Reckless, Dangerous, Undaunted: Pop Culture’s Enduring Fascination With The Outsider
In The Guest by Emma Cline – Service95 Book Club’s Monthly Read for January – the protagonist Alex is an outsider willing to employ any means necessary to survive in a world of rich and powerful players. Marie-Claire Chappet explores pop culture’s fascination with characters like her – scheming social climbers, pathological liars and master manipulators – who capture our imaginations, compelling and repelling us in equal measure…
Emma Cline’s novel The Guest deploys one of pop culture’s most fascinating characters: the outsider. Dangerous and mesmerising, they are social climbers, pathological liars or silent wallflower observers; creatures on the fringes of something who, more often than not, afford us a far more telling understanding of it. Cline’s protagonist fits perfectly into this pop culture pantheon, as she deploys her wiles, imagination and sexuality to survive as the ultimate ‘guest’ in the most exclusive pockets of the Hamptons over the course of one week.
In this way she is another Charles Ryder, observing the dramas and intrigues of Brideshead in Evelyn Waugh’s seminal 1945 novel, or Nick Carraway, through whom we experience the madness and magic of Jay Gatsby’s lavish parties in The Great Gatsby. These are often passive but impressed narrators: the everyman or woman through whom we are allowed to peek behind the curtain into elite worlds of scandal and sadness, seasoned with a restlessness to be a part of it all. It is the lifeblood of Emerald Fennell’s latest film, Saltburn, a psychological class thriller set in the mid ’00s. It is epitomised by Gossip Girl’s Lonely Boy, who cannot help but be drawn into the world he is meant to be caustically annihilating from the sidelines.
Outsiders are often forced to employ amoral or even murderous tactics to survive in worlds in which they do not belong. They operate like maniacal social chameleons, shape-shifting and scheming their way between the invisible but deadly walls separating classes and spheres of influence. Just take The Talented Mr Ripley, Succession’s obsequious Tom Wambsgans, Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharp or Chris Wilton, the conniving protagonist of 2005’s Match Point, who will stop at nothing to secure his place among the upper echelons of the rich and powerful.
“I think there’s something powerful about grifters who are reckless and undaunted,” says psychotherapist Charlotte Fox Weber, author of What We Want: A Journey Through 12 Of Our Deepest Desires. “Their lack of fear can be appealing – even admirable.” We are also compelled, she says, by the worst instincts of these outsiders. “There’s something in all of us which wonders what it would be like to be uncivilised; to live beyond the shackles of moral judgement,” she adds.
Their desire to enter these exclusive worlds is another relatable impulse. “We have a really ambivalent relationship with rejection,” says Fox Weber. “We don’t trust the groups that do accept us because we feel they can’t be good enough, which is tied to diminished self-worth. Yet we are also conditioned by a societal consumerism, where we’re not encouraged to value what we already have and need to keep seeking out other sources of fulfilment.” It is oddly masochistic; we want affection from the hardest person to get affection from, or belonging from the places we feel we can’t access. The outsiders who manage that, naturally get our attention.
But even for those outsiders who do not kill or cheat their way into elite circles, we still feel a sense of ickiness about the gaucheness of the social climber. “There’s envy and disapproval in equal measure,” says Fox Weber, acknowledging that, in conflict with our vicarious enjoyment of their behaviour, we also often condemn them for blurring established hierarchies.
Because of this layering of response, like or loathe them, the pop culture outsider can never really escape your attention. They are the characters who stay with you long after you’ve ended the film or put down the book; the ones who often maintain an iconic status. They are our worst impulses made manifest, and where better to explore that, than in the depths of a great story?
Marie-Claire Chappet is a London-based arts and culture journalist and contributing editor at Harper’s BazaarRead More About The Guest