Why Are The Ambitious Female Characters On Television So Damaged?
9:45 am, April 5th | by Sarah Devlin and Colette McIntyre
Sarah: Okay, let’s talk about this and this. Let me just say, I really like Emily Nussbaum
…I don’t know if I agree with her here?
Colette: How so?
Sarah: Because I don’t like that nearly all of the hyper-ambitious women she names in her piece (“the Hummingbirds”) are mostly mentally ill. I don’t necessarily think it’s a great thing that’s happening on TV right now.
Colette: Yeah, I don’t think picking Carrie from Homeland to be representative of a new type of woman is particularly fair. Homegirl (…eh?) is bipolar.
Sarah: Right! And not that that’s a separate class of person, but I don’t necessarily think that the idea of “the workaholic female lead who is also CRAAAAAAZY” is the most feminist thing to ever happen on TV. Know what I mean?
Colette: Yeah..I found it interesting that Emily Nussbaum wasn’t just arguing that this character type exists — if that was the case, I would agree with her; it undeniably does — but that it is a good thing.
Colette: To her, it’s great that women are escaping the “trap of likability.”
Sarah: I can’t go that far with her
Colette: Exactly — I don’t see this as being inherently positive.
Sarah: See, this is my thing with Girls, too (OH YEAH, I’M BRINGING “GIRLS” INTO IT).
We have to! We’re twentysomething females — it’s in our contracts!
Sarah: I don’t like when people have the attitude of “she’s as offensive and personally repulsive as all the male misanthropes we’ve had on TV over the years,” because A. Why do we have to follow that model in the first place, and B. Men get to have all kinds of awesome archetypes all over TV — we just get, like, two? No fair.
Colette: Well, it’s so interesting to me that the male characters that we find misanthropic, flawed and unlikeable (say Louie from..well…Louie) are unambitious, and that’s why we resent them. But the female characters we find unappealing are ambitious and we are annoyed by their unapologetic drive. It’s bizarre that what we fault a man for not having is what we are repelled by in a woman. According to television, we want our menfolk ambitious and goal-oriented and our ladies demure and self-doubting.
Sarah: Yeah…I guess I’m bad at talking about this because I have a block; I can’t not see female ambition as anything but attractive. Hello, double negatives! You know what I mean.
Colette: Haha, don’t worry girl — I got you. By making these driven women so manic and flawed, aren’t we just further suggesting that this is not the way things should be? I don’t understand how Carrie from Homeland is inspirational or aspirational…
Sarah: Right! I mean, she’s right a lot. I guess that’s cool? Leslie Knope I get. I think what Nussbaum is saying regarding Carrie and the other dramatic characters is that the male “I am the job” archetype has been around forever, without a proper female analog because women are supposed to be about families/love. So it is sort of refreshing to see that be rejected onscreen. However. There’s still…a lot of stuff wrong with them!
Colette: But I don’t think that’s true at all! As we well know, there have been many female characters — particularly in rom-coms — who “were” their jobs, and we viewers were supposed to pity these high-powered women because they were cold and lonely Ice Queens. I don’t think it’s new to have unlikable career women in TV or movies. In fact, I’d say that audiences have been trained to dislike any woman with success until a man comes along and makes her “relatable” and “VULNERABLE.”
Sarah: Well right, but I think what’s different in this case is that there is definitely not going to be a Very Special Episode where Carrie and Brody get married. You know?
Colette: Right, right, I see that.
Sarah: That’s what’s different — these women are going to be alone permanently (is the implication, I think, and the fact that it’s done with way less judgment than usual is different).
Colette: Well, other than Leslie Knope — she got her man.
Sarah: Right, but she doesn’t really fit here, except in terms of intensity (which Nussbaum acknowledges).
Colette: And Laura Dern’s character from ‘Enlightened’ had TWO mans at a particular time. (Me-ow!)
I did love how Nussbaum alluded to Anne Hathaway in the piece because that is whom I immediately thought of…not that I’m saying Anne Hathaway is going to end up alone because…clearly she isn’t. But her brand is identical to this character type: ambitious, successful, a bit manic, seemingly un-self aware. But we all (right? all of us? just a little bit?) root for Anne Hathaway’s comeuppance — why?
Sarah: I guess the tension here is that Nussbaum is saying “Look at this new group of characters, this is a good thing.” And I’m balking at that, because I don’t necessarily see it that way. But the Forbes piece wonders “Why do we hate ambition in women?” And for me, the issue isn’t hating ambition, it’s being irritated that these characters are ambitious and successful and STILL have something deeply wrong with them.
I think that’s why people cling so hard to Connie Britton
Colette: Hahaha preach me some Connie Britton gospel!
Sarah: I mean that character was just such a rarity…You could look up to her personality, her partnership, her beauty, etc. etc…it was one of the few times I feel a TV character was allowed to “Have It All.”
Now, would TV be interesting if they were all like that? Of course not. But it’s irritating that she’s, like, the one example of that. And this new crop of characters gets to have the intensity and the smarts and gets to Be The Job, but they also are “balanced out” by being horrible people or mentally ill. It just doesn’t seem like a win to me.
Colette: Right right right! It’s as if networks think that a happy, successful, and healthy woman could never be likable or popular or interesting.
Sarah: I guess I’m saying that I disagree with Nussbaum that this is a good phenomenon, though I do agree it’s a phenomenon. And I disagree with Forbes in that it’s not ambition that’s unattractive in women, it’s not having something TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD AND VERY BAD to balance it out. Like, God forbid we get our Jed Bartlett or [Insert male character who is relatable but still morally beyond reproach here]
Colette: PREACH! I don’t need every fictional portrayal of a woman to be a work in progress — a Hannah Horvath, all incomplete and searching and failing and messy. It kind of reminds me of that movie trope of the clumsy female lead:
“Oh, this character is too beautiful and charming — no girl will identify with or like her! Quick, just make her fall over something! There! She’s not perfect — LOVE HER!”
You’re right — it’s a tit for tat strategy when it comes to female characters.
Sarah: Right…there was an Anna Faris profile a few years ago in The New Yorker that was all about that — this idea that before we’ll relate to a female character, we have to see her humiliated. This just seems like an extension of that.
Colette: If you get one thing right, something else has to go — be it mental health, a sex life, friendships, etc. Who decided this?! Who told all the male network heads that ladies don’t want aspirational female characters? Why do they think we are such a petty demographic? It’s hurting my feelings :C
Sarah: Haha. I mean they don’t all need to be like that, but please give us one more than Mrs. Coach. Just one. Thx bye.
Colette: <3 u! -TJD
What do you think about the recent rash of unsympathetic female leads? Tell us in the comments.