In an early episode of Starz’s The Girlfriend Experience — based on the Steven Soderbergh film and executive-produced by the man himself — the protagonist, played by Riley Keough, is called a “female Ted Bundy.” It’s not an insult; her male client offers the appraisal with an air of admiration because he realizes that he’s in the presence of that rare, terrifying, but pretty fun-to-watch species: the female sociopath.
Keough plays Christine, a Chicago-based law student who moonlights as an escort. She doesn’t like people or interpersonal relationships, but she likes sex — specifically, having sex for money — a lot. Even in the show’s uniformly glacial, Soderberghian climate, her cool demeanor and dead-eyed stare are exceptional. Every time you see her face, it’s like being thrown into a cold-plunge pool. It’s enough to put her in the Female Sociopath Hall of Fame, right next to Revenge’s Emily Thorne, Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne, and the little girl from The Bad Seed.
Christine is not quite Gone Girl level; instead of Amazing Amy’s cartoonish, “cool girl” sociopathy, Christine’s tendencies are so subtle that you aren’t immediately sure of the diagnosis. What makes the serialized version of The Girlfriend Experience so watchable is this internal debate: Is she just really selfish? Is her professional ruthlessness just an aggressive version of leaning in? Does she feel emotions, or is she smiling just to get what she wants? Is she unable to feel empathy, or does she have to just pretend to be detached to deal with the emotional labor of playing doting girlfriend to an endless stream of whiny rich guys? And after all this back-and-forth, the realization that (spoiler) she’s probably just a good old-fashioned sociopath is unnerving enough to make you start to wonder how many potential sociopaths are lurking within your own inner circle. (I can think of at least three or four in mine.)
Right now, networks are providing audiences with an abundance of “strong female characters”: Annalise Keating on How to Get Away With Murder, everyone without a Y chromosome on Game of Thrones, the great Olivia Benson from Law & Order: SVU. Some are antiheroines or power bitches; others are unapologetically successful and money-hungry or sexually insatiable. All of them are tasked with upending gender norms, but even our favorite “strong women” are at some point undone, or at least softened, by their emotions. Which is why I delight in watching a true female sociopath like Christine screw clients, manipulate her enemies, demand more, take it all, and destroy anyone who opposes her, without so much as a flicker of remorse. All we need now is an American Psycho with a Patricia Bateman and we’ll really be having fun.
This piece originally appeared in the April 8, 2016, edition of the Ringer newsletter.