On TV, there’s a new guard of heroines calling the shots. From chipper Leslie Knope on Parks and Recreation to fractured Carrie Mathison on Homeland to narcissistic Amy Jellicoe on Enlightened, we see women anchoring our favorite shows. So what makes these characters so often cringe-worthy?
In The New Yorker, TV critic Emily Nussbaum took note of this new small screen female archetype, the Hummingbird:
They’re different ages; some are more manic, some sweeter or more sour…But they do share traits: they’re idealistic feminine dreamers whose personalities are irritants. They are not merely spunky, but downright obsessive. And most crucially, these are not minor characters. On each show, the Hummingbird is a protagonist—an alienating-yet-sympathetic figure whose struggles are taken seriously and considered meaningful.
At first glance, this seems like a mere gender shift from the lauded male antiheroes whom TV audiences have embraced. Think Tony Soprano, Dexter, Don Draper, and Walter “Heisenberg” White. And to some extent, it’s true: Contemporary audiences love to root for the bad guy, so why not the overwhelmingly eager woman?
Because—sigh—gender roles. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO and author of Lean In, said in her 2010 TED talk, “Success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women.” (To wit, the March 18th issue of Time posits that Sandberg’s success, rather than her problematic trickle-down feminism approach, is to blame for Sandberg’s own unlikability.) Feministing founder Jessica Valenti wrote in The Nation that the likability factor presents a problem for ambitious women:
Women adjust their behavior to be likable and as a result have less power in the world. And this desire to be liked and accepted goes beyond the boardroom—it’s an issue that comes up for women in their personal lives as well, especially as they become more opinionated and outspoken.
So because patriarchal culture emphasizes that women must be likable, our bold and sometimes morally ambiguous TV heroines often face more scrutiny than their male counterparts. Audiences bristle over characters like Enlightened’s Amy (Laura Dern); she’s both idealistic in her activism against corporate overlord Abaddonn Industries and narcissistic in her pursuit of being featured on the front page of the L.A. Times. This has translated into low viewership for the HBO drama, which just wrapped up its second season and may not get a third.
But I wonder whether it’s audiences’ sexist distaste for a complex female lead, not just her so-called unlikability, that caused poor numbers for the show. Enlightened’s showrunner Mike White said the following to The Huffington Post:
It was interesting how there was this real strong aversion from certain quarters to [Amy’s] character….It feels like, unless there’s a sort of normative male voice or a normative male centerpiece to a show—even if the guy’s a murderer or whatever—[a show is] taken a little less taken seriously.
So it’s not just the Hummingbird’s limitless energy and eagerness that garners criticism. It’s female characters, period.
I think this is particularly true for heroines of color such as Scandal’s Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington). On xoJane, Scandal fan Christiana Mbakwe said that her peers fumed at her for liking a show about a “glorified mistress.” However, she disagreed with that assessment and with the underlying assumption that ambivalent characters make for corrupt TV:
I do not believe it’s Olivia Pope’s job to be our moral compass or the beacon of hope for (black) women everywhere. Ultimately, she is a television character. Do I condone Olivia’s behavior? No. But I do not believe her imperfections mean her story isn’t worth exploring.
It’s true that Olivia bears the heavy burden of representation—she’s the first black female lead character in a TV network drama since 1974. But she shouldn’t have to be a paragon. In fact, the best characters on TV rarely are.
I wonder, then, precisely how much hostility toward women on TV and women in real life is due to the sexist expectation of likability, and how much is due to the sexist expectation of having women in the background, period. Despite these patriarchal setbacks, Jessica Valenti emphasized the need to press on: “What’s better than being roundly liked is being fully known—an impossibility both professionally and personally if you’re so busy being likable that you forget to be yourself.”