Did you skin crawl when Bellatrix Lestrange was taunting Harry Potter (“Come out, come out, little Harry!”)? What about when Lucius Malfoy ridiculed Arthur Weasley at Flourish and Blotts, for being poor and a muggle-lover?
Bellatrix Lestrange and Lucius Malfoy, both Death Eaters, members of the “Dark Side” in the Harry Potter series possess what psychologists would call Dark Triad personality characteristics. Dark Triad traits consist of the ‘(un)holy’ trinity of:
Narcissism: When you can’t get enough of yourself, think you are a gift to humankind and deserve all the attention and admiration in the world
Psychopathy: When you are cold, callous, thrill-seeking and impulsive, with no regard for the consequences of your actions
Machiavellianism: When you’re cynical, strategic and manipulative
How are these “dark” characters perceived by their viewers? As you would predict, not favorably, when compared to non-Dark Triad characters. We are more likely to stick up for Harry Potter and soft-hearted Arthur Weasley, than root for Bellatrix’s or Lucius’ calculative ploys.
A recent study, however, found an interesting nuance in this perception. The study participants (24 males, 58 females and 2 participants who did not disclose their sex), evaluated 26 characters (of which 12 characters ranked high on Dark Triad characteristics). These characters made appearances across the 13 film trailers these participants were assigned to watch. Turns out, not all dark characters are equal. Individuals viewed evil in the form of a female character (think Bellatrix Lestrange), even less positively than evil in the form of a male character. Why is this the case?
Our expectations and perception of gender norms and roles was the main explanation offered. We are more likely to encounter a Lucius Malfoy than a Bellatrix Lestrange, starring in a TV show, or headlining a newspaper. Anti-heroines, such as Amy Dunne in Gone Girl, or Black Widow, are less common and less prominently encountered, than anti-heroes such as James Bond, Dexter, Deadpool, Michael Corleone, Jack Sparrow, the list goes on... This is in part, because Dark Triad characteristics are completely at odds with what is “socially acceptable” or “believable” for women. Sure enough, in the same study, when it came to the “non-dark” (more prosocial, more altruistic) characters, the female characters were rated more positively than their male counterparts.
To parse this out further, we will have to turn to the evolutionary roots of these gender norms and roles. Men and women have evolved different strategies to ensure reproductive success and survival. Women, who have a limit to the number of offspring they can produce in a lifetime are more invested in “mate quality” than men; they need to ensure their mate is resourceful and will contribute to their offspring’s survival. The individualistic, competitive qualities characteristic of the Dark Triad male might be counterintuitively adaptive; stubbornness, confidence and manipulation are means, however questionable the means, to a resourceful end. Dark characteristics are also associated with low neuroticism (i.e., they are calm, even-tempered, less likely to get rattled by stress), a thirst for power, and high extraversion (i.e., outgoing, and participative in social gatherings), which can be beneficial, in the grand scheme of things. They are, as a result, valued in men (even as a short-term mating strategy), and found attractive by women. This explains why the dark triad characteristics might be viewed as relatively more positive and less troublesome in male characters than female characters.
It is important to note that the study evaluating perceptions of male versus female Dark Triad characters had more female than male participants. Would the evaluations have been similar if the participants rating these characters had been all female, all male, or had an equal distribution of males and females? While further research is needed to answer this, we can’t deny that perceived gender roles and norms are a huge part of our evolutionary conditioning. The sight of Lucius Malfoy tearing Arthur Weasley down is less shocking, less “out of place” and troubling, than Bellatrix Lestrange’s equally spellbinding jabs at Harry.