Opinion: Psychopaths should not be romanticized in the media

By James Stein Oct 22, 2021
Image by Isabel Sperry
Image by Isabel Sperry

Warning: spoilers in the article ahead.

As I was scrolling through Tik Tok this weekend, I watched one that discussed the Netflix show, You. The Tik Tok showed a college-aged woman watching the credits of the show, then proceeds to google “why am I attracted to sociopaths” on her laptop. This made me think of the idea of the romanticism of sociopaths and psychopaths in the media, as evident in You

In You, the main character Joe Goldberg is just an average guy looking for love— at least on the surface. But as the series progresses, Goldberg is revealed to be a killer with both sociopathic and psychopathic tendencies. His outside persona is an average man who works at a bookstore, but it is revealed through the series that he is a psychopath who fakes empathy and manipulates women into falling in love with him.  Though the show makes it very obvious that he is a bad guy, the character still seemingly convinces both people within the show and the viewers that he is a “catch,” and a highly-dateable guy. 

The American Psychiatric Association states that both sociopaths and psychopaths lack remorse and guilt for their actions, a disregard for laws and others, as well as violent or aggressive tendencies. Where psychopaths and sociopaths differ is in their presentation to others and how well they blend in with others as “normal.” Sociopaths are typically seen as stereotypically disturbed outcasts with erratic behaviors and are easily identifiable. Psychopaths tend to have charming personalities, where they mimic emotions and others’ personalities to blend in. 

Famous officially-diagnosed sociopaths and psychopaths include John Wayne Gacy, Diane Downs, Ted Bundy and Deidre Hunt. Not only were these people clinically diagnosed as either sociopaths or psychopaths, they are all famous killers. Just like with the fictional Joe Goldberg, there are people who think that people like Ted Bundy are highly-dateable. When Bundy was on trial, he had fans, many of whom were young women who claimed to be in love with him despite being on trial for several murders. 

I am neither a psychology major nor a psychologist, but the romanticization of psychopaths in the media may be what makes audiences think they’re attracted to erratic behavior. Joe Goldberg is played by Penn Badgley, an actor known from his work on the show “Gossip Girl”. In Netflix’s 2019 film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, Ted Bundy is played by Zac Efron. Efron is known to many of Gen Z as Troy Bolton, the classic teen heartthrob from the High School Musical series.

Media companies will always choose familiar conventionally attractive actors to play their roles, they want faces that will entice people to watch their content. But when they cast these actors to play sociopaths and psychopaths, often killers, they are romanticizing them.  One must remember to separate fiction from reality. Penn Badgley is not a serial killer and Zac Efron is not Ted Bundy; they are only actors playing roles. Although it may assist in portraying these stories accurately, I think directors are doing their audiences a disservice by casting such acclaimed actors in these roles. 

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