Tony Soprano. Walter White. Don Draper. And just for fun, let’s throw in Dr. Gregory House, Jack Bauer, and a young Hannibal Lecter.
These are not nice men. They take and sell drugs, abuse medical patients, torture helpless prisoners, and sometimes resort to cold-blooded murder. If they aren’t simply sociopaths, then their feelings are hidden beneath several tons of concrete. Their morality is distinctly muted, and they have a shared affinity for social and legal transgression. In reality, these guys are anything from a bad day at work to monsters.
But on the air, they’re ratings gold. In the last 10 years, the troubled, violent, and psychologically wracked male protagonist—the “anti-hero”—has exploded in prime-time shows like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men. Not only are these dramas hugely popular, but they’re high-quality, too: The Sopranos was voted number one in the Writers Guild of America, West’s “101 Best Written TV Series,” and both it and Mad Men appear in Time magazine’s list of the 10 best TV shows of the 2000s. June Thomas, a culture critic for Slate, calls this formula “TV Madlibs: criminal connections, check; emotional instability, check; ethnic background—Italian preferred.” Whether or not it’s original, time and money have shown that it certainly works.
While the male anti-hero is flourishing, the female characters on today’s primetime shows are—well, not floundering, but struggling to find the same levels of success. The role of women in television has expanded over the years, from loving housewife and mother (The Brady Bunch, All in the Family), to sultry sexpot (Charlie’s Angels, I Dream of Jeannie), to endearing working girl (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Murphy Brown), to a strange combination of all three. Never marginalized to the same degree as that of people of color, nonheterosexuals, or trans* individuals, the female television role is often supportive, such as wife, mother, or subordinate colleague, or, alternatively, comedic, in the grand tradition of Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett. Only recently have women started to take center stage in TV dramas, and even a cursory comparison reveals the extent to which women are excluded from the anti-heroic archetype that has produced so many formidable male icons.
Even leaving characters and plotlines aside, the format of the show is telling: TV dramas featuring lead female characters are usually a half-hour-long, while male leads are more likely to have an hour of airtime. June Thomas sees this “feminine brevity” as connected to the female demographic, which producers expect is more likely to watch shows with leading ladies. “It’s not that hard to get women to watch things,” Thomas explains, and she’s right: According to Nielsen ratings, female viewers spend 61.2 percent of their total TV-watching on dramas, and so the network executives don’t feel the need to offer them more content when they’re already hooked.
Men, on the other hand, need a juicier deal to bring them to the sofa at regular weekly intervals: hour-long dramas, highly visible actors (who couldn’t recognize Jon Hamm with their eyes closed?), and, most importantly, a male lead who can swear, shoot, and screw as much as they would like him to.
And that is the difference in a nutshell: People want to see men misbehave one way, and women another. Changing the gender of Tony Soprano or Don Draper produces either well-known negative female stereotypes or glaring anachronisms—sometimes both at the same time. As Thomas says, “We’re just so used to all these damn men”: it’s easier to write popular male tropes about men than to adjust them for women, especially when struggling with historical accuracy and audience expectations. Action chicks like Buffy can be violent, and the endless stream of faceless femme fatales can be sexy, but no matter how much control they have, they still don’t have power. Control is force; power is agency. Control is determination; power is choice. Control is for women; power is for men.
Yet, in the past few years, more and more shows with powerful women have made it on the screen: The Good Wife, about a housewife who returns to her law practice to support her family; Homeland, about a bipolar CIA agent; and, most recently, Orange is the New Black, which features a WASP-y upper-class woman doing time in federal prison. While these leading female characters are closer to the anti-hero tradition than many others—at the very least, all of them have hour-long shows—they still aren’t allowed to have their power and wield it too.
Professor Arnold Aronson, a theater historian at Columbia’s School of the Arts, sums up a couple millennia of dramatic history with little effort. “Power that is assumed to reside in men,” he says, “becomes frightening, intimidating, and damaging when assigned to women.” The earliest female characters who occupied powerful positions were, for lack of a better term, raging lunatic scum: The ancient Greek stories about Medea, Clytemnestra, and the Bacchae all serve as cautionary tales about wayward women whose spiteful natures lead them to commit far more heinous crimes than any they suffered themselves. Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth helped carry the tradition on through the 18th century, where Aronson identifies playwright Henrik Ibsen’s Nora Helmer and Hedda Gabler as the first genuine female anti-heroes (the former abandons her family to seek personal freedom, and the latter kills herself to escape the consequences of her own schemes). Each and every one of these women wields a double-edged sword: They may have power, but men have had it first, and so by default the women are either thieves or petty imitators.
Today, women on TV are long past Greek melodrama and Victorian scandal: They have grit, intelligence, and genuine strength. But however complex they might be, the female anti-heroes of TV dramas are still only conditionally powerful. Like Dexter’s Dexter Morgan and Breaking Bad’s Walter White, they choose to step to the bad side—except, when you think about it, the choice isn’t really theirs.
Consider Nancy Botwin of Weeds, who begins dealing marijuana to keep her family afloat after the death of her husband. Or the “good wife,” Alicia Florrick, driven back to practicing criminal law by a living, albeit incarcerated, husband. Or Homeland’s Carrie Mathison, whose bipolar disorder constantly thwarts her goals as a top-notch CIA operative. Time and again, these women are driven to darkness by factors outside of their control, like mental illness or death. They end up there as a final option, led by desperation, showing strength in the face of adversity and clearly good-hearted underneath the toxicity of their circumstances. At the very root of the matter, it comes back to power and the lack thereof: Men can make the choice to start down disreputable paths, while women have to be forced into the decision.
Of special note is the mental illness trope, which is growing more and more prevalent among female characters on TV. The common term, “crazy,” is like a flamingo: Take a moment to reflect on it, and suddenly it just doesn’t seem to make any sense. Are you crazy if you hear voices? Experience mood swings? Hallucinate laser shows? A flamingo is a fat pink bird with itty-bitty legs, and “crazy” is an ambiguous word that gets tossed around with abandon. Carrie Mathison has been committed and then reassigned by the CIA because of her bipolar disorder, the psych ward in Orange is the New Black is half a degree away from a Kubrick horror movie, and in United States of Tara, a housewife’s family has to live day in and day out with her multiple personalities. As Aronson puts it, “Any woman who steps outside of her approved role is considered mentally unstable.” It’s easier to excuse a crazy woman for thwarting social expectations than it is to accept her lucid rejection of them. The prisoner Crazy Eyes in Orange is the New Black, whose instability first hides and is then revealed to coexist with an innocent, earnest heart, is unaware of how poignant she sounds when she asks naïvely, “Why do they call me ‘Crazy Eyes’?”
It’s not as though Tony Soprano and Don Draper are deliberately forcing female anti-heroes to compromise their full potential. In fact, women aren’t the only victims of the anti-hero trend: Of the new show Ray Donovan, June Thomas queries, “Even if it’s good, is it going to be better than the other five versions?” The anti-hero is becoming a bit oversaturated, especially with some of the prime examples achieving such intense cultural recognition. But as is traditional, women find themselves only gaining access to certain male-dominated fields when they can “fill in the blanks”—in this case, when they can provide writers and viewers with whatever men can’t.
What, then, is the specific purpose of the female anti-hero? Possibly the most female trait of all: emotion. Carrie, Nancy, Alicia, and Orange is the New Black’s Piper can cry and scream and suffer right there on-screen, without shame or loss of respect, because they are women and that’s what women do. Men are stoic, but women are sensitive, even when they hunt terrorist cells and throw down in the prison bathroom. “A man wouldn’t be doing that,” says Aronson in reference to this exhibitionism, “and if he did, we wouldn’t watch it.” The viewers want to be challenged by these characters, to parse the soul behind a psychopath façade. Although it has by now been exhaustively proven that women are capable of being just as sadistic and evil as men, the public is still too tender to risk causing disbelief by the portrayal an emotionally void woman. Women can be bitches, martyrs, or both, but they can’t bluff.
Of all the female-driven TV dramas, Orange is the New Black is the only example of something truly innovative. The cast, which is about 85 percent female and strikingly diverse for such a widely popular show, depicts an incredible degree of complexity in its racial, sexual, social, and psychological interactions. Orange is the New Black is not about women doing what men are too good for; it’s not even about women doing what men are willing to do. It’s about people, with troubled pasts and troubled minds, but also a mix of redeeming qualities, who inspire the viewer to care for them almost instantly. The male anti-hero is right in the middle of his glory days, while the women around him are hoping for an hour in the sun. Orange is the New Black signals a change in the power dynamics of television, for both men and women. Perhaps one day, TV might not only be a platform for entertainment, but a stage upon which the complexity of being human—not male, not female, just human—can be embodied in characters that care more about being themselves than being what we expect of them.