When we think of psychopathy, we often think of a coldhearted killer, a person with no sense of remorse or empathy, someone we might deem to be “crazy.” We think of someone dangerous, cruel, and cunning, someone almost entirely non-human in their apathy and propensity towards violence. Perhaps the most famous example of psychopathy in popular culture is Patrick Bateman, protagonist of the novel—and eventual film adaptation—American Psycho. Bateman is pristine, obsessed with order and control, ambitious and incredibly power-hungry. He attempts to charm his way into power positions, shows little regard towards the women in his life, and becomes extremely angered when things don’t go his way.
This paints a picture for us: psychopathy is the wealthy white man in a business suit who treats women as if they’re disposable and will stop at nothing to climb the corporate ladder. But is this an accurate representation of psychopathy? What does it really mean to be a person with psychopathy?
Those who suffer from what we know as psychopathy or sociopathy actually suffer from antisocial personality disorder (APD), in which a person harbors “an ingrained pattern of behavior consistently disregard and violate the rights of others around them” (Sussex Publishers 2019). But what does it mean to have a personality disorder? Personality disorders largely go unmentioned within the larger discussion of mental illness and mental health. A personality disorder can be described as “an enduring pattern of personal experience and behavior that deviates noticeably from the expectations of the culture” and is persistent over one’s lifetime and severely impacts their everyday livelihood (Sussex Publishers 2019). Psychopathy and sociopathy exist as an extreme version of APD, but why is there a distinction between the two?
The main difference between them is that people with psychopathy are considered to have “little or no conscience,” while people with sociopathy experience “a limited, albeit weak, ability to feel empathy and remorse” (Purse 2020). Therefore, people with sociopathy and psychopathy both exist on the very extreme end of antisocial personality disorder, though the only cases of APD showcased in popular culture seem to be characters who suffer from these extreme forms of the disorder.
Why is this the case? Why does popular culture seem so fixated on showcasing only the violent, coldhearted killers who descend into complete madness by the end of the story? The problem with how mental illness is conveyed in forms of media is that a character’s mental illness is often used as a prop to make the character more interesting, without any regard for how people in real life suffering from mental illnesses may feel about this. We are taught not to sympathize with these characters, not to feel for them or hope they get help, simply because they are portrayed to be crazy as opposed to genuinely suffering from something out of their control that can be helped with awareness, medication, and/or therapy.
Bateman as a character exists as a perfect example of the misleading portrayal of mental illness within popular culture. We cannot and most definitely should not feel sympathy for him. He killed (or at least intended to, depending on your interpretation of the movie) people simply for the sake of his own pleasure and gain. His violence and complete lack of remorse show that he is suffering from the absolute worst case of APD: psychopathy. But why is popular culture so fascinated with psychopathy, so fascinated with displaying characters with mental illness who are so difficult to sympathize with? Why are we being taught not to sympathize with those suffering from mental illness?
Ultimately, though American Psycho is made for entertainment purposes, it’s important to examine the harmful themes being displayed in the movie and the lack of awareness about mental illness. Why is it deemed uninteresting to portray characters suffering from mental illness that we can actually sympathize with?
Collin, R. (2020, April 24). American Psycho is masculinity at its most grotesque – only a woman could have directed it. The Telegraph. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/films/0/american-psycho-masculinity-grotesque-woman-could-have-directed/
Purse, M. (2020, June 15). How Sociopaths Are Different from Psychopaths. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-a-sociopath-380184
Sussex Publishers. Antisocial Personality Disorder. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/conditions/antisocial-personality-disorder