The noir detective, the rogue cowboy, the sly gangster. White, male archetypes in television and film change hands — white, male hands — from decade to decade. And they always represent a larger idea of what the Ideal American Man looks like. Sounds like. Acts like. So, what does it mean now, when the white, male archetype that is trodden out onto the big screen is a serial killer?
The trailer for the film “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile” — a biopic about the serial killer Ted Bundy — offers an interesting spectacle. The trailer shows Zac Efron as a devilishly handsome Bundy, smiling and cracking jokes through his murder trial while various women with appropriately feathered hair question whether a man like that could really be a killer. Bundy is charming, overly confident, and also — though the trailer fails to show audiences this until the very end — the man who ultimately confessed to raping and murdering least 30 women and girls, maybe as many as 100.
But the trailer skates over all of this, the thumping blues-rock guitar of “A World On Fire” by Philippe Briand & Gabriel Saban giving the retelling a flavor of Clint Eastwood cool. And Bundy — or at least, the Bundy in this trailer — oozes cool. He winks at the camera and treats the accusations against him with a level of nonchalant deflection usually employed when the waiter accidentally brings you someone else’s dish. He’s shown in the trailer as the kind of “bad man” that feels exciting. One almost expects this Bundy to turn to the camera and, with a wink, say “did you miss me?”
Here, Ted Bundy is desirable. He’s the confident, playful-yet-dangerous archetypal man that we as an audience have seen before. Think Tom Selleck meets Norman Bates. And this doesn’t stop at the trailer. A Netflix documentary series about Bundy by the same director sparked a cascade of tweets commenting on how “hot” Bundy was, leading the streaming platform to respond.
Bundy’s apparent “hotness” speaks to a larger theme in the preservation of his personality decades after he was executed. He was charming and handsome, the trailer for “Extremely Wicked” got that right, and he used these characteristics to pacify the women he was hunting. Ted Bundy presents himself as a total heartthrob, the man of your dreams. He was clever, reportedly used a fake arm cast to appear less threatening to his would-be victims. He acted as his own lawyer in court, a startling move of overt confidence in his apparent innocence and, as one lawyer assigned to advise him had speculated, an inability to relinquish control.
Here is someone who, at the start, fits all of the characteristics of an Ideal American Man: charming, intelligent, confident, and, importantly, not one to let the law get in the way of what he thinks is right. Except, of course, his idea of what is right inherently includes committing horrific atrocities against others for the sake of his own enjoyment. He is the Ideal American Man inverted, using all the characteristics associated with this archetype to do unspeakable evil. He uses this archetype to enact his own horrific plans.
It doesn’t take much to connect the cinematic portrayal of Bundy — and the white, male, American serial killer — to the white, male anti-hero trope. “Breaking Bad’s” Walter White, “Mad Men’s” Don Draper, “The Sopranos’” Tony Soprano: all men who we see do terrible things, but who we somehow find ourselves rooting for, even aligning ourselves with on occasion. They emulate all the characteristics we see in Efron’s Bundy: charm, intelligence, psychological manipulation. They have their own ideas of what is right and wrong, and their own standard of what behavior is excusable if it leads to them getting what they want.
“We understand how conditions today don’t allow us to remain clean, and that it’s just a matter of how dirty we’re willing to get in pursuit of what we’ve always been told we should want,” AV Club writer Donna Bowman told the BBC in a 2014 article about the rise of the television anti-hero. The idea of “what we should want” returns to the Ideal American Man and what he represents: power, agency, control, independence. The anti-hero serves as a kind of black hat version of the American Man. Still male, still white, but with a moral compass that doesn’t always point north.
What’s most troubling here, though, is idolization. Case in point: “Fight Club”. Brad Pitt’s anarchistic and aggressively masculine Tyler Durden was, as director David Fincher was intent to point out, a critique. But a large majority of men never got that message. Tyler Durden’s philosophy on life was adopted by Men’s Rights Activists and members of the Red Pill subreddit, a group who believe that the modern world leaves white men at a disadvantage.
This problem isn’t new. Earlier portrayals of archetypal men have encouraged similar beliefs about the way men should be. Case in point here: the cowboy. The strong, stoic — and, as always, white— man who isn’t always on the right side of the law but who audiences are meant to love anyway. So strong was the image of the cowboy in the mid-20th century that it was used to successfully rebrand Marlboro cigarettes from a “woman’s cigarette” to a product that, as one ad described it, had “a man’s sized taste of honest tobacco.” The Marlboro Man was one of many archetypal cowboys — such as characters portrayed by John Wayne and Gary Cooper — who ushered in the tough-but-tender lone ranger as the American ideal of masculinity.
Over time, one white, male archetype got traded in for another, with increasing moral reprehensibility. But the connection between these tropes remain. In an early episode of “The Sopranos”, Tony Soprano asks his therapist “what ever happened to Gary Cooper, the strong, silent type? THAT was an American.” He goes on to say that Gary Cooper “wasn’t in touch with his feelings, he just did what he had to do.” Here, the then-newest iteration of the American male anti-hero laments the diversion away from the particular idea of masculinity, seen through the cowboy. Soon, though, Tony Soprano would prove integral in the inception of a newer, rougher anti-hero: aggressive, manipulative, and, notably, murderous.
But audiences are still meant to root for Tony Soprano. He is the one the viewer follows through the show’s six seasons, who is humanized and made vulnerable, who still struggles with parenting two unruly children. As Ree Hines wrote in a piece for Today, he “made the unlikeable likeable.”
So in many ways, Ted Bundy serves as the next logical step in the entertainment world’s unending search for a more anti- antihero. He’s charismatic, enigmatic, and a raging psychopath. What’s more, he’s real. Tony Soprano may have been based on a real-life person, but nothing beats going straight to the source. Now, the “Ted Bundy Tapes” feels like the proverbial volley for “Extremely Wicked’s” slam dunk of this new notion of the oh-so-bad and oh-so-real white, male serial killer.
As we’ve already seen with the “Ted Bundy is hot” Twitter debacle, the idolization of the anti-hero archetype soldiers on. So far, nothing has come out about men’s response to this portrayal of Bundy, but it wouldn’t be surprising.
Some people, including a Bundy-survivor, have defended “Extremely Wicked” as a word of caution for women, a reminder not to trust every man you meet. And perhaps that could be true. One imagines the uncomfortable moment of self-reflection after realizing that the well-spoken, handsome man who seemed so delightfully non-threatening was also one of the most notorious serial killers in human history.
But that moment of consideration often does not happen at all. Many viewers will not consider the possibility that they, too, fell into the exact same trap that Bundy used on so many women and girls before he beat them, raped them, and murdered them.
To show someone like Ted Bundy in a way that flirts with his innocence does not feel the same as showing Tony Soprano’s home life. After all, this film is coming at what feels like a golden age for true crime content, and one that shows no sign of slowing down. This film is just the newest, shiniest addition to that fascination, but one that feels dangerous. As the latest iteration of the cinematic anti-hero, Zac Efron’s Ted Bundy has the power to form, at least in part, a socially held idea of what an American man is. And, importantly, what kind of American man is desirable. And that’s a problem.