The "Hunger Games" Prequel: Do Awful Men Like President Snow Deserve Our Sympathy?

Why do we keep trying to sympathize with awful men?


The first excerpt from Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, is now available to read, and the new protagonist might come as a surprise.

You might have guessed the prequel would star Haymitch Abernathy––rebel leader, sole survivor of the 50th Hunger Games, and mentor to Katniss and Peeta from the original novels. Or perhaps Effie Trinket, the eccentric advisor from the capital who, in spite of her position, remains sympathetic to Katniss' plight.

Nope. The story revolves around President Snow, the murderous tyrant who actively oppresses poor people and subjects children to death games as the villain of the first three books. Except now he's just Coriolanus Snow who is, as Entertainment Weekly puts it: "A teenager born to privilege but searching for something more, a far cry from the man we know he will become. Here, he's friendly. He's charming. And, for now anyway, he's a hero."

Hunger Games Prequel Scholastic

Ah, yes, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is set to be everyone's favorite kind of story––an attempt to make us sympathize with an awful man who murders people.

Of course, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is hardly the first narrative to cast an awful person––who almost always happens to be a white man––in a sympathetic light. These proverbial "Awful Men" stories include television series like You and movies like Todd Phillips' Joker. But however critically acclaimed any of these stories are on an individual basis (and some of them are, indeed, very good), the media landscape is oversaturated with them, which begs the question: Why do we keep trying to sympathize with awful men?

In his 2014 book, Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad, author Brett Martin posits that series like The Sopranos and Mad Men provide a "compensatory wish fulfillment" for middle-aged men. Joker, too, could easily be viewed as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for young men who feel misunderstood by society at-large.

But The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes isn't geared towards middle-aged men. The primary demographic of YA literature is 12 to 18-year-olds, many of them girls. Moreover, Suzanne Collins is a woman, as is You showrunner Sera Gamble. You goes so far as presenting its main character, stalker and murderer Joe Goldberg, as both sympathetic and sexually attractive. As such, there's strong evidence that our cultural obsession with "Awful Men" runs much deeper than just male power fantasies.

Joe Goldberg You Netflix

Perhaps our obsession with "Awful Men" is almost like a collective form of Stockholm Syndrome. From abusive partners to rapists (1-in-6 women will statistically be the victim of rape or attempted rape at some point in their lives) to the president of the United States (who has "allegedly" assaulted at least a few women, too), it's almost impossible to find a person who doesn't have an "Awful Man" story of their own. Whether their "Awful Men" are sexual predators, wannabe dictators, or just a run-of-the-mill angry man in your inbox, in real life "Awful Men" are a genuine epidemic. Naturally, empathetic people want to understand why awful people do the things they do.

But at some point, we need to ask ourselves if the origin stories behind "Awful Men" actually matter to us, and more importantly, why we're so willing to waste our time consuming content that paints them in a sympathetic light. After all, understanding why awful people do bad things does not make them any less awful. It doesn't matter if they're awful because of unchecked depression or an abusive childhood or ambitions gone awry. The truth is that plenty of people have perfectly valid reasons to be bitter or angry or miserable, but still don't end up awful.

For instance, if we posit that a significant percentage of "Awful Men" are awful because of unchecked depression (a la Joker), then we have to wonder why depression is twice as common in women than men and yet school shooters, rapists, and murderers are overwhelmingly male. Why do we feel such a strong need to sympathize with the people who commit such horrific acts? Why do we, as a culture, continue to fictionalize and editorialize "Awful Men" into "understandable" circumstances? Is this act, in some capacity, an attempt to excuse and justify the negative behaviors of the "Less Awful Men" in our lives––the ones who are awful, sure, but not so awful? Or what if, at the end of the day, these "Less Awful Men" don't deserve our sympathy either?

Ultimately, Suzanne Collins can write whatever she wants. If she wants to dig deep into President Snow's roots to justify why he thinks it's okay to murder children and wage class warfare, that's her prerogative. But wasting your hours reading it... Well, that's on you. Besides, if you want to spend hours consuming stories about unlikeable but still sympathetic people, you're better off reading My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. You'll still get all the intense socio-psychological machinations, just minus the "casting a guy who murders children and engineers class warfare in a positive light."

TV Features

Why It's Okay to Find Joe from "You" Hot: The Psychology of Sexualizing Murderous Men

We know you kind of want him to trap you in his glass box.

If you take the early-aughts phenomenon of the Twilight series as evidence, there's nothing hotter than a pale-skinned dreamboat who is obsessed with you to the point that he kind of wants to kill you.

While the Twilight series sparked something of a moral panic among concerned parents who didn't like the idea of their daughters and sons experiencing their sexual awakening via glittery succubi, there are similar concerns with the Netflix series You. Though, in this case, the pale, murderous dreamboat in question is not driven by a lust for blood but by plain ol' lust.

If you haven't watched the series, in season one we first meet Joe Goldberg as an introverted bookkeeper in New York City who falls in love with (and ultimately becomes toxically obsessed with) a grad student named Beck. Well, things don't end so well for Beck, and Joe has to go on the run from another ex-girlfriend, Candace, who knows too much. Joe's exodus from NYC leads him to Los Angeles, where we meet back up with him in season two. There, he plans to lead a quiet life while things blow over in New York. But he soon gets up to his old antics again when he meets Love Quinn (yes, she really is named that, and no they never explain why), an heiress and chef whom he ultimately stalks and dates—with plenty of time leftover to commit a murder or four.

Many fans have already binged watched it in its entirety, resulting in a slew of memes and posts on social media about the hotness of stalker-turned-murderer Joe Goldberg.

But not everyone felt this way. Other fans of the show took to social media to scorn anyone who finds Joe attractive despite his terrifying behavior.

Even Penn Badgley, who plays Joe, has been outspoken about how dangerous it is for people to romanticize his character.

And while, intellectually, many of us may want to reject the idea that a guy like Joe could possibly be attractive, that doesn't change the fact that he is. The show is structured in such a way that it assumes his attractiveness, and it wouldn't work if it didn't. As a viewer, you find yourself rooting for Joe, wanting to believe that he is trying to change, or even that from some skewed moral perspective, his actions are justified. A large part of that is because we are privy to his thoughts via voiceover, which are self-justifying (as every person's innermost thoughts tend to be), and as Bitch Media points out, "...In his mind, all of his behavior can be rationalized by his own traumatic past." He is so convinced of this, in fact, that he inevitably sows empathy into the audience.

But it's not a negligible factor that Penn Badgley is classically handsome, with sculpted features, dark curly hair, and broad shoulders. He is, in many ways, the image of the knight in shining armor that his character imagines himself to be. On a purely aesthetic level, of course we find him attractive. But then there's the factor that is making so many people on Twitter uncomfortable: Part of why we find Joe attractive is because of his obsessive and violent tendencies, not in spite of them.

In their book A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the World's Largest Experiment Reveals About Human Desire, computational neuroscientists Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam find overwhelming evidence that heterosexual women are attracted to extremely dominant men. One example they refer to over and over again is the genre of romance novel, which, largely aimed at women, almost always tell a story of an aggressive, virile male sexually dominating an initially resistant female. But, you may be thinking, surely that's different than being attracted to someone who is dominant to the point of actually killing people? Yes and no.

As Douglas T. Kenrick, Ph.D. outlines for Psychology Today, "The Nobel Prize winning ethologists Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen demonstrated that an animal's instinctive drives could often be triggered by stimuli that were unnatural amplifications of the normal cues for which their sensory systems were designed to light up." For example, "Birds who normally sit on their own small light blue eggs will preferentially sit on much larger eggs that are painted a brighter shade of blue." This theory applies to human desire, as well, Kendrick goes on to say: "Research in evolutionary psychology has outlined what it is that women naturally find desirable in prospective male mates. Across cultures, women tend to prefer men with resources (e.g. money)— and men able to protect them and their potential offspring (e.g. Buss, 1989, Li, et al., 2002). As it turns out, vampires often represent exaggerated versions of the features women find attractive in real life." For example, Edward Cullen, the vampiric love interest of the Twilight series, was extraordinarily wealthy and supernaturally strong, characteristics he shares with other vampiric characters spanning over centuries.

Edward Cullen Edward Cullen played by Robert Pattinson in "Twilight"

But while this explains the allure of violent male figures like vampires well enough, what about Joe in You? He is neither financially stable nor particularly physically strong. But there is one amplified attractive feature he does share with vampires: abnormal devotion/desire to the object of his affection. In the case of vampires, their sexual lust is exacerbated by their lust for blood. In Joe's case, he often proves the absolute depth of his devotion to his beloved by murdering for her sake. Essentially, we're programmed to respond positively to signs of lust and devotion from a potential male mate, and if their lust and devotion is amplified to the point of the obsessive, toxic devotion that we see from Joe, there is a part of us that is going to react more strongly than normal. Summarily, we're going to find murder hot.

Look at the scores of women who sent Ted Bundy nude photos of themselves while he awaited trial for his heinous crimes (Bundy, like Joe, claimed his murderous bent was linked to a traumatic past). Look at the endless tropes of the hyper-masculine soldier returning from a bloody war and sweeping the maiden off her feet. Or we can return to vampires for a moment: Between Twilight, Anne Rice's vampire series, and shows like True Blood, it's evident that people find vampires sexy. While this makes sense on a purely animalistic level according to Lorenz and Tinbergena's theory of supernormal stimuli, we all know that human intellect interferes with our baser instincts, and surely women don't actually want an obsessive, violent, and insensitive mate, right?

As Dr. Leon F Seltzer writes in a piece for Psychology Today that attempts to analyze the many women who have become obsessed with serial killers, "The fantasy that seems to be operating in such devotees, and that constitutes the plot of virtually all erotic/romantic novels written with women in mind, is that the 'misogyny and jerkdom' they might have to battle within such super-dominant males is only temporary. That it doesn't really represent the man's innermost reality." In other words, we find violent, dominant men attractive, and to justify this attraction, we tell ourselves that really he just needs someone to bring out his more tender qualities, a challenge that is in and of itself attractive to many women. Not only that, but once the beast is tamed, so to speak, we still know that there's a part of our kind and sensitive man that could become violent and aggressive again should the need to do so present itself, ultimately fulfilling our biological need to feel protected.

Ted Bundy's Admirers at his trial Ted Bundy's admirers at his trial

There is, of course, more than a little social conditioning at play here, too. Laura Elizabeth Woollett, who tries to understand the psychology of real-life women who were attracted to killers in her book The Love of a Bad Man, put it well when she told Refinery 29, "It's hard to say where the figure of the 'bad man' ends and the 'antihero' begins. There's a huge crossover there and, as a result, bad men are often romanticized — tragically flawed, but human; dark and sinister, but exciting. As long as antiheroes are seen as attractive, bad men will be too, on some level." This is more or less another way to describe the phenomenon of believing that a violent, aggressive man is only that way on the outside, that really he is a sensitive man waiting to be "saved" from himself. It's also a feature of the misogyny so ever-present in our culture that women feel an obligation to care for toxic men they feel were "wronged" by society. As Penn Badgley himself said in a recent interview, You is in large part about,"how far are we willing to go to forgive an evil white man."

So yes, you find Joe Goldberg attractive because Penn Badgley is classically handsome, but you also find him attractive because of the very reasons you think you find him repulsive: His willingness to kill for his beloved, his unhealthy devotion, and even the dominance he shows in repeatedly besting and killing other people in the name of love. But don't worry, this doesn't mean that you're likely to end up marrying a serial killer in real life.

You allow yourself to lust after Joe because a large part of you knows he's not real. It's important to point out the difference between sexual fantasy and genuine sexual attraction, particularly in cases where, on the surface, it would seem women want violence and other unhealthy behaviors from their sexual partners. Paul Joannides, author of The Guide to Getting It On, notes that a vital part of fantasy is the woman's knowledge that she is in control, "because she's the one scripting the scenario." For example, a rape fantasy by no means indicates that a woman wants to be raped; and, in the same way, lusting after a fictional murderer in no way means that a woman would really find murder attractive in real life.

So go ahead and calm down, Twitter, just because we keep tweeting that we want Joe to trap us in his glass box doesn't mean we actually want a stalker to murder on our behalf. We know that murderous men are bad; we know that we should desire a healthy, functioning relationship that allows both parties to maintain their autonomy… But that isn't going to keep us from dreaming about this creepy, delicious smile. We'll see you in season three, Joe.