By Stephanie Ariganello
Let’s say you’re driving along, minding your business, and that inevitable asshole is zooming in and out of traffic and they cut you off. Or maybe you’re riding a bike or walking across a street and they nearly clip you. (Yet, they flip you off.) How great is it when all the stars align and you see them pulled over down the road? Perhaps this is partly why we like to watch dark and morally ambiguous characters in movies and shows — the comeuppance is too delicious to pass up. Or maybe it’s the shadow fantasy aspect; they say and do the things we wish we could do or say.
Whatever the reasoning, one thing is becoming clear: when it’s a female character doing these things, we find her “troublesome” as well as less likeable, less appealing and less relatable than when a male character does them. In many ways, it’s not surprising. The attitude toward women in leadership roles — which often require a more hard-edged approach — has been somewhat similar. Women in media, particularly producers, should take note. In order to do your job, you likely have to embody “troublesome” characteristics. It’s also an opportunity to get these characters and stories in front of audiences.
The Study: A Dark Triad of Narcissism, Psychopathology and Machiavellianism
A study exploring perceptions of male and female characters that exhibit the “Dark Triad” of personality traits asked: who do people prefer to watch? The study, Characters We Love to Hate: Perceptions of Dark Triad Characters in Media, was recently published in the online issue of Psychology of Popular Media Culture. The study authors used film trailers to zero in on how people perceive characters based on “Dark Triad” personality traits in relation to gender.
Dark Triad, incidentally, may be the most dramatic term one will find in peer-reviewed science research. What lies beneath its sensational cloak is a tri-blend of narcissism, psychopathology and Machiavellianism. The researchers asked participants to rate both Dark Triad and non-Dark Triad characters on likeability, relatability, appeal and troublesome-ness.
In this study, narcissism referred to “excessive self-love and self-admiration, a sense of entitlement and superiority, and an excessive desire for admiration and attention.” Psychopathology referred to thrill-seeking, impulsivity and lack of remorse, among other things. Machiavellianism was centered on being manipulative, strategic and cynical.
Who Do You Love? Or Maybe Hate?
Participants were shown a series of movie trailers that exhibited both Dark Triad and non-Dark Triad characters. Several trailers featured the same actors in different roles as a control. For example, Nicole Kidman was shown in both COLD MOUNTAIN and TO DIE FOR trailers to distinguish if it was the actor or the character they were playing that participants were responding to.
After analyzing the results, researchers found that good girls were heartily approved of and ranked above all else, while bad girls, well, apparently no one likes a “mean” girl, even if she is wearing pink on Wednesday.
Non-Dark Triad women characters (i.e., regular old protagonists low on narcissism, etc.) were rated highest on likability, relatability and appeal and accordingly lowest on the troublesome scale. Female Dark Triad characters were the opposite: lowest on appeal, likability and relatability and most troublesome. Male non-Dark Triad characters ranked higher in likeability and appeal and were slightly less troublesome than their Dark Triad counterparts. When directly comparing female and male Dark Triad characters, the classic bad boy trope appears to have had some influence: participants reacted significantly more positively to male Dark Triad characters than to female Dark Triad characters. Further, the Dark Triad males were only slightly less likeable than non-Dark Triad males.
Here’s an easier way to see it:
- Dark Triad Woman = Troublesome! (Winston Churchill jowls aquiver)
- Non-dark Triad Woman = Hearts.
- Dark Triad Man = He’s complicated, but still cool.
- Non-dark Triad Man = He’s cool.
The authors posit that the Dark Triad women were considered more troublesome because they are not seen as frequently in “real life.” They go on to note that gender roles may play a part, recognizing that Dark Triad characteristics are typically thought of as masculine so, in this case, our bad girls may not only be complicated anti-heroes, but they also may violate what is considered to be traditionally “womanly.”
Keep Your Eye on That One
Are you ready for the twist? While it would seem that a character rating low on likability and the other positive markers would turn viewers off, it had minimal effect on participants’ desires to see the film or television show overall. That is except for when the lead was a female — researchers found that female characters, regardless of their Dark/non-Dark Triad status, were associated with a greater interest in seeing the movie.
The study authors noted early on that the assumption has been “…that media featuring female Dark Triad characters are less likely to be successful and be seen by mainstream audiences because of these gender role violations, so they are either not made or less common. Yet, films such as FATAL ATTRACTION, BASIC INSTINCT, GONE GIRL, and MEAN GIRLS, and television shows such as HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER feature Dark Triad women in leading roles and have been highly successful.”
I Didn’t Come Here to Make Friends, but I Still Have to…
Aside from being interesting dinner party fodder, this insight should resonate in a different way for women who work in media, particularly producers.
To be successful in filmmaking, you have to be at least solid with Dark Triad characteristics. To make a movie, for example, you have to have faith in your choices, such as telling the right story and your ability to get it done (narcissism); you have to be able to embrace risk and make hard decisions with a near-obsessive drive (psychopathology) and you have to do all of this with strategy and a healthy dose of cynicism while wielding influence (Machiavellian). Machiavelli famously pondered if it was better to be loved than feared as a leader, claiming one couldn’t be both. Yet, as women in media might argue, it is necessary to be both.
Does that mean female producers aren’t likeable? Not in the slightest. But we do know from the business world that strong, female leaders are often considered less likeable than their male counterparts (see: here, here, and here for a few examples of far too many). And the link between success, influence and likability is undeniable. Marianne Cooper wrote in a Harvard Business Review piece about likability and female leadership: “What is really going on, as peer reviewed studies continually find, is that high-achieving women experience social backlash because their very success – and specifically the behaviors that created that success – violates our expectations about how women are supposed to behave… Thus, if a woman acts assertively or competitively, if she pushes her team to perform, if she exhibits decisive and forceful leadership, she is deviating from the social script that dictates how she ‘should’ behave.”
Where Opportunity Abounds
When it comes to women in professional and creative roles, many of us would like to think that today’s world is different than it was even a year ago with movement on the #metoo front and recognition of inequality across the diversity spectrum (gender, race, ethnicity, etc.). It’s not. But it could be.
The situation is, perhaps, like a snake eating its own tail. If media is both a reflection of and influencer of culture (depending on your theoretical approach to media influence, it can be either or both), then making media with more complicated female anti-heroes will serve media consumers as well as those making it. Meaning, if the conclusion of the research authors’ is correct and viewers are simply not seeing powerful females in leadership roles in real life and are therefore “uncomfortable” with them, we need to see them more. For women producers, the end result could be a two-for-one, and who doesn’t love a two-fer?
Fun for Everyone
Curious if your Dark Triad is strong? Check out the following psychological assessment tools. Careful, you just might find out you’re “troublesome.”
- Narcissism: 16-item Narcissism Personality Inventory
- Psychopathology: LSRP Assessment
- Machiavellianism: MACH-IV test
* Holes in the Findings
One of the ways social scientists measure validity of research is to ask if the results are logical (there are far more sciencey ways they use too, but as a basic course, they start with logic/explanatory power). In this way, the research follows our course of understanding when it comes to gender and power perceptions. However, there are always gaps in research. In this case, the sample size was small, around 100 including pilot participants (a pre-study to make sure they were testing the right things), and mostly undergraduate women. The authors did not define what was meant by “troublesome” which is ironically troublesome when trying to fully understand their findings.
The study was published as an “online first” through the journal. Copies are currently available for purchase and will be made openly accessible once it has appeared in print.
Stephanie Ariganello is a writer and editor in Michigan who always comes up blank when writing about herself. For instance, in small bios at the end of articles. You can reach her at Stephanie.Arg@gmail.com.