No One Likes a Mean Girl, but We'll Still Watch Her: Dark Triad Characters
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. How great is it when all the stars align and you see them get pulled over? Perhaps this is why we like to watch morally ambiguous characters in media — 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.
Whatever the reasoning, one thing is clear: when it's a female character doing these things, we find her "troublesome," 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 has been somewhat similar. Women in media, particularly producers, should take note. In order to do your job, you have to embody "troublesome" characteristics. It's also an opportunity to get these characters 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 published in Psychology of Popular Media Culture. Film trailers were used to measure how people perceive characters based on "Dark Triad" personality traits and gender.
Dark Triad, incidentally, may be the most dramatic term 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 characters on likeability, relatability, appeal and troublesome-ness.
In this study, narcissism was "excessive self-love and self-admiration, a sense of entitlement and superiority, and an excessive desire for admiration and attention." Psychopathology was thrill-seeking, impulsivity and lack of remorse, among other things. Machiavellianism was being manipulative, strategic and cynical.
Who Do You Love?
Participants were shown movie trailers with 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. 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.
Here's an easy way to see it:
Dark Triad Woman = Troublesome! (Winston Churchill jowls a-quiver)
Non-dark Triad Woman = Hearts.
Dark Triad Man = He's complicated, but still cool. (Maybe I can tame him/be him!)
Non-dark Triad Man = He's cool.
The authors posit that the Dark Triad women were considered more troublesome because...
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 all female characters were associated with a greater interest in seeing the movie.
The study authors note a common assumption: "...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 TV 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, this insight should resonate with 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 of far too many examples). And the link between success, influence and likability is undeniable. Marianne Cooper wrote in Harvard Business Review: "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…"
When it comes to women in professional 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.
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)...