Women in Television

The Rise of TV’s Anti-Heroine


Why the leading ladies of shows like ‘Girls,’ ‘The Mindy Project,’ ‘OITNB,’ and ‘Masters of Sex’ are so important.



In the pilot for Showtime’s new hit Masters of Sex, we see Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson tell a perfectly eligible date—a doctor, no less—that they can have sex without getting tied up in all that relationship nonsense. We understand that we are to be scandalized by this, what with its setting in the 1950s Midwest, and hell, we are scandalized—we still would be even if this were set in present-day Manhattan.

We haven’t come that long a way, baby. At least not when it comes to what our leading ladies can get away with.

Sure, TV’s women are more than housedresses and manufactured happiness now—I mean, it’s hard to imagine that June Cleaver and Carrie Bradshaw could even be classified as the same species. But for a stark reminder that inequality still exists, look no further than the main characters of our buzziest TV shows. For their much-celebrated anti-heroes, the guys get mob bosses, chronic philanderers with secret identities, serial killers, and psychotic meth dealers. Meanwhile, The Mindy Project’s main character (Mindy Kaling) stands out among female sitcom leads for her borderline psychotic … confidence and her unapologetic sexuality. Girls’ Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham) angers the masses by daring to be average-sized, often naked, sexually permissive, and (how shocking for an early 20-something) selfish. The closest we get to a female Walter White is Orange Is the New Black’s Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), who once sorta helped traffic some drugs because she was in love, and thus ended up in prison.

But these are our anti-heroines, and we should love them for it, rather than lament their lack of complete despicability.

The fact is, it’s still a little hard to imagine us getting a female Tony Soprano or Dexter. Of course, we can partially blame real life for that: Female mob bosses are hardly the norm. (Though, attention TV producers, they exist.) Same goes for female serial killers. Masters of Sex’s Virginia Johnson is as close as we’re going to get to Don Draper, though notice the pains the show takes to make her otherwise perfect: Caplan herself is luminous, smart, quick-witted; her character is perfectly dressed, a caring mother, and infinitely more likeable than her male counterpart, Dr. Masters (played marvelously cold by Michael Sheen). You almost think: Well, it’s not her fault men keep falling in love with her and wanting to sleep with her.

The fact that these leading ladies are sleeping with anybody is really the crux of the matter. Notice the common theme among our anti-heroines? They are not necessarily morally corrupt, like our anti-heroes are. They’re just sexual without conforming to mainstream pop culture’s Victoria’s Secret definition of “sexy.”

That’s exactly why we need them. The TV heroes and heroines who catch on with viewers, whether anti- or not, do so because they’re hitting a nerve. So the boys get to explore violence and infidelity—no surprise at a time when everyone’s fretting about a crisis of masculinity. Alyssa Rosenberg pointed this out in a Slate piece that posited that we’d simply never have a female Tony Soprano. The girls, well, we get to explore sex at a time when we’re fighting endless battles over slut-shaming. We need our anti-heroines to expand our views enough that they don’t seem like anti-heroines anymore.

That’s where the men are definitely ahead of us. No one doubts that murder is bad, but our anti-heroes help us explore the nuances of that: Dexter makes us question whether murder is ever good, Tony Soprano shows us that even criminals can love their families, and Walter White makes us wonder if we, ourselves, could ever become murderous masterminds under the wrong circumstances. An entire recent book, Difficult Men, celebrated this movement toward the dark side of guys’ psyches as one of TV’s greatest heights.

Finally, however, we seem to be entering the age of Difficult Women, even if they’re not murder-level difficult. It can’t be a coincidence that Masters of Sex, Orange Is the New Black, The Mindy Project, and Girls were created and are run by women. In a way, they’re exploring what it means to be a woman—alas, this mostly means what women’s relationship to sex is and can be—in a parallel way to how the male-centric shows explore manhood. Men struggle to control their impulses; we struggle to express ours.

Some less zeitgeisty shows of past years have pushed the boundaries of anti-heroine-ism more than the current crop. Glenn Close’s Damages character, ruthless lawyer Patty Hewes, had few scruples. (She even had a dog killed in the first season!) Weeds’ Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) could not have been a worse mother, lover, or human being—and she wasn’t even that great at dealing pot, either. Saving Grace starred Holly Hunter as a promiscuous addict of a cop. But none of those shows ever reached the watercooler levels of The Sopranos, Dexter, Mad Men, or Breaking Bad. The new crop of anti-heroines is showing more potential: Masters of Sex is on the rise after three airings, Orange Is the New Black was the surprise breakout of the summer season; and excitement is mounting for Girls’ third-season premiere in January.

With any luck, women might soon have a mob boss or serial killer to call their own.

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