Less than five minutes into the first episode of the new CBC drama Bellevue, you already know exactly what type of woman the protagonist Annie Ryder (Anna Paquin) is going to be.
By that time, after all, Annie has allowed a drug dealer to snort cocaine off her chest. Working as an undercover detective, she’s appeared erratic and unstable, but you’re left to wonder how much is actually an act. A comment by her colleague drives it home: “Way to make use of your [breasts],” Annie’s co-detective Virginia says sarcastically.
Clearly, Annie doesn’t play by the rules. She may be a talented detective and a loving, though imperfect, mother, but she also doesn’t bend to convention or care what people think of her. She’s “flawed and complex,” Paquin herself told the Toronto Star in February. A certain U.S. president might call her something else, though.
She’s a nasty woman.
In 2017, the idea of a flawed character on the small screen shouldn’t be surprising. Ever since The Sopranos first aired in 1999, cable networks have delighted in exploring characters who are not only complex but often largely unlikable too. In shows like House of Cards and Breaking Bad, the protagonists commit acts of violence that range from strangling a dog to bombing a nursing home, and yet audiences have still felt compelled to follow them — to even feel for them — episode after episode.
But the protagonists in those programs share a common trait. From Tony Soprano to Frank Underwood to Walter White, they’re all men. Annie isn’t — and that’s where the difference lies.
“I feel like there’s a lot of restraint placed on the way stories are traditionally told around women,” Paquin told the Star. Women on TV have been held to a different standard than their male counterparts. There have been bad girls, certainly — ice queens and vixens and controlling mothers — but those were villains, meant to be hated. On the other side, the good girls prevailed, female protagonists who might be formidable (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) or smart (The Good Wife) but always remained sympathetic, supportive — and, well, likable. Especially in serious TV dramas, the female leads fit a certain profile: pretty but not overtly sexual; amiable and unaggressive; not too difficult, but not too needy either.
In other words, pretty close to perfect.
And maybe that shouldn’t be surprising. After all, the representation of women in television — both in front of and behind the camera — is itself problematic. According to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, men outnumbered women in 79 percent of TV programming in the 2015-16 season, and women made up only 38 percent of the major characters across network, cable and streaming shows. They were less likely to be shown as leaders and skewed younger than their male counterparts. Behind the scenes, the numbers are even worse: women comprised just 26 percent of the top creative roles on shows across the three platforms.
Still, programs as diverse as Homeland, Orange Is the New Black and How to Get Away With Murder are raising the bar, focusing not only on female leads but on imperfect ones too. Take HBO’s limited series Big Little Lies. There, audiences get the ice queen, the helicopter mom and the domineering businesswoman, played by the likes of Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern. Except these bad girls aren’t set up to be villains — instead, they’re the emotional centre of the show.
Big Little Lies focuses on a group of mothers in upscale Monterey, Calif., who take part in all manner of unlikable acts, from sabotaging a child’s birthday party all the way to adultery and murder. They make bad decisions, but they have moments of pain and vulnerability too. They’re catty, but also loyal friends and loving mothers. What’s unique is that the show doesn’t make viewers choose between angel and devil, but rather illustrates the more human possibility of something in between.
And that can have consequences outside the TV universe. “We spend too much time telling girls that they cannot be angry or aggressive or tough,” Nigeria-born author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes in her 2014 book, We Should All Be Feminists. But anger and aggression may be exactly the qualities women need in a world where lawmakers are still debating women’s reproductive rights; where YWCA figures show that only three out of every 1,000 sexual assaults lead to convictions; and where, according to Statistics Canada, Canadian women make just 87 cents for every dollar men earn. The Women’s March in January introduced a generation of feminists who wear the “nasty woman” moniker proudly. Putting them on screen can only help normalize that.
In the Lifetime show UnREAL, for instance, protagonist Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby) — while not exactly the criminal counterpart of Breaking Bad’s Walter White — is murkier even than the characters of Bellevue and Big Little Lies. She’s cruel and scheming, and by being so, she shows exactly why women sometimes need to embrace their inner nastiness.
Going into its third season this year, UnREAL — which airs on Showcase in Canada — centres on the fictional Bachelor-like reality show Everlasting. While the contestants compete over a man, producer Rachel and her boss Quinn (Constance Zimmer) compete against the men, trying to make their mark on the television landscape. As professional manipulators, they exploit contestants’ vulnerabilities until they reveal their darkest secrets and act out their basest urges — all for the sake of better ratings.
While the show made some missteps with a foray into racial politics in season 2, it continues to demonstrate the dynamic many women face. At its heart, Rachel wants to be liked, even to do what’s right, but to succeed she has to get her hands dirty. If she doesn’t, she’ll end up answering to a less-deserving man.
It’s a story many women today can sympathize with, even if they don’t like the choices portrayed. Because if women want to change the world — both on and off TV — they can’t be afraid to get a little nasty.
Lisa Van de Ven is a freelance writer in Toronto.