With The Bridge on FX and Ray Donavon on Showtime, the American TV audience desire for antiheroes appears bolstered again, but there is a glaring difference between Hollywood portrayals of male antiheroes when compared to female antiheroes. In the microcosm of American television, men have secrets: Don Draper on Mad Men has a past he's hiding and a family he compartmentalizes while at work. Breaking Bad's Walter White is a suburban high school teacher who goes to unthinkable lengths to hide his secret life as a drug dealer from his family. Tony Soprano hides his mob day job from his family. HBO can also contribute Boardwalk Empire's Nucky Thompson who is a politician/secret gangster. Dexter hides that he's a serial killer from his co-workers. And now Ray Donavon is working overtime to hide his past and his gruesome job from everyone. And while it's still too early to be sure, it seems AMC's new Low Winter Sun is going down the same path with a morally ambiguous cop hiding a dark past. The list goes on.
But women, don't get secrets. At least on TV, secrets aren't a good enough reason for women to become dark brooding antiheroes who are uncommonly good at their jobs. Women are simply crazy. Homeland's Carrie Mathison has Bipolar Disorder severe enough to undergo electric shock therapy. The Killing's Detective Linden is forced into an asylum for aggressively pursuing a murderer, and United States of Tara's Toni Collette plays Tara Gregson who has what might be considered the king of all forms of mental illness, multiple personality disorder. And now yet again, The Bridge's beautiful detective, Sonya Cross, is autistic.
Some of the portrayals of mental illness are done with such complexity and deftness that the show is the better for it. Homeland seems to truly have mastered the difficult task of making the character's illness integral to her success as a CIA operative. It's hard to believe Carrie would have taken such reckless chances like sleeping with a suspected terrorist unless being influenced by something like an illness. Being in a manic state also helps explain her frenzied obsession with both Abu Nazir and Nicholas Brody. But the show is smart enough to also balance this with the deleterious effects of the disease including delusions and suicide attempts. Although the show would still be enjoyable if Carrie were not Bipolar, the writers probably wouldn't be able to make some of the fun choices that have made the show so gripping. Although, I wonder if a dark past in some way could have compensated for this.
However, if crazy women on TV had stopped with this portrayal, it might have avoided cliché.
But when FX now produces a watered-down version of the crazy female law enforcement agent, it starts to create a creepy reductive theme that women who are dedicated to their jobs, but not happily married with kids, are just cray-cray. Watching The Bridge has become a grating experience for me every time Diane Kruger's Sonya Cross is on screen, which thankfully isn't as much as you might expect. The show's simplistic explanation of autism gets boiled down to reminding you that people with autism have trouble making eye contact and aren't good at small talk or feeling bad for you. Perhaps in the hands of a more skilled actress or director or even writer, the show's portrayal of an autistic woman wouldn't be so irritating to watch but it's especially jarring next to the always nuanced Demian Bishir who plays her partner. His character, Marco Ruiz is (surprise!) a good cop with dark secrets in his past that he has to hide from everyone. And although the show has great potential and is still very exciting to watch, every time Diane Kruger comes on screen, I find myself annoyed and hoping she'll leave the frame soon so I can watch everyone else who is pretty great. Initially, I was hoping they would just recast her like they used to do on shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air so that a better actor could get a crack at it. But then I started to wonder why the show needed someone with autism at all? Couldn't the show just be anchored by a good female detective without a family life? Maybe give her a covert checkered past? Maybe don't. Maybe she just sits at her desk staring at the live-feed video of a woman dying in the desert till she figures out where the woman is because she's simply desperate to keep the woman from dying and not because there's something wrong with her brain.
To Hollywood's surprise, it turns out that audiences are able to watch hour long dramas about dark brooding females who are uncommonly good at their jobs, but network executives seem to think they are only willing to do so if they are literally mental. While for male character driven shows, no such explanation is necessary. He can kill people but we still love to watch him if he loves his wife and kids. Can it be that we only want to watch female antiheroes if something is literally wrong with their brains? I just don't buy it. And while it's most prevalent in dramas, the epidemic is even evidenced by half-hours like Girls which took Hannah Horvath to the depths of OCD in its second season. And while that show remains excellent, I couldn't help but cringe at seeing a well-constructed complicated female character take another walk into crazytown.
The trope of the insane woman has been prevalent for centuries in literature. Lady Macbeth was one of the earliest examples, but Jane Eyre's crazy woman in the attic is cliché at this point, and Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar is almost painful to read, given Plath's death by suicide. And there are so many more (Madame Bovary, A Streetcar Named Desire, Rebecca, A Rose For Emily, The Turn of the Screw) so the phenomenon is not new -- it just hasn't been as prevalent on television before. In the 19th century, women were considered innately mad by virtue of their female qualities and though no one would propagate such a theory now, the hangover effects of dismissing women's voices by calling them crazy is alive and well. And silencing women by calling them crazy is an ongoing problem even within the medical community.
There have been exceptions of course. Weeds sticks out in particular but it is important to note that it is a half-hour comedy which necessarily creates a different type of lead character than one who anchors an hour drama. And the dearth of exceptions in the land of dramas seems to prove the rule.
I'm sure the showrunners for The Bridge never intended to turn their main character into a joke, but by reducing a mental disability down to annoying ticks, they are perpetuating the theme that women who are not happy with domesticity are insane. Is it really that hard to write a female character who is brilliant at her job but mentally sound? And if you need to make her interesting is it too much to ask that you simply write a back-story for her? When am I going to see the show about the mom who loves her husband and children but works as a high-end prostitute during the day? Or the brilliant female FBI agent who is good at her job but used to be dirty when she worked in narcotics? In the meantime, I'm going to continue watching The Bridge, hoping they kill off the crazy woman, and replace her with a complicated female character who is perfectly normal, except of course for her secret-laden dark past.