‘The Walking Dead’: Negan as Sadomasochistic Fantasy

Hot dad and sadistic villain -- why casting Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Negan works so well.

In the three days after The Walking Dead aired its sixth season finalé, more than 3,000 tweets featured the name “Negan” alongside the words “hot” and “sexy” and “fine”. At least 80 percent of these tweets came from women, with one of the largest groups of participants identifying as 35 years and older.

I won’t lie: I was one of them.

The Walking Dead‘s sixth season finalé, “Last Day on Earth“, introduces the series’ most contemptible villain, Negan, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan. In the comic books on which the AMC show is based, Negan’s the most iconic villain, far superseding the Governor (David Morrissey) and those shifty folks at Terminus.

According to the source material, Negan – who wields a wire-wrapped baseball bat named Lucille (a lame ripoff of BB King’s guitar?) — is unfeeling. He’s brutal in his killings and rules by instilling fear. In short, Negan is savage.

Negan’s also been described as “one of the most sadistic, unfeeling characters” in The Walking Dead’s apocalyptic zombie universe. In this respect, “sadistic” means what you likely think it does: cruel, vicious, and inhuman, someone who takes pleasure from seeing others undergo discomfort or pain.

But there’s another side to sadism we can apply to the introduction of Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s (obviously hot and sexy) Negan: “sadomasochism” or “sadistic fantasy”.

We All Harbor Such Thoughts

A portmanteau of “sadism” and “masochism”, sadomasochism is “the giving or receiving of pleasure, often sexual, from the infliction or reception of pain”. Even so-called normal intimate behavior like “infantilizing, tickling, and love-biting contain definite elements of sadomasochism” (Burton 2014), psychologists and scholars maintain. To this end, despite what most people think (or want to think) about themselves, some psychologists argue that we all harbor sadomasochistic tendencies.

While we may not be practioners in real life, sexually sadistic tendencies and related fantasies may bubble to the surface via our participation with media texts.

Take, for example, Angel (David Boreanaz), arguably the most powerful and most deviant male in the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003). Yet Angel’s body, which is frequently acted upon by teenage girls within the series, has been likened to a “playground for sadomasochistic fantasies”. According to Allison McCracken, Angel’s body is “endlessly penetrable” and its features, both hard and soft, invite the viewer – girl, queer, and gay – “to linger over the erotic possibilities of the passive male” (McCracken, Undead TV, 2007: 117-19). Another example, Teresa de Lauretis explains that lesbian viewers of female-driven films like All About Eve or Desperately Seeking Susan may find pleasure in the characters’ Oedipal rivalries and, therefore, read them as “sadomasochistic maternal fantasies” (de Lauretis The Practice of Love: Lesbian Sexuality and Perverse Desire. Bloomington: Indiana University Press; 1994: 121).

The female-dominated space of fan fiction also notoriously plays out fantasies of pleasure and pain, including Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey in all their iterations, various Mary Sue fan fictions, and the subgenres of kink and slash. According to Fanlore, even some role-playing games like The Establishment are dedicated to kink or forms of BDSM (bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, sadism/masochism).

“AMC, Screwing With Our Emotions  –  and Panties”

So why might Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Negan elicit sadomasochistic fantasies, leading women (and a few men) to tweet such thoughts:

“Negan is the character I want to hate, but also want to have crazy psycho sex with. AMC, screwing with emotions and our panties.”

“My lady parts and brain are having a serious disagreement about Negan. Now I understand how hate-sex happens.”

“I want Negan to hit me with Lucille.”

“Is it weird that I want to both kill and have sex with Negan??”

I’ll offer three reasons: the actor’s appearance, his simultaneous casting on CBS’s The Good Wife, and The Walking Dead‘s recent dismissal of its fans.

Reason 1: “A Real ‘Hot Dad’ Thing Going On”

First, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, particularly in his current state, is conventionally attractive. He has dark hair, a salt-and-pepper beard, an infectious smile, and dimples.

Not quite 50 years old, Morgan’s also tall (6′ 2″), has an easygoing baritone voice, and carries his frame, which is neither too thin nor too heavy, in a traditionally masculine way. Finally, he often dons thick-rimmed black glasses, giving him an aura of intelligence alongside his rugged good looks.

It’s no wonder, then, many viewers tweeted the following as they watched Negan’s introduction on The Walking Dead:

“Why does Jeffrey Dean Morgan have to be so hot?? Like, I want to hate Negan, but he just looks too good.”

“So conflicted over Negan. I mean, I hate him, but he’s also got this real ‘hot dad’ thing going on.”

“Negan has officially arrived! Jeffrey Dean Morgan, you are one sexy beast!”

For many female viewers, it seems, Morgan’s “hotness” and “sexiness” inextricably fuse with his character’s savagery, evoking feelings that border on sadistic desire.

Reason 2: Jason/Negan, Negan/Jason

A second reason Morgan’s Negan may draw out the viewer’s sadomasochistic fantasies is she may be intentionally (or perhaps unintentionally) conflating the two characters Morgan simultaneously played during the 2015-2016 television season: Negan on The Walking Dead, and private investigator Jason Crouse on CBS’s The Good Wife.

Even The Good Wife‘s writers conflate the two on social media: “Is #The Walking Dead’s Negan Really #The Good Wife’s Jason After the Apocalypse?” (The Good Wife Writers 5 April 2016)

Television critic Ken Tucker also notes the similarities while discussing how Morgan “shape-shifted over” from one series to the other: he has “the same cute beard, the same crinkly eyes, the same slim-jim tight jeans, and the same sly smile”.

Moreover, as Kristen Warner and I explain in our appreciation post on The Outtake, Morgan’s character on The Good Wife is the ideal (cis white) American man: smart, funny, sensitive, honest, mysterious, commanding, handsome, and sexy. To this end, viewers who’ve developed parasocial relationships with him over a season may be less willing to suspend their disbelief when he pops up on another popular series, but this time as a terrifying, villainous enemy.

For these viewers, Negan’s still the perfect lover to Julianna Margulies’ character on The Good Wife. It makes sense, then, that Morgan’s commanding presence as Negan –  swinging around that phallic bat, forcing subjects to kneel before him, telling the cast and viewer “the more you fight back, the harder it will be” – may easily be read as S&M fantasy.

Reason 3: Too Many Head-Fakes

Third, Negan’s introduction may prompt sadomasochistic fantasies in some viewers because they no longer care (as much) about The Walking Dead‘s characters as they once did.

It’s no secret The Walking Dead‘s sixth season has been fraught with controversy, particularly because of the two near-death experiences of beloved character Glenn (Daniel Yeun) and meandering storylines that seemed to go nowhere. Angry at these “head-fakes”, reviewer Erik Kain called out the show’s writers for “tricking us” and then “dragging it out for weeks”.

The season also caught flack for contributing to a trend of killing off lesbian characters. The one positive: Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Michonne (Danai Gurira) end up together.

As a result, if viewers are no longer (that) attached to characters because they are dissatisfied with the show’s premise or narrative structure, then they may theoretically delight in a new villainous character (Negan) who’s forcing the cast (and presumably the viewer) “to swallow his mighty big, nasty pill” and demanding they be his slave.

A 2008 study finds between 31 percent and 57 percent of women have erotic fantasies in which they are forced into sex against their will (Critelli and Bivona, “Women’s erotic rape fantasies: an evaluation of theory and research”. Journal of Sex Research. 2008 Jan-Mar;45(1):57-70). The key word here, of course, is fantasy. As Matthew Hudson in NY Magazine points out, “What psychologically separates these scenarios from actual rape is that they’re fantasies, and women know they’re fantasies.”

We could apply the same logic to The Walking Dead‘s introduction of Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Negan. Many women in the show’s audience have expressed explicit sexual desire for this horrific character, wanting to be the one he beats with his bat, makes kneel in submission, and forces to “piss their pants”.

Within these sadomasochist desires, shared freely on social media, however, is the knowledge that it’s all fantasy, just like the zombie world The Walking Dead has constructed.

Kelli Marshall’s work has appeared in popular publications (AlterNet, Mental Floss, The Week), scholarly sites (FlowTV, Vitae, JSTOR Daily, The Conversation), and academic journals (Literature/Film Quarterly, Journal of Film and Popular Culture). Her work has been featured in pop-culture and humor encyclopedias, single-issue magazines, podcasts, conferences, and even radio programs alongside Dancing with the Stars‘ Len Goodman and Glee‘s Michael Morrison.