ENTERTAINMENT

Anatomy Of The Female Antihero

Meet the protagonist of "UnREAL" -- one of the only leading female antiheroes on TV.

There are a lot of shitty men on TV. In its simplest form, the so-called golden age of television is basically a timeline demarcated by Tony Soprano, Don Draper and Walter White. The past decade of programming has been colored by a clear fascination with the antihero, but where are all the female counterparts?

Imagine, if you will, a female version of Tony Soprano. Maybe her name is Antonia and they call her "Toni" for short. She spends her days waddling around in a robe and shoving capicola in her face, while alternately talking about ducks and ordering gratuitously violent murders.  She's had several gumars, who are all, by the way, objectively more attractive than her. She's despicable, but we forgive Toni, because her mom's a real "c" and, hey, she's just clinging desperately to the last strands of the matriarchy!

Yeah, it's pretty impossible to imagine. The body-centric think pieces alone could fuel a subsection of Jezebel, though there'd be plenty more "problematic" elements than that. The female antihero is, it seems, as difficult to accept as she is to write. There are infinitely more obstacles faced by leading ladies making morally questionable choices while hoping to keep viewers engaged. The gendered likability issue of the small screen has never been so clear as in our willingness to accept serial-philandering murderers and meth cooks, just so long as they're men.

The most basic obstacle with setting up a female antihero (antiheroine?) is sympathy. It doesn't take much for us to reject a woman as "unlikable." Consider that audiences criticized Skyler White's unpleasant reactions to having a drug lord, murderer husband more than her drug lord, murderer husband himself.

"There's this weird thing ingrained in our culture that it's no fun to watch a woman out of control. You know, versus with a guy out of control, where the idea is that's just what they do," said "Bridesmaids" director Paul Fieg when discussing the rise of the woman-child. Of course, gaining audience acceptance is far trickier when said woman is not merely lost on the way to adulthood but inherently flawed on an ethical level.

In crafting a female antihero, the double-standard of likability is then compounded by the limited way we process fictional women. All too often, female characters are denied complexity by both creators and consumers. As "UnREAL" co-creator Marti Noxon put it in a recent interview with The Huffington Post, "A lot of people want to reduce female characters to one thing."

Given the prevailing mode of watching women on screen, that "one thing" often requires likability, prohibiting leading ladies from being anything but. Combine the lack of nuance with the demand for the sympathetic, and you've got something resembling a sexist algebra equation in which X equals "an almost complete lack of female antiheroes."

Enter Rachel Goldberg. The protagonist of "UnREAL" and one of the only leading female antiheroes on TV.

"UnREAL" takes place behind the scenes of "Everlasting" -- a "Bachelor"-style reality TV show, which we can only hope is more morally deranged than its real-life inspiration. After a meltdown on set climaxing in a DUI, producer Rachel is indebted to the show. If she wants her boss, Quinn, to help drop the charges against her, she'll need to deliver her uncanny ability to manipulate participants for yet another season.

When we first meet Rachel, she is cast as an aesthetic foil to the contestants filling a limo with their ball gowns and blown-out hair. She's splayed on the floor of the car, out of view of the reality show's camera, wearing a messy bun over her slouchy "This Is What A Feminist Looks Like" T-shirt.

Her ideals, as a women's studies major (and the kind of person who would wear a "This Is What A Feminist Looks Like" T-shirt) are set up in immediate conflict with the job she's forced to do: turning women into stereotypes for entertainment.

Along with the other producers, she coaxes the participants into temper tantrums, sets the stage for date rape and solicits an abusive ex for a surprise visit. And while she expresses discomfort -- sometimes to convince others, but most often to convince herself that she is not okay with what's going on -- it's clear beneath her scrunched faces and eye rolls that Rachel finds a source of pleasure in the influence she is able to yield on set. 

"One thing I felt really strongly about is that we knew where Rachel came from," Noxon told HuffPost. "Walter White had cancer, Tony Soprano had a poisonous mother."

Early on, we get the backstory fueling Rachel's behavior. Weighed down in debt, she's compelled to go home to ask for money. It's there we see Rachel's own poisonous mother figure: a domineering psychiatrist, who perpetually diagnoses her daughter and insists on being able to provide treatment in exchange for the cash.

"[Rachel] basically suffers from mental Munchausen syndrome by proxy," Noxon explained. "You know, she’s been told her whole life that she’s crazy, incapable and helpless."

The comparison to Tony is interesting. In "The Sopranos," the groundwork of his mother's impact on him is built gradually. The maternal "explanation" for his behavior is the bedrock of the first season, mounting through several sessions with Dr. Melfi and a plot line revealing Livia's betrayal of her son.

Noxon and her co-creator, Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, didn't have that kind of time to unpack Rachel on screen. "We really pushed -- and Lifetime was supportive -- of taking Rachel out of the environment in Episode 3," she said. "That way we see, for her, that kind of power that she feels over other women and any kind of control is going to be incredibly seductive. If we didn’t get into the fact that she was literally raised to believe she’s crazy, we would probably not have as much sympathy."

Noxon also paid close attention to casting, both with Shiri Appleby, who plays Rachel, and Constance Zimmer, in the role of Rachel's boss, Quinn. Noxon felt there was something about both women which would translate through the core of their characters to keep audiences along for the ride.

"The second part is casting," she said. "We needed people who have a kind of innate goodness to them. You know, you can see it."

"Constance has this quality where it’s like, 'I know! I just said that! Can you believe I just said that?' Noxon said, giggling over Quinn's more absurd lines. "So, you don’t get the feeling that she’s just the devil. These two women are both strong and good and you feel that. You know there’s something worth debating."

There are other female characters on TV right now that might be characterized as antiheroes. Noxon noted Katey Sagal's Gemma on "Sons of Anarchy." We also have Annalise Keating ("How to Get Away with Murder"), Piper Chapman ("Orange Is the New Black"). "Nurse Jackie" just ended, but let's count that, in addition to Hannah (or Marnie or basically anyone) on "Girls." 

Still, these figures are relatively rare. Consider this Hollywood Reporter TV roundup of 18 antiheroes that includes only four women (or three and a half, since Gemma from "Sons of Anarchy" is listed alongside Jax Teller). Or these lists from E! and Moviepilot, which consist of 100 percent men.

The head of FX, John Landgraf, noted the resistance met by female antiheroes when he famously turned down "Breaking Bad" in favor of greenlighting "Damages."

 "It's fascinating to me," he told NPR, "That we just have really different, and I think, a more rigorous set of standards for female characters than we do for male characters in this society. It's much harder to buy acceptance of a female antihero."

Fortunately, as Noxon sees it, the industry's approach to female antiheroes is shifting.

"Not too long ago, I couldn’t have made a show like 'UnREAL,'" she said. "I couldn’t have made a show where these characters are deeply flawed."

"You know, they’re 'powerful,' they have jobs, they have responsibilities, they’re not thinking about boys all the time and they consider themselves feminists," she continued. "But sometimes they consider getting boob jobs and they work on 'The Bachelor' and they want to be pretty and they want romance."

It's in understanding that potential for nuance that the greatest female antiheroes (and characters in general) are created.

"It's such a complicated, interesting time, because we are just as conflicted," she said. "That’s important to me and to Sarah. So, we had this idea of putting these sophisticated women into the world of making reality television, where all of us feel guilty pleasure."

"It pretty much says it all, I think, about a lot of us," she added. "We aspire to be one thing, and, in the end, we’re in the middle of a nest of conflicts and ideas."

 

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