Tag Archives: deviance

What “Malcolm In The Middle” And “Joker” Can Teach Us About Deviance

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What makes someone deviant? What turns otherwise normal human beings into the kind of deviants who go onto commit crimes, foster discord, or lash out at the rest of society? These questions are often contemplated by psychologists, police, politicians, and people who just want to live in peace.

The answers aren’t easy, but they often make for compelling movies and TV shows. Some dare to offer answers that are as revealing as they are distressing. That’s part of what made “Joker” such an impactful movie. It’s also what triggered the controversy surrounding its subversive message. I tried to explore that message my review of the movie, but in doing so, I uncovered something surprising.

The themes in “Joker” are more relevant today than they’ve been in years. It makes the case that when people denigrate, marginalize, or ignore those in the lowest rungs of society, they’re going to create the kinds of monsters and supervillains that undermine the current order. Moreover, they deserve the chaos and deviance that these individuals cause.

In “Joker,” Arthur Fleck was a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances and societal denigration. While Gotham City didn’t turn him into the Joker, they put him in a position to make those fateful choices. Nobody tried to help him or give him other options. If anything, the help and options he needed were taken away. It was part of what made his deviance both compelling and understandable.

It reminded me of a famous TV show that made a similar point, albeit one from a very different genre and medium. It dared to make that point decade earlier, long before the current controversies surrounding mass shooters in movie theaters and so-called “incel culture.” That show is “Malcolm In The Middle.”

The two narratives couldn’t be more different. One is an R-rated movie that defies the conventions of the superhero genre and explores the twisted mind of an iconic villain. The other is a prime-time sitcom full of funny, cartoonish antics from a dysfunctional working-class family. One is dark and serious. The other is funny and light-hearted.

Despite those vast differences, they convey very similar messages. They both make the case that a callous, negligent society will create deviant individuals within its most disadvantaged. They also highlight how efforts to push them aside or suppress their deviance will only make things worse.

In “Joker,” it turned Arthur Fleck into an agent of chaos who went onto inspire more chaos in others. The circumstances in “Malcolm In The Middle” were very different and a lot more subtle, but the underlying message was still there.

It’s subtle, but it’s there.

From the first episode of the show to its finale, Malcolm and his family are depicted as both dysfunctional and disadvantaged. In some instances, they’re downright destitute. On many occasions, they deal with crippling debt, dead-end jobs, and arrogant upper-class types who look down on them with disgust. More often than not, Malcolm and his brothers get back at them in their own creative way.

Whatever form the antics take, the show never uses the lower-class status of Malcolm’s family to justify their behavior. Much like “Joker,” it establishes that the characters have agency. They’re dealt a lousy hand, but they still have opportunities to make non-deviant choices. They’re rarely forced into deviant acts. Opportunities arise and they exercise poor judgement, to say the least.

The very least.

Malcolm and his brothers didn’t have to lie about what happened to Dewey’s bike in Season 1, Episode 15. They did it anyways and things only escalated from there when the consequences caught up with them.

Malcom and his brother didn’t have to buy their mother a terrible birthday gift in Season 2, Episode 3. They still did and the end result led to them fighting an army of clowns in one of the show’s most memorable moments.

It’s not just the kids, either. Hal didn’t have to resort to unorthodox tactics when coaching Dewey’s soccer team in Season 3, Episode 16. He still did and things only got messier from there.

Lois didn’t have to force Malcolm to getting a job as terrible as hers in order to teach him a lesson in Season 5, Episode 6. She still did and, in doing so, taught him an entirely different lesson about just how screwed people like them are. It’s a message that even found its way into her memorable speech in the series finale.

It’s an important component of the show’s brilliance and humor. Malcolm and his family are a mess. They’re constantly getting screwed over by circumstances, bad choices, and other people who look down on them. However, they never come off as victims, nor do they carry themselves as such. They have opportunities to become less dysfunction, but often squander them.

Arthur Fleck had chances to become something other than a killer clown. There were a number of instances in “Joker” in which he could’ve gone a different path. He simply chose not to and society didn’t lift a finger to help him. If anything, they took away what little help he got.

Throughout seven seasons in “Malcolm In The Middle,” Malcolm’s family finds themselves in similar situations. One of the best examples is in Season 4, Episode 17, which happened to be the second clip show episode. In that episode, Hal and Lois recount the births of their kids as they prepare for the arrival of another.

In every instance, the births are subject to strange and hilarious circumstances. In one of them, Lois goes into labor in the driveway of their house because Francis locked her out of the car. Then, while she’s writhing in pain from the labor, a jogger passes by. She yells out she’s having a baby, but the jogger just ignores her and congratulates her.

It’s funny, but symptomatic of the family’s lot in life. Nobody goes out of their way for them. Nobody offers to help them. It even happens again a few episodes later in Season 4, Episode 21 when Lois goes into labor with Jamie. Even though someone calls 9-1-1 and an ambulance arrives, they don’t get there until after she gives birth. The EMTs even joke about how they stopped for coffee.

Like Arthur Fleck, the society around Malcolm’s family doesn’t care about them. They even go out of their way to avoid or neglect them. In “Joker,” Arthur is repeatedly victimized by both the system and individuals who go out of their way to harass him. His situation is already bad, but these ordeals only make it worse.

Early in the movie, Arthur does show signs that he’s capable of being a decent person. He tried to make a kid on the bus laugh. He entertained sick children at a hospital. He could’ve been a productive, positive force in society. Then, society started screwing him over and bad choices on his part led him to become a dangerous deviant.

While Malcolm and his family didn’t become as deviant as the Joker, they still did plenty of damage with their antics. At the same time, there were plenty of instances that showed that, as dysfunctional as they were, they could still be good and decent to others when given the chance. They just rarely got those changes and society rarely provided the incentives.

It’s a powerful message with respect to what makes people deviant. Some people are at the mercy of bad circumstances, be they poverty, mental illness, or having an overbearing mother like Lois. They’re still capable of being good, but it’s easier for them to become deviant when society neglects them. That deviance only compounds as a result of poor judgement and bad choices.

Yes, they compound a LOT.

There are plenty of differences between “Joker” and “Malcolm In The Middle.” Whereas “Joker” takes things to the worst possible outcome in the descent towards deviance, “Malcolm In The Middle” manages to maintain a more hopeful outlook. People can still be deviant and dysfunctional, but they can rise above it. The events of the series finale affirm that.

Those differences aside, this movie and this TV show offer lessons and insight into something that all societies must deal with. There will always be a certain level of deviance. There will also be those more inclined to pursue it. It’s just a matter of how to confront it. More than anything else, “Joker” and “Malcolm In The Middle” shows the consequences of confronting it the wrong way.

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How “The Society” Humanizes Teenagers In A Refreshing (And Overdue) Way

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As someone who hasn’t been a teenager for many years, I admit I have some unflattering perceptions of that demographic. Ask anyone over the age of 30 what they think of teenagers today and chances are you’ll hear more than a few complaints.

They’re too obsessed with their phones.

They’re too emotionally fragile and prone to outrage.

They’re too entitled, coddled, and sheltered from the real world.

You’ve probably heard those rants before and not just from Fox News. With those stereotypes in mind, imagine what would happen if a large collection of teenagers were left unsupervised and isolated in a large area for long stretches of time. What do you think would happen? How do you see that playing out?

Something like this, probably.

I don’t deny that I’d make some unflattering assumptions such a scenario. I would fully expect that they act erratically and irresponsibly. I would also expect for them to falter emotionally if left alone for too long. Having lived their whole lives within some system of authority and supervision, I wouldn’t expect them to function for very long on their own.

It’s those very assumptions that that “The Society,” a very binge-worthy Netflix show, dares to challenge. This thriller/mystery/drama is one of those shows that has all the right ingredients to play up every tired trope that teen-centered television show has explored for years. That was certainly what I expected when I discovered the show. I freely admit that those expectations were wrong.

The premise of “The Society” is built around a strange mystery that “Lost” fans should appreciate. One day, a large contingent of high school students get on a bus and leave the affluent New England town of West Ham for a 10-day camping trip. For reasons not yet revealed, the buses turn around and drop them off exactly where they picked them up.

Upon returning, these teenagers find out that all the adults in their town are gone. Near as they can tell, everyone just picked up and left. To further compound the mystery, they find out that all the paths leading out of the town have become dead ends. There are no neighboring towns to visit. As far as they know, there’s nothing but endless forests in every direction.

It’s genuine mystery with distressing implications. While the specifics are only partially explored in the first season, the mystery is only part of what makes the “The Society” such a compelling show. It doesn’t just put a bunch of hormonal, irrational teenagers in an enclosed area and let the drama tell the story. The show dares to humanize teenagers in a way that is exceedingly rare in a TV show.

By that, I’m not just referring to a handful of character that are well-developed and fleshed out. While there are certainly plenty of those in this show, it approaches how teenagers conduct themselves with more balance and nuance. It even makes the case that, in dire situations, they can come together and cooperate as well as full-fledged adults.

In the beginning, that’s not immediately apparent. When they all return to West Ham and find out the adults are gone, they react the way most would expect of decadent, hormonal teenagers if they were left unsupervised all night. However, the extent of their decadence never goes beyond a certain point.

To a point, being the key term.

Sure, many drink, they dance, and they hook up. A few just go home and turn in for the night, thinking nothing is amiss. They don’t do anything too outrageous, though. In essence, they conduct themselves the same way most single adults would if they knew there were no police or authority figures to stop them.

After that first night, though, things start getting serious. These teenagers, who still come off as kids in the first few episodes, realizes that something has gone very wrong. Their parents are gone. The adults are gone. Their entire town is completely cut off. They have no connection to the world beyond their town. They have a finite supply of food and little experience in terms of governing themselves.

It’s a scary situation. Some handle it better than others, but a few start to crack under the pressure. For some, especially Campbell Eliot and Lexie, the situation reveals sides of their personality that probably wouldn’t have otherwise emerged. That tends to happen with most people in extreme circumstances, but being a teenager tends to raise the stakes even more.

The fun and games quickly end. People start getting hurt. There are even a few deaths, which has a significant impact on everyone in the town. It sends a clear, unambiguous message. This isn’t just about hanging in there until their parents find them. They have to survive and they can’t do that unless they work together.

On paper, it sounds like it can only end in disaster and it certainly comes close, especially towards the end of the first season. Again, these are teenagers. Most people don’t expect them to function beyond a certain point. While “The Society” doesn’t strip away everything in the mold of “Lord of the Flies,” it removes enough to make the situation dire.

They still have electricity, running water, and shelter. However, their food supply is finite and there’s a distressing lack of expertise in everything from basic medical care to fixing a car. In order to survive, they must create a system of governance to keep the peace. If they don’t, then everybody suffers.

This is where “The Society” really shines, both as a story and as a concept. It’s also where it explores how teenagers, despite their maturity and lack of experience, can come together when they have to. They’re not perfect, but neither are experienced adults. They do find themselves in painful, heart-wrenching situations that include murder, illness, and despair. However, things never totally fall apart.

To anyone who has ever tried to explain student loan debt to a teenager, it almost seems absurd. The idea that a bunch of unsupervised teenagers can somehow form a functioning society just doesn’t fit with the common narrative surrounding teenagers.

In that narrative, things always tend to devolve until the adults return to impart the proper amount of discipline. Look at any movie, sitcom, or rowdy music video and the themes often come back to teenagers being out of control and needing the discipline of responsible adults. “The Society” makes the case that teenagers can become responsible on their own, albeit after some setbacks.

There are still many factors working against them. We’ve yet to see what happens to the citizens of New Ham, as they dubbed it, when the food runs out and they have to start farming the land. We also haven’t seen them endure a harsh New England winter. However, “The Society” never gives the impression that these young people are incapable of overcoming these challenges.

By the end of the first season, it’s easy to root for them. The emotional toll is palpable and so are the difficult decisions that many end up facing. Over the course of the show, however, it’s easy to see the progression that they all experience. It’s hard to even see them as teenagers anymore. Some conduct themselves as true, full-fledged adults.

While the mystery surrounding “The Society” is still unfolding, complete with fan theories and potential clues, the show’s approach to depicting teenagers is its greatest accomplishment in my opinion. If there is a second season, I’m definitely interested in seeing how these characters and their over-arching story progresses.

I doubt “The Society” will change anyone’s current attitudes of teenagers. There will surely be other shows and movies that double down on the many stereotypes surrounding them. If nothing else, “The Society” shows that teenagers are capable of carrying a story without adults complaining about them.

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Gender, Psychopaths, And The (Revealing) Differences

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Psychopaths are akin to the nastiest side-effects of the human condition. They are, by their nature, an extreme manifestation of certain traits that often run counter to humanity’s best strengths. A big part of our success, as a species, is our ability to coordinate, cooperate, and empathize with one another in ways that balance selflessness with survival. Psychopaths completely throw off this balance.

Between popular misconceptions and a glut of TV shows and movies that glorify psychopaths, most people don’t know the specifics of these twisted minds. In a medical context, psychopathy isn’t considered a mental illness like schizophrenia or OCD. It’s a personality disorder in which individuals exhibit a set of common traits such as:

Having little to no empathy, conscious, or capacity for guilt

Poor impulse control and reckless disregard for the consequences of their actions

A low threshold for boredom coupled with a high capacity for stimulation

Little respect for authority and a predilection for controlling others

Excessively high self-esteem and strong inclination towards selfish behavior

Basically, these are traits consistent with every classic supervillain ever made. Look at all the defining traits for a character like Lex Luthor. That’s the essence of a psychopath. It’s not just that they’re more selfish and less likely to regret bad behavior. They take their selfishness to an extreme and regret doesn’t even enter the equation. Guilt, for a psychopath, may as well be an alien concept.

Naturally, that kind of deviant behavior ensures that psychopaths are highly represented in prison. While they’re not always violent, they tend to be cold and calculating in their actions, not caring for mortality, law, or social norms. From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes them useful as ancient blood-thirsty warriors and modern dictators. In ordinary society, though, they can be dangerous.

However, and this is where discussions generally get heated, that danger manifests differently when gender enters the equation. While men, women, and everything in between are equally prone to becoming psychopaths, an emerging body of research is showing that the effect is not entirely equal.

One recent study revealed that while female psychopaths share most of the same traits as their male counterparts, those traits vary in a few key ways. They’re just as inclined to selfishness, manipulation, and deviance. They just go about it differently. You could even argue they’re more cunning in their approach.

That same study also showed that female psychopathy is frequently attributed to mental illness or other disorders, such as borderline personality disorder. While there often is overlap, it’s actually somewhat convenient from the perspective of a psychopath. It allows them to cloak their psychopathic behavior as an illness that warrants sympathy.

That approach does plenty to serve the interest of the psychopath because sympathy is an easy emotion to manipulate. Others don’t see them as selfish, callous, or reckless. They see them as victims. That means they need treatment, attention, and care, which can both stroke their ego and serve their interests. It’s working smarter and not harder.

While it’s difficult to know for sure whether someone has a legitimate issue with mental illness, the fact people are more prone to attribute psychopathic behavior with illness in women reveals something critical about our approach to gender. We’re perfectly fine labeling a man a psychopath if he fits the criteria, but we’re more inclined to make excuses for women.

Some of that, in my opinion, has more to do with popular culture than gender politics. When most people think of a psychopath, the first image that comes to mind isn’t some devious woman who emotionally manipulates everyone around her to get what she wants. They tend to conjure images of villains like Lex Luthor and serial killers like Ted Bundy.

That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of female psychopaths in popular culture. From the Wicked Witch of the West to Regina George in “Mean Girls,” most people can think of at least one female psychopath in fiction. Some can even identify a few notable female psychopaths from history. However, the fact they’re not the first image that comes to mind when we think of psychopaths is telling.

On some levels, we don’t want to believe that women can be as psychotic as men. Historically, society has been less inclined to attribute heinous crimes to women. More recently, especially with the anti-harassment movement, there’s an even greater tendency to give women the benefit of the doubt, even when there are documented cases of deceit.

Another major difference manifests in the preferred tactics that psychopaths utilize. One study by the International Journal of Women’s Health concluded that female psychopaths are more included to use flirting and sexuality to manipulate others into serving their selfish ends. While I doubt that’ll surprise anyone familiar with the traits of a psychopath, it further plays into a distinct gender-driven narrative.

Some of that is due to logistics. Male psychopaths tend to bully others more directly because of basic strength differences. A female psychopath is less capable of imposing their will on someone physically, but emotions can be every bit as powerful as muscles. When sex enters the equation, the incentives get even stronger.

These methods can be both effective and devious, but they serve the same goal. It helps the psychopath get what they want, be it attention, money, power, or just a good thrill. Psychopaths have a low threshold for boredom and a high threshold for satisfaction so they need to use whatever tactics work best for them. Women just work with different tools.

The end results for male and female psychopaths is just as striking. While all psychopaths care little for law or morality, female psychopaths are less inclined to commit homicide. They’re also less likely to end up in prison, but that may just be a byproduct of having different tactics that make killing less appealing to a psychopath’s interests.

Now, and I wish I didn’t have to make this disclaimer, none of this is to imply that female psychopaths are worse than male psychopaths. At the end of the day, the damage done by psychopathic behavior is gender neutral. Using, abusing, and manipulating people for selfish ends is deplorable, regardless of what body parts someone has or doesn’t have.

There’s still something to be said about how psychopaths conduct themselves and how we react to their behavior. In some ways, we may be doing female psychopaths a favor by approaching them differently than their male counterparts. Psychopaths don’t need much incentive to take advantage of other peoples’ more considerate tendencies. Our attitudes towards gender are only making their job easier.

Like it or not, psychopaths are part of our society. Some of them even wield a distressing amount of power and influence. This is one domain in which we have to be brutally honest and exceedingly fair in how we deal with psychopaths of any gender because they most definitely won’t.

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Prison Or Brain Hacking? A Choice That May Shape Our Future

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How does a civilized society deal with its least civilized individuals? This is a question that every society has had to answer, going back to the hunter/gatherer era. We live in an imperfect world full of imperfect individuals. Some are more imperfect than others, so much so that it’s not always possible to reform them into functional members of society.

Most people who commit crimes are not monsters, nor are they sadists who get their joy by torturing the innocent. A vast majority are just people who find themselves in bad situations where they make wrong decisions, exercise poor judgment, or lack impulse control. For these people, fines and brief imprisonment are usually sufficient.

For those who become career criminals, neither respecting the law nor seeking to abide by it, the current system is woefully inadequate. It’s part of the reason why criminal justice reform has become a hot topic. We’re finally learning that throwing people into prisons where they’re dehumanized, degraded, and tortured doesn’t help them become productive members of society. Go figure.

There’s plenty of room for improvement. Some countries have demonstrated that there are more effective, more humane ways to treat criminals. However, even those systems have their limits. As long as human beings remain an imperfect species, we’ll still have to deal with these deviant, violent, and inherently dangerous individuals.

For the moment, our options for dealing with these people are few. It primarily involves incarceration or intense therapy, often coupled with drug therapy. While this can be helpful to some, there are severe limitations. Some individuals don’t even want treatment and even those who are caught don’t always respond.

With that in mind, allow me to present a not-quite-hypothetical scenario. What if, instead of prison or therapy, we gave offending criminals an option to undergo an invasive treatment that affects the primary source of their deviant behavior in the brain? Jail is still an option for those who aren’t keen on messing with their brain wiring, but for certain people, an alternative is an alternative.

What I just described is one of those concepts in which the science is there, but the technology and the courts haven’t caught up to it. I know whenever I talk about emerging technology, be it sex robots or artificial wombs, I venture pretty far into speculation territory. Some of these advances rely on science and tools that don’t yet exist. This isn’t one of those cases.

In July 2018, the Journal of Neuroscience published a study revealing that targeted stimulation of the prefrontal cortex reduced aggressive tendencies in test subjects. Before you start getting fever dreams of mad scientists strapping people to gurneys and sticking wires in their ears, you can rest easy. This isn’t the kind of electroshock treatment that find their way into one too many horror movies.

These treatments have ground-breaking implications. They prove that it’s possible to temper or mitigate certain behaviors in people. The study doesn’t specify the limits of the effects or if it can be applied to something other than aggressive behaviors. It’s still a proof of concept and one that could compound the impact of other emerging technologies.

We already have tools like CRISPR that allow us to tweak our genes. We also have companies like Neuralink that are actively working on implants that could fix, augment, or expand our brain capacity. While men like Elon Musk and Ray Kurzweil often discuss these advances within the context of keeping humanity on pace with artificial intelligence, there will likely be some interim uses for these technologies.

Tempering violent behavior in people with significant cognitive impairments is just one possible use, but one that has the potential to change how we think about crime and punishment. Think back to those people I mentioned earlier who just inherently violent. They can’t manage their emotions or control their anger. They don’t think before they act and some don’t even feel guilty about what they do.

Like it or not, these people exist. I’ve known people in my life who have terrible impulse control and fly into a rage over the smallest things. Some of those people have had issues with the law and I often see in them a sense of never-ending frustration. Many don’t like that they have these issues. A few have tried to get help, but it doesn’t always work.

I suspect that if some of those people were given a chance to treat their tendencies with targeted shock therapy or a brain implant, they would jump at the chance. Deviant tendencies aside, they seek some level of function in their lives. If tweaking their brain is the difference between prison and freedom, then they’ll take that risk.

Turning people who might have been unrepentant psychopaths into productive, non-violent members of society is an objective good. The technology to do just that is not that far off and more study could help us refine the process, so much so that prison might be less necessary in certain cases. Given how expensive it is to imprison people, it’s an alternative worth pursuing.

Along with that undeniable good, however, there are plenty of potential dangers. Anyone who has ever seen one too many psychological thrillers or just read “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest,” can easily imagine how this kind of technology could be abused.

Tempering someone’s violent behaviors is all well and good, but why would it stop there? The brain is capable of all sorts of behaviors, deviant and otherwise. Say a society determines that other non-violent behaviors, be it sexual promiscuity or binge-watching Netflix for too many hours, are not socially desirable. What’s to stop them from imposing this on their citizens?

Some countries probably already fantasize about technologies that enable them to directly pacify their citizens, rendering them weak, passive, and easily manipulated. In his famous novel, “1984,” George Orwell called these people proles. However, in the book, the deviants had to be tortured and re-educated. If Big Brother had access to this technology, it would be a simple medical procedure.

That has plenty of terrifying possibilities for abuse. What if someone uses brain stimulation to prevent people from having homosexual urges? What if someone uses it to treat those who identify as transgender? There’s no evidence that the techniques in the study would work on that, but there’s no evidence to say it’s impossible.

Its use will definitely be controversial. That much, I’m certain of. It’s not advanced enough to become a legitimate treatment for anything. At the moment, direct brain stimulation is utilized for a specified set of conditions and it’s often a last resort. Using it on healthy people who just want to cull their violent urges is uncharted territory.

Whether it enters the picture for criminal justice reform is anyone’s guess, but if the process works, someone who has dealt with one too many repeat offenders will try to use it. From there, the precedent will be set. It’s hard to say what form it’ll take, but it’ll take society into uncharted territory with respect to controlling our minds.

Perhaps, at first, the process would be voluntary and only be presented in conjunction with jail or some other treatment. It’s also possible that the courts will determine a strict set of criteria for when the state could force this treatment onto someone. There are probably a few repressive governments who would try to use this on an industrial scale. I won’t say they’re names, but most people know who they are.

Like any emerging technology, there are risks and rewards worth considering. We stand to benefit greatly by having a society with as few violent individuals as possible. We also stand to lose a great deal if we allow misguided authority figures to determine how we use this technology.

I’m not qualified to determine whether or not someone should have their brain hacked. I don’t know that anyone is. However, I also don’t deny that the human brain, as magnificent as it is, has plenty of flaws. We should go about fixing those flaws, especially in people who are disproportionately impacted by them. We just have to be very careful about how we manage it.

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