Power-hungry, conniving, and vindictive female characters don’t necessarily make for rich storytelling, especially when that rage serves no purpose.
Toward the end of the first episode of the sixth and final season of House of Cards, Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) picks up her late husband’s infamous ring, the one he’d bang on his desk after one of his savage schemes (including stealing the presidency) succeeded, and slips it on her middle finger. The visceral appeal of this season is all about Claire securing her power by any means necessary (and, oh, those means are exactly and bloody) and with Francis’s vicious aplomb. The show derives its narrative momentum from seeing how low she’s willing to go to smite her enemies (which is, essentially, just as it was during Frank Underwood’s administration): One character muses aloud that Claire isn’t sure if she’s “Lady Macbeth or Macbeth.”
Yet, watching Claire plot and kill (which includes threatening nuclear war to preserve her authority), taking power because it’s there for the taking isn’t exhilarating—it’s exhausting. There’s nothing new about the idea of a Boss Bitch being incorrigible and cruel. It’s the same heavy ring, delivering the same hard knock, just on a manicured finger.
But it’s all part of a broader trend. Female rage has become all the rage. TV has been a fertile ground for women who are quick with a sarcastic quip and even quicker to hit the bottle, women who want to climb that corporate ladder even if they have to kneecap the people coming up behind them, and women who are as self-destructive, conniving, and violent as any of the celebrated male anti-heroes of Peak TV. This year alone has brought us Sharp Objects and Dietland, as well as new seasons of Jessica Jones, Orange Is the New Black, The Handmaid’s Tale, GLOW, UnREAL, and BoJack Horseman, and, soon, the lady narcissists of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. The anti-heroines in these shows arrive at a time where women are increasingly encouraged to tap into the anger that we’ve been told to smile through and tamp down for generations.
It makes sense, then, that we’d want to watch our on-screen heroines spit in that sugar and spice and everything nice—to get as raw, as raunchy, as ugly-on-the-inside, unrepentantly selfish, and just-plain mean as male characters are allowed to be. But what seems like a cathartic curb-stomping of traditional feminine mores can have the unfortunate (and perhaps unintentional) side effect of equating being an asshole with being empowered. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with characters being that way onscreen, where assholes can make for rich, complicated storytelling. But the emergence of the Lady Asshole also speaks to a broader issue within the Strong Female Character trope as a whole: When we deem any woman character who shucks off likeability as strong or liberated, we forget that the whole point of their stories is that anger without purpose, cruelty without meaning, and unabated self-destruction are sad and terrible.
Jessica Jones is a Lady Asshole not because she was raped and reacted to that violation with a righteous fury, but because she directs that anger at people who don’t deserve it. She demeans her assistant, Malcolm, when he earnestly asks her to teach him the tricks of the PI trade. She ignores her best friend Trish’s excruciating spiral into a sense of powerlessness, which Jessica knows is related to Trish’s own history of sexual exploitation and abuse, until the situation can only be remedied with extreme violence. Daenerys Targaryen and Cersei Lannister of Game of Thrones are Lady Assholes not because they are ambitious enough to rule the Seven Kingdoms, but because they feel entitled to rule without proving that they’re actually capable of doing it. Camille Preaker on Sharp Objects isn’t a Lady Asshole because she needs a vodka-filled water bottle to survive the seismic echo of her traumas; she’s an asshole because she gets behind the wheel after she’s chugged that water bottle, and because she beds a grieving teenager. Diane Nguyen of BoJack Horseman isn’t a Lady Asshole because she’s drifting and depressed; she is because she’s profoundly selfish, often privileging her pain over everyone else’s feelings.
These characters’ selfishness, prickliness, and hubris, not to mention their careless regard for their own bodies and other people’s emotions, can make them riveting to watch and relatable in ways we might not want to admit. The modern-day Golden Age of Television is a brittle field of deeply angry, spiritually ugly men, but shows like Mad Men, The Sopranos, and Breaking Bad were so resonant because they deconstructed the corrosive appeal of privilege and how it made those men so angry and ugly. They depicted the systems and institutions that give men their power as a fly strip, seducing them with a promise of sweetness before snaring them in an everlasting stickiness that will never let them go—all they can do is flail against it.
Sure, men like Don Draper, Walter White, or even Jax Teller had their own dark glamour (ask any 20-something dude who’s ever made a spectacle of ordering an old-fashioned, quotes the “one who knocks” speech verbatim, or bought a used motorcycle from Craigslist only to sell it six months later), but we’re ultimately encouraged to view their destructiveness as wrong and troubling. We may want to rewatch Stringer Bell of The Wire scheme his way to the top of the towers, or Silence of the Lambs’ Hannibal Lecter assess whether some boorish fool would taste better with the red wine or the white wine, but we’d much rather have Noah Wyle’s winsome Dr. John Carter of ER, the good version of Kyle MacLachlan’s Special Agent Dale Cooper (Twin Peaks), or Sterling K. Brown’s sweet yet intense Randall Pherson (This Is Us) as our next-door neighbors. We get to choose because there’s been a greater tonal diversity in male characters. Women have, for far too often and for far too long, been relegated to love interests, or else the nagging wives and girlfriends—the Betty Drapers, the Carmela Sopranos, and the Skyler Whites who toss narrative wet blankets on our antiheroes’ ethically dubious fun. Being the wife gave them the moral high-ground (well, most of the time), but the high-ground can be a dry, plain terrain.
The rise of the Lady Asshole arguably coincides with the backlash against the ways that this period of Prestige TV reduced women to second fiddles playing the same shrill note. The woman antihero is often cut from the same id as her male counterparts: If we listen hard enough, we can hear whispers of Don Draper’s sadomasochistic brio through Camille Preaker’s or Jessica Jones’ slow process of pickling their livers, and their jaundiced, adversarial outlooks on life. Tony Soprano planted the seeds of selfishness and lustful will for dominion that have bloomed across six seasons of Orange Is the New Black, which has seen its characters grow progressively harsher: Piper goes from garden-variety narcissism to running a prison sweatshop, and in its most recent season, the show introduces a face-breaking bully named Badison who sabotages another woman’s release date just for kicks. Characters like Cersei Lannister, Dietland’s Kitty Montgomery, and UnREAL’s Rachel Goldberg embody Walter White’s advice to be “the one who knocks.” It’s easy to read these characters as a kind of “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander” approach to misanthropy.
The problem with this approach—and with the overall paucity of women’s representation across TV—is that it enables a kind of defensive You Go Girl jingoism around all women characters, even the ones who act badly. Daenerys’ feats of derring-do on dragonback, her incineration of the boorish Dothraki khals and sneering Lannister forces, has launched a fleet of listicles with titles like “The 23 Most Badass Daenerys Moments on Game of Thrones” and “13 Times Daenerys Targaryen Proved She’s a Badass Female” and “Daenerys Targaryen is a Bigger Badass Than You, in GIFS.” A Cosmopolitan write-up on Amanda Fuller, who plays OINTB’s Badison, includes a cutesy-poo poll about whether audiences “Can’t. Stand. Her.” or “Love to Hate Her! Also: She scares me.” The essays that celebrate Jessica Jones as a cathartic flash of women’s rage don’t often mention that her anger can further damage the people around her, who already carry their fair share of pain. At one point, Jessica attends an anger management class and scares the bejesus out of her classmates (including veterans with PTSD) by slamming a rubber ball through a wall—which isn’t being a badass, it’s assuming that her pain matters more than theirs.
After all, the second season of Jessica Jones is about the perils of making too nice with the devil on her shoulder. That devil comes in the form of Jessica’s mother, Alisa, whose brute powers and hair-trigger temper far surpass Jessica’s. Alisa talks a good game about the righteousness of women’s rage, even as she mangles innocent people with a bestial savagery. She functions as a kind of Ghost of Christmas Future for Jessica, a dire warning about the consequences of acting on every spark of anger, every whim to take what you want, when you want it, with abandon. There’s nothing righteous about that. The idea that Jessica is a superhero for the #MeToo age, the idea that we should praise her cynicism and her violence without looking at how the show itself interrogates both, reduce her to her most basic traits and superficially equate those traits with “being a badass.”
Like Jessica Jones, AMC’s recently cancelled Dietland packaged itself as a celebration of “angry, unlikeable” women, including an all-woman militia literally taking aim at abusive men, the daughter of a weight-loss guru dedicated to taking down her mother’s dieting empire, and a corporate executive scheming her way to the throne room of the Old Boys Club. Lamentably, Dietland’s brand of unlikeability was, well, not likable enough for summertime viewers, who seem to savor sunnier, frothier fare. Or perhaps, viewers weren’t ready for a show that was savvy enough to acknowledge that all kinds of unlikeable aren’t created equal: The all-woman militia mowed down anyone they believed to threaten their agenda, including a woman porn star who never directly hurt anyone; the diet guru’s daughter lived a comfortable, insulated life with her mother’s money; and that corporate executive, Kitty, did unto other women everything that those old boys did unto her. After Kitty is demoted by the company’s smarmy CEO, she rants to Plum, the plus-sized protagonist played by Joy Nash, about all the “assholes I had to flatter and humor and cater to.” But then, wielding one of the few HBIC powers she has left, she fires Plum, snarling, “Suck my cock.” The scene is expressly clear: Kitty may have good reason to be angry, but she’s still just another asshole who needs to be flattered and humored and catered to.
“Unlikable female protagonist” has become a brassy catchphrase adorning T-shirts, inspiring Tumblr entries, catalyzing a vast litany of think pieces, and marketing these shows through visions of unapologetic unruliness. When being “unlikable” is so popular, then the concept of “unlikability” feels somewhat meaningless—and certainly not transgressive. If anything, heroines who are more conventionally kind, compassionate, and, yes, “likeable,” feel more innovative. The women on shows like Riverdale, Jane the Virgin, Queen Sugar, and Pose are as complicated and imminently compelling as their grittier, more caustic, and violent counterparts, all without being willfully brutal to other people or to themselves. As essayist Megan Stielstra once quipped, “Somewhere along the line, nice got a bad rap.”
Throughout Riverdale’s second season, Betty Cooper fights against her “inner darkness” and her victory comes in embracing the kindness and light in being the girl next door. Her CW soul-sister, Jane Villanueva, is defined by her virtuousness—not only in the titular sense, but in the way she shows compassion and concern for other people’s feelings without forfeiting her sense of self. (Star Gina Rodriguez was even part of a “Be Kind to Each Other” anti-bullying campaign.) The Bordelon sisters in Queen Sugar may have their foibles and their squabbles, but they fundamentally love their family and their community—and that love is nuanced, rich, and gorgeously compelling to watch. Pose is a beautiful show precisely because the characters hold on to their hope and their humanity, even in the harshest circumstances. Blanca Evangelista (M.J. Rodriguez) proves that a strong female protagonist can be complex without being cruel: She balances the knowledge of her illness with her ambition to forge a legacy for herself in the ballroom scene, but above all else, she makes a haven for her family of surrogate children.
In her book Women and Power, Mary Beard writes, “You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure.” At its shallowest, TV’s trend of unlikeable woman appropriates structures we’d rightfully call “toxic masculinity” in men without interrogating those structures or asking its heroine to move beyond them. In certain ways, these likable heroines are more transgressive than their broodier, boozier peers because they subvert the patriarchal power structures that Beard alludes to. They find their purpose in compassion and community-building. Internalizing the hostility of a deeply sexist culture is easy enough, even natural. Inflicting that hostility through sarcasm and abrasiveness may feel powerful in the moment, but what’s left when the moment’s gone? The new boss, same as the old boss. Learning to show kindness to other people, and to ourselves: That’s the harder thing, that’s the real power.
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