The year 2000 was a great year for television, some might say the official heralding of the Golden Age. It was also the same year the second season of the series The Sopranos premiered, and captivated the collective American viewing consciousness. It doesn’t seem to have left. At the time, the series and its lead protagonist Tony Soprano were a welcome, sharp, blast of chilly air for the landscape of TV. Suddenly, TV became a place where plot and characterization could have real layers, something reserved before for film only. Prestige cable dramas took off and here we are fourteen years later with a plethora of Tony Soprano permutations to choose from. There’s Ray Donovan, True Detective, Mad Men, Breaking Bad (R.I.P.), The Blacklist, The Bridge, Justified, House of Cards and Fargo to name a few. TV is all the better for the proliferation of this type of male on our screens, however, it seems to have reached its market saturation point. There doesn’t seem to be anything new for the male antihero to say that hasn’t already been said by now. There is one question that nags at me with every new series premiere with a lead that could easily have been made up of antihero spare parts: Where is the female version? I would say her moment to take center stage in viewers’ collective consciousness is well overdue. It’s not just the opportunity to behave badly that I, as an actress yearn for, it’s to behave badly or brazenly in the most charming way possible and revel in it like our male counterparts.
The antihero offered an incredible form of catharsis for both actor and viewer alike. For every actor who previously got called in to only audition for the docile chemistry teacher for one episode on a series now may have suddenly found himself upping the stakes and contacting their inner Walter White for a six-episode arc as a new form of evil. For the average workaday warrior, it was a welcome fantasy to tune into Breaking Bad every week for an hour and imagine what it would be like if they too used their smarts for good instead of evil in a criminal drug enterprise.
With The Sopranos kicking open the door, the diversity of what it means to be male, flawed and mischievous with a potentially lethal edge on screen extended to film as well. Comedy got its teeth back, with films like Knocked Up, The 40 Year Old Virgin, The Hangover and Wedding Crashers taking over movie screens. Guys were delightfully disobeying everywhere and laughing their asses off as they were doing it. But where were all the ladies? As a viewer and an actress it’s hard not to feel left out.
The Hangover is a perfect example of the gentlemen getting to have more fun. In the film, the guys get together for one last hurrah before Justin Bartha’s character gets married. When he goes missing the morning after their big night out, the guys have to work together to try to find him and piece the night before back together since everyone’s memory is shot. The film that drew the most comparisons to this one? Bridesmaids. I’ve nothing against Paul Feig, Kristin Wiig or all the ladies who made that film absolutely brilliant. It’s bitingly, cringingly hilarious, reveling in its uncomfortable moments.
However, other than the very obvious wedding theme, I never understood why they were both so closely associated with one another. The ladies in the film get together to try to plan an unbelievable bachelorette party and wedding celebration for Maya Rudolph’s character. But unlike The Hangover, we see the women in this film, namely Wiig’s Annie, competing with the other members of the bridal party and actively putting a lot of energy into hating Maya Rudolph’s new friend Helen, played by Rose Byrne. The women don’t work together at all and we, the viewers, are expected to glean significant amounts of enjoyment watching the two women duke it out with each other and get into trouble to try to save the wedding. It’s a funny movie, but definitely a lot less fun. As an actress, I would jump at the chance to play a character like Bradley Cooper’s Phil—a married teacher and dad, with a flirtatious and roguish streak a mile long. So why is the self-hating, competitive bridesmaid one of the only types of characters on tap for me? 2013 only brought one film remotely resembling any of the male antihero archetypes we currently see in comedy, The Heat starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy. Sandra Bullock played the super serious FBI agent foil to Melissa McCarthy’s brash Boston PD cop. I saw this in the theaters, sitting in a huge crowd. While some of the critics loved it, and I followed suit, some of the comments on the way out from other audience members stuck with me. It seems they hated everything about it—from the profanity, to the physical comedy, to the aggressive behavior of the leads. Someone even said it was like a bad chick version of the Rush Hour franchise. While even I’m willing to admit that the film was a bit heavy on foul language, the two female leads didn’t tackle any tropes that aren’t already exceedingly plentiful in most buddy cop films with male leads. I thought this would be the start of a great trend for women taking on more bold, comedic lead roles in action films, but so far, it seems like a standalone.
Back on TV, the antihero permutations have also made their way on to comedic TV series. There’s Hank Moody played by David Duchovny in Californication and his cuddlier, big three channel twin Rick Castle on ABC’s Castle. For the ladies? The later seasons of Weeds had Mary-Louise Parker exploring more of her dark side, but even that wasn’t without its fair share of strife and shame and the same could be said of Edie Falco in Nurse Jackie. Kurt Sutter’s Sons of Anarchy has given Katey Sagal’s gloriously vindictive Gemma Teller-Morrow ample room to cause trouble and perhaps comes the closest to meeting the description of the anti-heroine archetype, enjoying her status. She swings her fair share of fists, manipulates with nary an apology or twinge of guilt and gets some of the best lines. However, she’s bound to stand out simply because she’s up against a nearly all male cast.
HBO’s Girls has completed its third season, but even that misses the mark, despite its specialty of flawed, uncomfortable female characters. That show, while groundbreaking in its own ways, doesn’t nail it either. As viewers, we are expected to chalk up their poor choices to age and inexperience. They’re not allowed to revel for very long in misbehaving and are willing to blame anyone when someone calls them on their bad behavior, moments of confidence being exceedingly rare. Compare them with Hank Moody. Though he may be a lot older, he still gets to drink with abandon well before noon, sleep with a rotation of beautiful women, occasionally write, try to be a father figure for his daughter, Becca and generally act far less mature than his age—and he doesn’t give a damn if anyone else is OK with that. He’s confident enough to own his actions to the point of self-glorification and glamorization, rather than bury them with an excuse. He still tries to be a better person and connect with the ones who matter to him on a deeper level, despite his flaws continually tripping him up, but no one in his orbit really makes him feel too ashamed for making mistakes in a way that really permeates enough to induce any long-lasting change. He’s always free to rock and roll another day. So where’s the female equivalent? There’s a difference between powerful female characters written in the same vein as Sagal’s Gemma on Sons of Anarchy or even Robin Wright’s Claire Underwood on House of Cards and the ones who get to actually enjoy their power, strife-free, without anxiety but with confidence for even an episode.
The closest I believe I’ve come to finding such an elusive female form anywhere hasn’t even been on TV lately, but in novels and now film, thanks to the work of Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl (now in theaters), Dark Places and Sharp Objects. I thank my lucky stars to know that her work exists. She has curiously been accused by some of writing misogynistic characters or peddling a deep animosity toward women. I find it curious, because in her novels all of the female characters can be counted on to reliably outdo their male counterparts in hardheadedness. Flynn has been quoted as saying, “The one thing that really frustrates me is this idea that women are innately good, innately nurturing…I don’t write psycho bitches. The psycho bitch is just crazy – she has no motive, and so she’s a dismissible person because of her psycho-bitchiness.” It’s refreshing to see a woman not afraid of crossing over to the female dark side and finding a strong, firm tether for it here on earth, as opposed to the histrionic, illogical caricatures that are routinely foisted on viewers.
In Sharp Objects, newspaper journalist Camille’s priority is to solve two child murders in her hometown, bringing her back into contact with her old demons, twisted family dynamics and more than one potentially romantic interest. Her priorities never shift and neither does the story really, not even after the two men she gets involved with are introduced at two varying intervals in the book. The story doesn’t shift itself to accommodate a romantic through line because the gut-level pursuit of finding justice for the young girls that are now gone is far more important than anything else, even desire. Her thirst for answers trumps that. Writing on her website, Flynn says, “I’ve grown quite weary of the spunky heroines, brave rape victims, soul-searching fashionistas that stock so many books.” Amen to that. If it were up to me, I’d impose a permanent moratorium on women who are forever pining—for men, for a job, whatever. It’s one thing to want something, it’s something else entirely to want it for what seems like a very good, logical reason on a personal level and make it your business to go get it, whatever the cost. It’s about time we as women begin to acknowledge on film and TV that that can occasionally give rise to our darker impulses. “Men write about that all the time, the darkness within and what you inherit from your parents as far as your psychological wiring goes. I felt like that wasn’t there as much for women, and I was very interested in it.”
On a very ordinary level, I’d like to see characters who make viewers want to step into their shoes. Take Ray Donovan for example. The night this year’s season finale aired, the number one Facebook post from nearly everyone I knew who watched the show was something along the lines of: “I want to be him—he’s so cool, so badass.” When is the last time those words were ever associated with a female lead—whether by viewers or within the universe of a show or film? Remember, we are talking about a character who was raped and abused by a priest as a child. His family could give any Italian mafia clan a run for their money with their infighting. He makes people disappear for a living, cleans up after scumbags. He also looks hot in a blazer and jeans, bangs anyone reasonably attractive without any guilt about the effect it could have on his wife and knows how to handle two guns at one time exceedingly well. Both the viewers and the show have allowed him to rise above his circumstances. Contrast this with a female character who inspires her own, but considerably different type of following: Olivia Pope, played skillfully by Kerry Washington. This season, we’ve seen characters mention more than once that they were glad not to be her, or how hard or awful it must be. She’s a fearless woman, with a brilliant legal mind, an equally dysfunctional personal life on par with Ray Donovan’s—and she happens to have had an affair with the most powerful leader of the free world. For someone with so much power, she doesn’t seem to be allowed to enjoy it very often. She is constantly mired in a nonstop loop of strife and guilt about her decisions that’s either self-inflicted or being handed down by another character. There’s plenty of praise for Kerry Washington’s acting on the show, and rightfully so, but the last time I checked no one was blowing up the internet with how much they’d want to be in her shoes—unless we’re talking about the clothing line tied in with the show, currently available at The Limited.
I don’t know who most of these women are onscreen. I can’t relate to very many of them because of the constant anxiety and moralizing they are subjected to onscreen by characters or writers, viewers and critics. I certainly wouldn’t want to play them. I’d love to see ladies with a little more confidence, a lot less guilt and even less shame for having fun or finally going out and getting theirs. I want to see women on screen who are ready to revel—in their power, their intellect, their confidence and their own ambition. I’m lucky to know a few brilliant women just like that in real life—and they stand out because of their unwillingness to cut themselves down to size. That shouldn’t be. Women like that shouldn’t be the exception, especially in film and televison, they should be the rule. It’s time they get their due on screen.