We Need An (Anti) Hero
Female film and TV reviewers are still underrepresented in the media. Less than 20 percent of Rotten Tomatoes reviews are written by women. We encourage you to venture forth and write your own kick ass criticism! This review is written by one of our writers, Jillian Richardson.
It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s… an alcoholic with commitment issues? Yep, and we don’t care. It seems like the most talked about characters on #TV nowadays are deeply flawed-- and we love them for it. How else could Don Draper, whom I fondly call Donny Drapes, become such a cultural icon– even when he ignores his children and swims through his day in a sea of scotch?
How can Walter White be such a phenomenon, even though he’s a drug lord with a murder habit? Well, these men exhibit the qualities of an antihero. They don’t have one tragic flaw-- they have a basket full. In addition, they aren’t traditionally courageous or moral. Instead, when the going gets tough, they lie their way out of situations and run for the hills. Sure, these characters aren’t the kind of men that you want to bring home to Mom– but they’re still compelling enough to #binge watch on Netflix for five hours.
Yet where have the female antiheroes been hiding? Apparently in the shadows of Mad Men and Breaking Bad-- yet they’ve finally emerged. Most recent is Netflix’s new smash hit, Jessica Jones, which has gotten rave reviews everywhere from ESPN.com to Rotten Tomatos. (It’s very fresh, by the way, at 92%.) Part of the reason for this show’s incredible success is the fact that its protagonist is an imperfect woman. She has deep flaws that, at times, render her unlikable. Yet at the same time, she’s always relatable. To give you some background, Jones is a detective running from her mysterious past.
Side note: she has superpowers. Yet Jones’ supernatural abilities, and the trouble that comes with them, clearly weigh heavily on Jones. She refuses to let anyone be close to her, drinks like a fish, and jumps to deliver a snarky insult: “I’m sorry? I couldn’t hear you over that print.” Jones doesn’t even redeem herself by flying around in a cape and saving the day. Instead, she makes a living by snapping #pictures of cheating spouses. Yet, somehow, we still root for her. Like Walter White, she has a worthy end goal, although her means of getting there are not morally sound. Jones wants to destroy Kilgrave, a man who abuses people by controlling their minds. By the end of season one, there are still many unanswered questions about Jones’ past. Yet one thing is clear– we want her to kill Kilgrave, no matter what the cost.
Rachel from this summer’s new Lifetime show, UnREAL, has her own, distinctly different, set of superpowers. No, she can’t lift a car with one hand– but she can get permission from a grieving reality TV show contestant to film her father’s funeral. That sounds unforgivable, right? Wrong. From the first moment we see her, lying on the floor of a limo, prepping a bevy of highly made up contestants for a dating show, we know that Rachel doesn’t want to be doing this with her life.
She’s wearing a “This is what a feminist looks like” t-shirt. Yet despite her moral inhibitions, Rachel still works for Entangled, a copy of The Bachelor, in order to make rent. Oh, and did I mention this exact same job caused Rachel to have a supreme mental breakdown just a few months earlier? This backstory makes Rachel far more relatable... even when she’s convincing women to slap each other for ratings. Perhaps this is because Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, the show’s co-creator, had an eerily similar personal experience. Shapiro worked on The Bachelor for seven years, and, according to Time, had to threaten self-harm in order to get out of her contract. It's understandable that she was desperate to escape:
Frankly, UnREAL is like a car crash, or the Nathan’s 4th of July hot dog eating contest. Despite how ridiculously terrible everything is, you can’t tear your eyes away. You keep thinking, and hoping, that Rachel is going to do the right thing, stop igniting cat #fights of epic proportions, and quit her job. Yet she doesn’t, because she’s absolutely broke– and weirdly good at manipulating people. I personally understand why Rachel has to do what she does, although I fiercely dislike it. That’s the true sign of an antihero. As one of the cameraman says to Rachel as she walks away from a wailing, ball gown-clad contestant, “You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t like the taste of blood.” Or, as UnREAL’s co-creator, Marti Noxon, said in Time, “There are other examples of female #antiheroes on TV. But we wanted to push it to the limits and say, ‘That’s not despicable enough.” Noxon succeeded– Rachel is pushing the despicable boundary to the brink.
Before playing Rachel on UnREAL, Shiri Appleby played Adam Driver’s girlfriend on Girls– yet another show that has gotten attention for putting unlikable female characters in the spotlight. The show’s cast of grown women– if you can call them that– don’t have their lives together. At all. They’re desperate with men, bad with money, and unsure of their career. But you know why some critics can’t handle that? Because it reminds them too much of reality. Audiences can get behind men like Walter White because their lives are so removed from the average person’s reality. Yet Hannah Horvath, desperately asking her parents for rent money and having awkward sex with terrible men, hits too close to home.
As Kerensa Cadenas writes in #Bitch magazine, "Male leads can ... screw over their families and become meth kingpins and still have the audience rooting for them. But Hannah Horvath's narcissism and nudity are reviled." Sure, the characters on #Girls can be grating, but that’s because they hold a mirror to flaws that real people have. Walter White is gunning people down– how many of us do that? On the flip side, Hannah is stealing money from her parent’s bedside table. This painful relatability is the reason that Girls has received so much hate.
unREAL co-creator, Marti Noxon, thinks that she couldn’t have made her show five years ago. “Now #television is so targeted,” Noxon said in Time. “You’re not going for Grey’s Anatomy numbers. You’re going for a specific demographic.” This is politically correct speak for “My feminist show, which is actually trying to make a statement, wouldn’t have gotten the ratings to stay on the air before.” This same idea applies to Jessica Jones and Girls. None of the women on these programs fit into a traditional Hollywood stereotype, which seems to make execs think that they’re less “universally likable,” and consequently equal less ratings. And that’s partially true. These women aren’t easily pegged as the Queen Bee, the Geek, or the Virgin. Instead, they’re nuanced – which means they have significant flaws.
Yet for some reason, these realistic portrayals of women are making a splash in Hollywood that never occurs with male antiheroes. As Sarah Gertrude Shapiro said in Time about UnREAL: “We don’t subscribe to the idea of likability because we don’t think it’s applied to men.” And she’s right. Where is the think piece that explores how Don Draper doesn’t care about pleasing women? It doesn’t exist, because it’s unnecessary. Yet, here I am, writing my own article about the significance of nuanced women in TV.
Thankfully, people are actually supporting complex female characters. UnREAL has 98% on Rotten Tomatoes and is renewed for a second season. Girls has catapulted Lena Dunham into stardom and led to a bestselling book and an extremely popular newsletter. Jessica Jones has rave reviews, and plenty of fans are already begging for season two. Fingers crossed, these shows will be a step towards giving women a more well-rounded representation in the media. After all, a hero is much more interesting if they’ve got a flask hidden under their cape.