Why can't we have a female Tony Soprano?
After the untimely death of James Gandolfini, Comcast put up the first season of The Sopranos on Demand. My roommate and I are working our way through it slowly. Arguably, Tony Soprano was the first modern anti-hero we revered. Quickly followed by Jimmy McNulty, Don Draper, et al, Tony was the protagonist to whose inner most thoughts we were privy, and who became the first “monster” with who we found ourselves identifying. These days, anti-hero shows are a dime a dozen (Breaking Bad, Justified, Boardwalk Empire) Remember when Dexter was shocking and cutting edge (no pun intended)? So 2003. I’m sick of seeing these tortured men, dripping with self-loathing and testosterone. Where are the tortured women dripping with self-loathing and testosterone? Akash Nikolas from The Atlantic asks the same question.
Alyssa Rosenberg from Slate responds that we’ll never see a female Tony Soprano, and that “efforts to create female antiheroes with masculine qualities like Damages' Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) have failed.” I’d disagree on both accounts. In recent TV history, the best example of the anti-heroine is Patty Hewes, a brilliant and manipulative lawyer. It’s easy to write her off as a one-dimensional “evil” character. The non-linear narrative style the show employs and using Rose Byrne's character as a stand in for the audience makes it harder to sympathize with Hewes, but she’s still developed as a complex woman with fascinating motivations and questionable morals. While the show itself died a slow death on DirectTV, I don’t believe that is an indication of an audience’s ability to identify with Patty Hewes. Damages ran for longer and was more critically acclaimed than Friday Night Lights, a show that suffered a similar fate. And if anyone besmirched the good name of either Coach or Tami Taylor, there’ll be hell to pay.
While Kerry Washington is intensely smoldering and wonderful on screen as Olivia Pope (in ABC’s breakout hit Scandal), I would rather see more Patty Hewes- types. Too often, female anti-heroes are portrayed as catty scheming witches or have to be completely stripped of their femininity in order to be portrayed as interesting or appealing. Frankly, Lena Dunham’s Hannah Horvath on Girls is one the freshest depictions of a leading lady. The viewpoint she provides might be too narrow or over represented on television, but that’s a debate for another post. Hannah is completely unsympathetic and narcissistic and Dunham seems uninterested in making her appeal to audiences in the traditional sense. Rosenberg claims that Hannah’s character never quite “lands”. Again, I’d have to disagree. Hannah is annoying as hell but very entertaining. And more importantly, she feels fully developed. Her actions and motivations might not make sense to us, but they make sense to the character.
The prototype of the female anti-heroine is still being shaped and according to Rosenberg, it has to be thought of differently than that of an antihero. She claims we need “storytelling that deals with our preconceived ideas about femininity in the same way that antihero dramas have served and challenged our understanding of what it means to be an American man.” That is true to some extent. I don’t necessarily want to see a female Tony Soprano. But if the part was written well, I don’t see why that couldn't be interesting in its own way. I also don’t want to see anti-heroines only depicted in comedic roles, such as Edie Falco’s Jackie in Nurse Jackie or Mary-Louise Parker’s Nancy Botwin in Weeds. I suspect this type of character is perceived to be more palatable for (male) audiences. Well, we've reached the next step. Here are some pointers for aspiring TV producers:
1. Don’t make the character the cunning, ambitious wife. Don’t get me wrong, she can be cunning. And ambitious. And have a husband. But there is a difference in portraying her through the lens of the male narrative (like Lady Macbeth) and making her a complex character that rises beyond those traits (Keri Russell, The Americans).
2. Maybe make her a woman of color. Or a different body type. Or a lesbian. Or older. Or just stray from the conventionally attractive, hetero-normative, cisgender lens in any way. This applies to basically all of TV, actually, not just anti-heroes.
Nikolas points out “TV writers write what they know and TV critics like what they know, and since both groups are overwhelmingly male, it's not surprising there might be a stronger focus on an evolving male lead.” DUH. How many TV shows still don’t pass the Bechdel test? And the Shreya corollary to the Bechdel test in which the two characters also don’t talk about marriage or babies? Despite all that, I believe there is a market there for dark, dramatic anti-heroines. Whether it’s depicting a hyper-masculine/hyper-feminine woman struggling with moral or ethical boundaries, or creating new tropes for women, it’s about time to expand the TV landscape.