I’ve been trying to remember the first sociopath I loved.
I think it was Draco Malfoy. In the works of author-turned-infamous-transphobe J.K. Rowling, Draco was a ferrety little bully. He tormented Harry Potter and his friends across seven novels and eventually joined the fascist regime of Lord Voldemort. Rowling gave Draco more complexity than the usual teenage shithead; he failed at his mission to assassinate Albus Dumbledore and paled in comparison to other actual villains. But Draco’s bigotry was central to his character and he never reckoned with it on the page.
I didn’t fall in love with Rowling’s Draco Malfoy. In the thousands of novel-length fanfics written by Harry Potter enthusiasts, Draco was reimagined as a snarky and isolated soul struggling under the weight of his father’s expectations. Shithead Draco Malfoy became Slytherin sex god Draco Malfoy. Anonymous author after anonymous author plumbed his secret depths and dark humor to find the tender heart within.
Like many girls who grew up in the 2000s, I saw myself in Hermione Granger. I was the too-serious one, the bookworm who lived in fear of disappointing the adults around her. I lacked Hermione’s work ethic but shared her arrogance, her self-righteousness, and her frustration that no one seemed to understand her. It helped that my hair was a tangled brown mess and I had a mediocre sense of humor. Breaking the rules petrified me to my very soul.
Draco made sense to me as Hermione’s soulmate. Unlike Harry and Ron, Draco was smart. He alone challenged her academic excellence, and he kept up with her in the banter that saturated Dramione (Draco / Hermione) fanfiction. Thanks to the authors of LiveJournal and Fanfiction.net, the unlikely duo became the ultimate enemies-to-lovers ship.
At age 13, I devoured iteration after iteration of their love story. I even wrote several of my own.
It’s a reflection of my privileged white childhood that I saw Draco’s virulent loathing of muggleborns as an interesting plot point rather than an unforgivable, defining flaw. I’d grown up hearing that when a boy likes you, he picks on you. Through my clueless eyes, Draco’s behavior looked like that of a bully with a crush he didn’t understand.
The fanfics I read came up with clever ways to redeem Draco. In AU (alternate universe) wartime fanfics, Draco often switched sides to help Dumbledore’s Army as a spy. In Hogwarts-era stories, it was popular to pair him up with Hermione for a class project.
I adored the “epilogue, what epilogue?” post-Deathly Hallows trope of Hermione and Draco serving as Head Boy and Girl, which required them to live in a private suite and patrol the corridors together late at night.
Who better than the brilliant Hermione Granger to broaden Draco’s mind? The slow process of unlearning his horrific beliefs made for stories rife with tension, chemistry and angst.
In one of the best fanfics I’ve ever read, The Nietzsche Classes by Beringae, all surviving children of Death Eaters are required to take a six-week class about the fallacies of Voldemort’s ideology. The class reads Crime and Punishment and watches documentaries about the Holocaust. Their teacher is, of course, Hermione. Draco is her worst student.
“You come into this classroom and you tell us everything we know is wrong,” he yells at Hermione during the fanfic’s emotional climax. “You say our parents are racist pigs who deserve nothing, not even Azkaban, and then you smile and say all you want for us to do is think… You say there’s no difference between mudbloods and people like me. You say muggles are just like us… The reason I’ve changed is because I fucking know that.”
As a teenager, this became my romantic ideal. A strong-willed woman teaches a murderer that he is racist, there’s a big confrontation, and then they share a cathartic, if violent, kiss. A bad man is reformed by the love of a good woman.
The worst of these fanfics were an intoxicating mess of white feminist fantasy and JK Rowling’s watered-down understanding of social justice. The best were exceptionally written—often better constructed than the actual Harry Potter books—and they taught me all of the wrong lessons about love.
No matter how you cut it, Draco Malfoy is a reprehensible character. He is not teenage boyfriend material, whether you’re looking at the original books or the archives of Dramione fanfic. Yet for me, he was only the first in a series of heinous pop culture crushes.
My sociopath heartthrobs were all cut from the same cloth: smart, sexy and mean, but with a soft spot for a certain leading lady. I just wasn’t interested in the boys-next-door of YA literature, the Peeta Mellarks or the Dan Humphreys. I wanted the antihero. I wanted the asshole.
There were the rich Manhattan scumbags, with their designer suits and their daddy issues: Chuck Bass (Gossip Girl), Mr. Big (Sex & The City).
There were the ‘80s dirtbags, fashionably scruffy with a violent streak: JD (Heathers), Bender (The Breakfast Club).
Who can forget the murderers of sci-fi/fantasy? Draco Malfoy, Phantom (of the Opera), Jaime Lannister (Game of Thrones).
And of course, the vampires: Edward Cullen (Twilight), Eric Northman (True Blood), and Spike (Buffy the Vampire Slayer).
These men share traits that span genres. Their relationship with their fathers? Tortured. Their moms? Absent or dead. Their bank accounts? Vast. Their political views? Probably violent. Their conscience? Damaged or nonexistent.
Their treatment of women? Inexcusable. Awful. Abusive.
The sociopath boyfriend cares about nothing beyond his own greed, power and pleasure. He seduces whoever he wants and he takes whatever he wants. He does not give a shit about making the world a better place.
Enter the heroine, a plucky young lady with values and a sweetheart mouth, to challenge him and prod him and piss him off. She alone can get through to him. She alone is his weakness. And against his will, the sociopath boyfriend begins to trust her, to finally let her in.
Swoon. Kiss. Fade to black.
In the real world, none of us are perfect. We are not born with a nuanced understanding of structural inequality and power. Most of us make mistakes, and some of us behave in harmful ways toward others. I am absolutely here for love stories that explore how love can make us better, more empathic people. I do not expect every character to be gentle, communicative and self-actualized.
That being said, the sociopath boyfriend is not a misunderstood sweetie with believable character growth. These men are not complicated products of neglectful families who deserve to have their hands held as they broaden their minds. Many of them are bigots, criminals and perpetrators of sexual violence.
Let’s start with the creeps. In the pilot episode of Gossip Girl, Chuck Bass attempts to rape 14-year-old Jenny Humphrey at a party. He targets her as an isolated and drunk freshman, basically drags her to the roof, and uses his full strength to pin her down. If he wasn’t interrupted by Jenny’s older brother Dan, it’s made clear to the audience that Chuck would have sexually assaulted her. And yet only episodes later, the viewer is encouraged to root for him and Blair Waldorf, Gossip Girl’s anti-heroine.
Then there’s The Breakfast Club, a movie I watched on repeat as an angsty middle schooler. In a scene played for laughs, Bender shoves his face in Claire Standish’s crotch while he hides under her desk from the school Vice Principal. Claire is horrified and uncomfortable, and yet she must say nothing and tolerate this violation until the Vice Principal leaves the room. Molly Ringwald recently revisited her mixed feelings about the scene in the wake of the #MeToo movement.
It feels like every six months, my Twitter timeline erupts in another debate about Spike, a beloved villain-turned-love interest in Joss Whedon’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Spike is charmingly vicious and obsessed with the Slayer. When the couple breaks off their affair during season 6, he attacks Buffy in her bathroom, determined to “make her feel” how much he loves her. While this act is what pushes Spike to recover his lost soul and reform himself, his attempted rape of the woman he professes to love is long and excruciating to watch.
Next up are the murderers. Game of Thrones’s Jamie Lannister pushes a child out of a tree in the first episode of the series. In Heathers, JD tricks his girlfriend Veronica into killing several of their classmates and making it look like suicide. I could count the murders that Phantom commits while controlling his opera, but we’d be here all day. Eric Northman and Spike are vampires, so that justifies centuries of violence within the logic of their television shows. Hey, a man’s gotta eat.
The newest edition to the Sociopath Boyfriend Club, Kylo Ren, literally commits genocide. After three Star Wars films that feature him kidnapping and mind-raping the heroes of the franchise, not to mention murdering his own father, we’re meant to applaud his self-sacrifice and final kiss with Rey.
In pop culture, no crime against humanity is too extreme to be forgiven and glossed over in the name of love. A handsome white guy can blow up a planet full of people and still be considered worthy of the franchise’s leading lady. If she loves him with enough self-sacrificing devotion, she can fix him.
Sexy white men will always be forgiven. They don’t even have to apologize.
Why do teenage girls find these awful men so appealing?
There are the obvious reasons: these characters are portrayed by attractive actors, they’re confident, they can really rock a fisherman’s sweater (I’m looking at you, Chris Evans in Knives Out).
I have a different theory. These guys encourage their love interests (and their teenage girl fans) to rebel against what is expected of young women. With Spike, Buffy finds a violent outlet for her trauma after being dragged out of the afterlife by her friends. With Chuck, Blair gets to be calculating and horny, the polar opposite of the virginal aesthetic she projects. With Bender, Claire makes out in closets and pisses off her parents whose attention she desperately craves.
The sociopath boyfriend lets his girl misbehave. She gets to be a Bad Girl—quite literally, she violates the rules of socially acceptable femininity. By falling for him, she gains access to the emotions discouraged in women: anger, desire, ambition, and frustration with socially prescribed gender roles. She gets to have sex, to scream, to scheme, to be ugly in her imperfection. With him, she is free.
The sociopath boyfriend isn’t looking for a perfect little wife. He wants an accomplice.
When my IRL sociopath boyfriend arrived, I recognized him immediately. There was a mean edge to his cleverness, that intense burn in his eyes when he looked at me. In his presence I had to stay on my toes to keep up with conversation. My body ran wild with the electricity of his attention.
His struggles were the stuff of teen soap operas. He was gorgeous, but he had been bullied. His family was rich, but he faced immense pressure from his parents to be successful. He had every privilege and opportunity in the world, but he worried he had no real friends. He made offensive jokes, but always with an ironic wink so I could convince myself he didn’t really mean it.
I knew he was irresponsible, criminal even, but I knew my part in this play. I was the grounded woman who would love him the way he needed to be loved. I would help him become the man he wanted to be.
The script doesn’t work in the real world. Our fights weren’t the stuff of fanfic. His personal attacks cut me to the bone, and his apologies served as hollow manipulations. I didn’t have the perfect comeback to make him see the impact of his actions.
I thought that the fault was mine, that I was too weak to be with him, that I couldn’t keep up. I was the failure, not him. I wasn’t good enough to redeem him.
It didn’t occur to me until much later that it wasn’t my responsibility to make him a better man. We were not Blair Underwood and Chuck Bass, tearing each other to shreds, only to get married in the end. I was not Bella Swan or Carrie Bradshaw or Brienne of fucking Tarth. I was dating an asshole—callous and misogynist and unkind.
I’d gotten the kind of man I wanted all along. Our relationship was nothing like what the heavily-male writer’s rooms of my favorite TV shows told me it would be.
I am now 29. Every day I work to detangle what I used to consider romantic from what is actual, respectful love.
As an adult, I can enjoy emotionally damaged alphas in Regency-era romance novels while knowing that their behavior outside of a book’s pages would be unforgivable. As a romance novelist myself, I am writing a sensitive cinnamon roll hero who rescues pit bulls and talks about his feelings.
I’d like to say that pop culture sociopaths don’t appeal to me anymore, but I’d be lying. My heart will always have a soft spot for the spoiled brat with daddy issues who falls for the frumpy school nerd. The better written, the harder I fall, and the less guilty I feel for liking what I like.
There is nothing wrong with enjoying what you enjoy. Entertainment is entertainment, and we shouldn’t force art to be moral and good and clear at all times. There is nothing wrong with lusting after antiheroes, or even hot villains, from the privacy of your own Netflix account. But we should be cognizant of what pop culture teaches us about life, and where fiction ends and reality starts. A romantic gesture in fiction becomes a red flag off the page.
I have confidence that Gen Z and the kiddos who will follow in their footsteps can consume entertainment with a critical eye. Teens on TikTok are already tearing the Harry Potter books to shreds, and honestly, good for them.
But I worry about the kids who haven’t yet learned that the Sociopath Boyfriend is best left a fantasy. Netflix is littered with shitty men, from the truly terrible teen romance juggernaut The Kissing Booth to the New Adult franchise After. Teenagers are still fed the same bullshit about boys who will hate the world but love you better than anyone else… as long as you’re patient and forgiving and silent.
Is it any wonder that girls between the ages of 16 and 24 are three times more likely to be abused by an intimate partner?
Falling in love with a good woman is not the same thing as taking responsibility for your crimes and making amends. And in the real world, that woman is likely to wind up dead.
Being an asshole is not romantic. Stalking and harassment are not romantic. Controlling your girlfriend’s body and sexuality is not romantic. Teaching a man to be less hateful is not romantic. Forgiving a man who calls you racist slurs is not romantic.
Fascism is never, ever romantic.
Right now, my favorite pop culture boyfriends are bread-baking himbos with man-buns and rescue dogs. I want to watch Scandinavian dads seduce Gillian Anderson in the English countryside. The world is hard enough right now—give me a love interest wearing an apron dusted with flour as he listens to NPR.
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Here’s a bonus Eric Northman as a treat.