I’ve noticed a disturbing trend — well, no, that’s a blatant lie. It’s not a trend, it’s part of our culture. But it is disturbing, so it’s only a small lie. This fall season, two TV series have premiered that both portray women of early middle age, who have more or less functional families, kids, and a high-stress job. One is “a bit of a bitch,” the other is “incredibly likable and charming.” Full disclosure on the reviews I’ve pulled these from: first one’s from the tv.com review of The Mysteries of Laura, the second one’s from the ET Online review of Madam Secretary.
Laura is not a good person, no matter what means she’s trying to justify to get to the ends. Yet The Mysteries of Laura wants us to take her side because why? Because she’s Debra Messing? Because she can crack a case? Because she likes to drink wine on the job?
Now Elizabeth must navigate the tricky social politics of the White House, with the life-threatening problems facing our nation, while still being a good mother to her two children. Unlike some other new dramas that are about a woman balancing a demanding career with her hectic home life, (Ahem… We’re looking at you, Mysteries of Laura,) Madam Secretary succeeds in making the main character incredibly likable and charming.
Source: ET Online
So, let me get this straight: Woman can have kids and a job, but hold the horses if Woman isn’t everyone’s favourite daughter-in-law? I was deeply disappointed with the tv.com review because, even though slamming the husband is completely right and I hate kids on TV anyway, and even though the pilot episode is a complete mess, the above line of argument — “why are we supposed to like her? Because she can crack a case?” — is precisely the way that TV has sold us male asshole detectives/protagonists for decades.
Sherlock. Complete jerkass, but hey, he loves John and he’s good at what he does. DCI Luther. Occasionally helps hiding bodies and abuses his power as a copper, treats one opposing member of his team like shit, but hey, he’s doing it for the right reasons, and he’s funny. Morse. Downing pints during work hours like no other. True Detective. Two complete assholes, one of them cheating on his wife. But hey, they cracked the case. And don’t even get me started on Harvey Specter. Operating outside the law, the lot of them. But here I am, being told that Laura Diamond’s a bitch for blackmailing someone so her kids can go to the school she wants them in, and that we shouldn’t watch the show because of that.
“No, no, he’s an asshole and he doesn’t believe in love. But hey: he’s good at his job!1!”
That’s how TV shows about the guy protagonist who’s a jerk have been sold to us for ages. That is literally the reasoning we’ve been presented with to like these people for ages. Yeah, ok, he’s a jerk, but look! He catches bad guys! He has a soft spot for kids! Blah!
We will automatically feel sympathy for this lady cop because her life is a mess and she’s Debra F’ing Messing. She was on Will & Grace, after all, and that gives her a lifelong pass on our television screens, even if her character is a bit of a bitch.
You know… there’s Jaime Lannister, and then there’s Cersei Lannister. Both have redeeming qualities, to an extent. But Jaime Lannister is the Jerk with a Heart of Gold — and Cersei is the Conniving Bitch Who Everyone Wants to Die Already. (The “a bit of a bitch” just gets me every time I read it, it’s so funny.) Critical reception — and TV adaptation itself — of Game of Thrones is a prime example of the rampant misogyny present in television and its fandoms. Sansa Stark suffers from that as well — ironically, for being the inverted mirror image of Cersei for the longest time.
Male villains are fine, they’re misunderstood, they’re glorified. Female villains — unapologetic, straight-up bitches who pursue their goals and do not stop — they’re newly embraced by many, but rejected and dismissed by the majority. But we’re not talking about villains here, we’re talking about unwieldy, flawed protagonists.
For the sake of comparison, this is what the same reviewer on tv.com said about Eph on The Strain:
Eph, as he likes to be called, is a CDC epidemiologist whose marriage is crumbling marriage because of his tight tether to his job. If he takes time off, people die, he said while checking his phone during a therapy session that essentially ended with the diagnosis that checks his phone too much. We’ve seen this set-up a bazillion times before, but there’s something about Stoll’s chatty performance and his character’s attack-the-problem-head-on ‘tude that makes Eph instantly likable. “I’m the bad guy because I don’t want this marriage to end?” he said when he felt like his wife and their therapist were ganging up on him. Later, Eph held a press conference and sucked the sugar right off the coat when he told the families of the plane passengers that pretty much everyone was dead. Eph’s the kind of guy who puts it out there, which spurs our trust in him. His brand of honesty is rare in the real world. He’s not the next great television character and I couldn’t care less about his marital issues, but I admire the guy, and that’s important in a person I’m going to watch kick vampire ass for three or four seasons of television.
You can’t see the woods for the trees, can you? I dare not imagine what were to happen if Laura were to put her job first like that. And what would happen if Madam Secretary were “a bit of a bitch.”
It’s nice when a main character is “likable and charming” and all that. But it’s also a fact that men can have “their moods,” but when a woman doesn’t crap sunshine on command, we’re all in trouble (Kristen Stewart is waving at you from that corner table over there). It’s refreshing that there’s a female character on TV who is, quite simply, an asshole, and yes, who does things for her own gain. Because I’ve seen enough pricks parading around. Show me a woman who does bad, bad things, and gets away with it. And who doesn’t need to have a hidden heart of gold to redeem herself. Although, frankly, loving her kids and being passionate about her job should be enough. In a perfect world, it would be. In a world wherein I am supposed to love Eph on The Strain because, you guessed it, he’s a prick but he’s good at his job, but supposed to hate Laura Diamond the exact same reason, it’s not perfect. Yes, Eph’s storyline and character is one of the reasons why I stopped watching The Strain, but that was mainly because the story was unbelievably flat and the characters boring as hell.
There’s Bad Writing — and then there’s Controversial Characters
I’m not saying Mysteries of Laura is a good show, and I’m not saying everyone has to love and embrace her, but I’ve seen the episode and come on, she’s not that terrible. Her ex should absolutely be left dead in a ditch, and him becoming her boss at the end of the pilot is just about the worst thing they could have done, short of shooting Bambi. But that’s not the point. If you don’t want to watch a show because you don’t like the protagonist or you think the writing is bad, that’s up to you, I make my viewing choices the same way. But most of the criticism I’ve been seeing online so far runs in the direction I’ve just outlined, and it’s incredible to see the hypocrisy and disingenuous attitudes up close and personal when people who must have written about dozens of male jerkfaces completely forget that, “wait, we’re supposed to like XZ because they’re good at their job?” can be applied to so, so many of audiences’ faves out there right now. Like, what. She’s “a bit of a bitch,” so the show isn’t worth watching? What? Sherlock is a bit of a dick, but the show’s still worth watching — says pretty much everyone. So do I, under the caveat of acknowledging that he’s part of the trope just as many, many other TV detectives. Note: what the character does is not the character’s fault. The character is always down to the writers. The Mysteries of Laura has flaws, but that’s not on her being a bitch. That’s on the writers writing her that way and then failing to get the rest right and to give her more than one dimension. Another note: this was a pilot. We’re yet to see her character and her relationships with the other characters on her team unfold. I really like her cop partner, for instance.
Snap judgement meets double standard, then. All the hallmarks of a knee jerk reaction.