’ and ‘Many short-term marital relationships’ are some of Hare’s criteria. Cleckley lists ‘Sex-life impersonal, trivial and poorly integrated.’ Yet each list paradoxical criteria; psychopathy is a subset of anti-social personality disorder, yet so many of the criteria seem pro-social. Hare and Cleckley’s flip-flopping from anti-social to seemingly social personality facets is the same mode of oscillation we see in the television shows and films that pitch a woman as either socially deviant (by being too equal to a male counterpart – too independent – or too feminine: a temptress, a femme fatale). The dynamic of shifting from seemingly charming, intelligent, empathetic and social character to deviance and anti-social behaviour is a narrative structure – it is precisely the form of the ‘tell scene’ before a character’s social façade is seen in operation. Cleckley’s The Mask of Sanity spends a great deal of time analysing works of fiction (e.g. characters in the works of Dostoevsky, Dickens, Faulkner…). Hare’s Without Conscience utilizes many examples from True Crime literature and newspaper reports. Perhaps, then, it is unsurprising that established psychopathic checklists read like fictional narratives (where we see a character behave both perfectly socially and grossly anti-socially) rather than objective arrays of consistent observations. It is this mode of ‘scientific’ judgement that takes the liberties of narrative fiction and provides a space for heteronormative and culturally conservative bias into the concept of female psychopathy.

– – –

Tristam Adams is a theorist, writer and PhD candidate at Goldsmiths College, University of London (Visual Cultures Department). His first book, The Psychopath Factory: How Capitalism Organises Empathy, is published by Repeater Books. He is currently writing his PhD thesis exploring the relations between voice and horror.

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Suggested Viewing:

Christina Aguilera, Your Body (Matsoukas, 2012)

The Last Seduction (1994, Dahl)
Malice (Becker, 1993)
American Psycho (2000, Harron)
To Die For (1995, Van Sant),
Knock Knock (2015, Roth)
Gone Girl (2014, Fincher)
The Last Seduction (1994, Dahl)
Silence of the Lambs (1991, Demme).
Deathproof (2007, Tarantino)

The Bridge (2011)
The Fall (2013-2016)
Peep Show (2003-2015)
Fleabag (2016).
House of Cards (2013)
I’m Alan Partridge (1997)
The Office (2001)
Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000)
Mr Bean (1990-1995)


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