Narcissism and the Supervillain

Narcissus, variety Vernal Prince
Narcissus, variety Vernal Prince
“Narcissist” has become a household word. We laugh as we assign the label to Castle’s self-absorbed, drama queen mother and to Hugh Laurie’s arrogant, manipulative, and egocentric character in House. We use the term as a kind of shorthand to peg the grandiosity, manipulation, demand for admiration, and sometimes cruelty of a spouse. Or a child’s dance teacher. And certainly our mothers-in-law.

Meanwhile, psychologists are in an uproar over a decision to strike Narcissistic Personality Disorder from the diagnostic manual (DSM-5) of the American Psychiatric Association. The decision is hotly contested (see psychologist Gretchen Gibbs’ post at Zest of Orange) because the disorder has long been well-defined and the diagnosis useful in treatment.

Narcissus by Caravaggio, 1597
Narcissus by Caravaggio, 1597
Further, while controversial, the conclusion that narcissism is on the rise in our society has been substantiated by a number of researchers. Trashing the diagnosis suggests that we’ve begun to accept as normal those people with an unrealistic sense of entitlement, who step on others to achieve a status they’re convinced they deserved; who are desperate for a steady diet of admiration and praise; who, when humiliated, are vulnerable to feelings of rejection and respond with rage and violence.

Which brings me to fictional villains. Narcissists make terrific villains, especially in novels and films that explore revenge as a motive, in which a perceived slight arouses brutal retaliation. Some of us are tired of psychopathic serial killers and appreciate criminals with a more complex pathology.

Take Matt Damon’s role in the movie based upon Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, in which the narcissistic sociopath Tom Ripley is scorned by a jet-setting crowd. He retaliates with a murder that leads to another and yet others as he charmingly and intelligently evades suspicion. With money and his “deserved” new status, he adopts the life of his first victim.

Also, consider the narcissistic mother in Janet Fitch‘s White Oleander, who kills a cheating boyfriend and—out of jealousy—manipulates her daughter’s adoptive mother into taking her own life.

It occurred to me that without a diagnosis of Narcissistic Behavior Disorder, authors might feel they need to choose a different set of traits to insure their villain’s motive comes across as genuine. But the behaviors won’t disappear along with the diagnosis. In their defense, the AMA has decided to lump narcissistic traits into the Anti-Social/Psychopathic bucket. Perhaps rightly so, because the characteristics of all these disorders occur on a continuum and overlap one another in many ways.

Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho
Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho
Think about actor Christian Bale—playing yuppie Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, based on Bret Easton Ellis’ novel—whose narcissistic rage quickly follows perceived humiliation in comic pissing contests where other male executives one-up his choice of business card (!) and flaunt their status by securing tables at a trendy restaurant where he’s unable to get a reservation. In the face of such slights, humiliation drives Bale’s character to murder. Narcissism escalates into psychopathic behavior as the deranged murders he commits reveal him to be empty of morality, sadistic, and soul-less. (And he looked like such a nice young man!)

Who knows? If, as research suggests, narcissism is on the rise in America, we might find fictional characters with malignant narcissistic traits all the more compelling. With our next door neighbors revealing similar behavior, we’re all the more likely to believe in these fictional villains and their motives for murder.

Any thoughts on the AMA’s decision to trash Narcissistic Personality Disorder? Have a favorite narcissistic villain?

Image via Cold Climate Gardening.


Lois Karlin writes fiction and blogs at Women of Mystery. In the pursuit of authenticity she’s learned to dag sheep and take down a silo, and knows where to deep six a body in New York’s Hudson Valley.

Read all Lois Karlin’s posts on Criminal Element.

Comments

  1. Terrie Farley Moran

    Just tonight, CNN had a poll and conversation about why Americans are so rude to each other. Could the reason be those narcissistic traits you are talking about? Are we all just a few steps shy of murder?

  2. Lois Karlin

    Terrie, if we’re not a few steps shy of actually doing the deed, it seems inevitable that we’ll come to accept it as commonplace. Most people already appear to find death and mutilation in war ho-hum reporting, so why not murder?

    – Lois

  3. Anita Page

    You raise interesting questions, Lois. I think narcissists make very compelling, and sometimes terrifying, villains. One that comes to mind is the Jessica Walters’ character in “Play Misty for Me.” I didn’t love the film, but Walter was very convincing.

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