Opinion: It’s time to change the way we think about sociopaths | CNN (2024)

Opinion: It’s time to change the way we think about sociopaths | CNN (1)

Andrew Scott as Tom Ripley in "Ripley."

Editor’s Note: SaraStewartis a film and culture writer who lives in western Pennsylvania. The views expressed here are her own. Viewmore opinionon CNN.


This piece contains mild spoilers for the Netflix series “Ripley” and a scene in the movie “Civil War.”

Are we finally ready to take another look at why we love to hate sociopaths so much? The answer to that question may depend on how you feel about empathy.

An interesting thing happens with Andrew Scott’s portrayal of Tom Ripley in the gorgeous new Netflixadaptationof Patricia Highsmith’s novel: He almost disappears into Ripley’s utter lack of charisma.

That’s no ding on Scott, who’s incredibly watchableas always. But his rendition of Ripley – highly capable, chameleonic, but never what you’d call charming — represents a refreshing take on one of themost famous sociopathsin literature and film. Some of the most riveting pieces of Steven Zaillian’s new series focus on the grunt work of being a murderous grifter, delving into the messy, frustrating and exhausting aftermath of two murders. Trust Scott to make scrubbing chunky bloodstains off marble stairs absolutely compelling, but it’s not exactly the kind of behavior that makes you come away thinking “that guy’scool.”

His acclaimed performance is one of two new meditations on the concept of the sociopath, an archetype that’s grown a bit stale in pop-cultural consciousness lately. On the one hand, we expect the sociopath to be a menacing figure — and at the same time, more often than not, we kind of expect to root for them. But “Ripley,”along with other recent portrayals of sociopathy,makes the case that it’s both more interesting and more useful to view sociopathy through a nuanced lens.

That’s not to say viewers aren’t entitled to live vicariously through whomever they like — escapism is aninvaluablecoping mechanism—but we’re living in what Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin has dubbed an“empathy gap,”so it might be a good moment to just take a tiny step back from lionizing stone-cold sociopaths, for whom empathy is not a concern. “It’s fair to conclude we have a serious empathy deficit — a collective inability (or refusal) to see the world from others’ perspectives, to understand people’s fears and hopes and our shared humanity,” wrote Rubin last year.

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Traditionally, the majority of ourcherished sociopathic antiheroesin TV and film have been men. Think Tony Soprano, Walter White, Patrick Bateman, Dexter Morgan, Don Draper.I’ve always found it difficult to love mob movies and series: Despite being ostensibly about the horrors of brute violence, “The Sopranos” and “Goodfellas” and all the rest have a singularly passionate fanbase that seems to really have fallen in love with their central villains.

This is a notion the New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum has labeled the“bad fan,”a viewer who misses the critical lens through which a character is presented and instead goes all-in on identifying with them. She traces this dissonance back to Norman Lear’s “All in the Family,” the groundbreaking satirical sitcom of the 1970s whose bigoted lead character Archie Bunker, played by Carroll O’Connor, spawned, despite Lear’s intentions, genuine fans of the character’s behavior, those “who shared Archie’s frustrations with the culture around him, a ‘silent majority’ who got off on hearing taboo thoughts said aloud.”

One of the most prominent modern examples of mass bad-fan-baiting is the highly bingeable series “You,” Netflix’s thriller about a bibliophile sociopath with a long trail of bodies in his wake. Star Penn Badgley has taken thirsty fans to taskrepeatedly on social media, but his Joe Goldberg has continued to be as much a fan-fave as he is a walking, talking red flag representative of the worst the male species has to offer.

This month, though, the release of “Ripley” coincided with the arrival of the memoir“Sociopath,”which offers a quite different case for demythologizing the disorder. Author Patric Gagne, a successful therapist who’s married with kids, writes of her lifelong (and largely successful) struggle to quash her more violent urges, andargues thatthe condition is widely misunderstood, grossly stereotyped, and likely under-diagnosed.

Andrew Scott as Tom Ripley in the Netflix series "Ripley." Netflix Related article ‘Ripley’ slowly builds a hypnotic series around the talented Andrew Scott

Gagne feels Hollywood’s nearly always gotten it wrong with portrayals of sociopaths, reducing them to a collection of cartoonish, villainous traits.“Contrary to popular belief, there’s nothing inherently immoral about having a limited emotional range,” shewrotein Vogue. “The majority of those whose personalities fall on the sociopathic spectrum have the ability to lead perfectly happy, socially acceptable roles in loving family units. But you wouldn’t know that from common discourse. Television’s talking heads, newspaper articles, and countless magazine headlines continue to disparage and vilify sociopaths, usually by erroneously conflating them with malignant narcissists or stereotyping us based on the worst examples of our personality type – serial killers and monsters.”

For her part, Gagne sees a heartening trend in more recent depictions of sociopathic characters such as Jenna Ortega as the often-icy Wednesday Addams on the Netflix show bearing her name. And in Gagne’s telling, the fact that pop cultural depictions are becoming more diverse is testament to how many kinds of people see a bit of themselves there.

In fact, I found one of film’s most recent sociopaths to be singularly chilling because of his very plausibility. He’s in Alex Garland’s “Civil War,” the polarizing film about a vaguely-sketched conflict set in the modern-day United States. Jesse Plemons — like Scott, an actor who has delivered uniformly bravura performances — appears in a lone scene you’ll be thinking about for days afterward. His soldier character, wearing rose-colored glasses in a morbidly funny detail, interrogates the film’s central group of journalists about “what kind of Americans” theyare—andshoots the ones who don’t answer to his satisfaction. He’s a very obvious White nationalist and, in critic Owen Gleiberman’s description, a sociopath.

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“Garland invests the sequence with a hair-trigger tension, and we recognize, in the Plemons character’s attitude, a reflection of current jingoistic hatred,” Gleibermanwrote. “For a few moments, the movie looks like a reflection of part of America today.” It’s a scene so completely galling it makes it hugely difficult to come away with any kind of admiration in your heart for Plemons, nor a view that he’s any kind of anti-hero.

For a country currently grappling with the notion of whether empathy is a strength or a weakness, throwing cold water on easy stereotypes about sociopathy is probably a good thing. If we can embrace the mundane complexity of Scott’s repellent Ripley, and at the same time come to understand that real-life sociopathy is not black and white thanks to authors like Gagne, we’ll be better equipped to understand them. Including the ones taking upa lotofreal estatein thepublic consciousnessright now.

Opinion: It’s time to change the way we think about sociopaths | CNN (2024)
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