Critic's NotesTV’s New Wave of Women: Smart, Strong, Borderline Insane
By Heather Havrilesky, The New York Times Sunday Magazine
's 'Riff' Column - Mar. 17, 2013
At first glance, this looks like a great moment for women on television. Many smart and confident female characters have paraded onto the small screen over the past few years. But I’m bothered by one persistent caveat: that the more astute and capable many of these women are, the more likely it is that they’re also completely nuts.
I don’t mean complicated, difficult, thorny or complex. I mean that these women are portrayed as volcanoes that could blow at any minute. Worse, the very abilities and skills that make them singular and interesting come coupled with some hideous psychic deficiency.
On “Nurse Jackie,” for example, the main character is an excellent R.N. in part because she’s self-medicated into a state of extreme calm. On “The Killing,” Detective Linden, the world-weary, cold-souled cop, is a tenacious investigator in part because she’s obsessive and damaged and a pretty terrible mother. And then there’s “Homeland,” on which Carrie Mathison, the nearly clairvoyant C.I.A. agent, is bipolar, unhinged and has proved, in her pursuit of an undercover terrorist, to be recklessly promiscuous.
These aren’t just complicating characteristics like, say, Don Draper’s narcissism. The suggestion in all of these shows is that a female character’s flaws are inextricably linked to her strengths. Take away this pill problem or that personality disorder, and the exceptional qualities vanish as well. And this is not always viewed as a tragedy — when Carrie undergoes electroconvulsive therapy, we breathe a sigh of relief and draw closer. Look how restful it is for her, enjoying a nice sandwich and sleeping peacefully in her childhood bed.
You’d think the outlook would be sunnier on some of the lighter TV dramas and comedies, which have also lately offered several strong and inspiring (if neurotic) female protagonists, from Annie Edison of “Community” to Leslie Knope of “Parks and Recreation.” Yet here, too, an alarming number of accomplished women are also portrayed as spending most of their waking hours swooning like lovesick tweens — whether it’s Emily on “Emily Owens, M.D.” (a knowledgeable doctor who loses focus whenever her super-dreamy crush enters the room), the title character of “Whitney” (a garrulous photographer who is nonetheless fixated on her looks and her ability to keep attractive romantic rivals away from her man), or Mindy of “The Mindy Project” (a highly paid ob-gyn who’s obsessed with being too old and not pretty enough to land a husband). Even a classical comedic heroine like Liz Lemon on “30 Rock” is frequently reduced to flailing and squirming like an overcaffeinated adolescent. The moral of many of these shows doesn’t seem so far off from that of those fatalistic female-centric magazine features that seem to run every few months; something along the lines of, “You can’t have it all, ladies, and you’ll run yourself ragged if you even try.”
We could take heart that at least women are depicted as being just as reckless and promiscuous and demanding and intense as their male counterparts, if their bad behavior weren’t so often accompanied by a horror soundtrack and dizzying camera angles that encourage us to view them as unhinged. The crazed antics of male characters like Don Draper, Walter White or Dr. Gregory House are reliably treated as bold, fearless and even ultimately heroic (a daring remark saves the big account; a lunatic gesture scares off a murderous thug; an abrasive approach miraculously yields the answer that saves a young girl’s life). Female characters rarely enjoy such romantic spin.
Their flaws are fatal, or at least obviously self-destructive, and they seem designed to invite censure. Time and again, we, the audience, are cast in the role of morally superior observers to these nut jobs. At times we might relate to a flash of anger, a fit of tears, a sudden urge to seduce a stranger in a bar, but we’re constantly being warned that these behaviors aren’t normal. They render these women out of step with the sane world.
When Nurse Jackie chokes down pills and cavorts with the pharmacist while her perfectly good husband waits around at home with the kids, we can see clearly where too much sass and independence might lead. When Detective Linden dumps her son in a hotel room for the umpteenth time and then he goes missing, or Dr. Yang’s emotional frigidity on “Grey’s Anatomy” leaves her stranded at the altar, or Nancy Botwin of “Weeds” sleeps with (and eventually marries) a Mexican drug boss, thereby endangering her kids, we’re cued to shake our heads at the woeful choices of these otherwise-impressive women. When Carrie on “Homeland” chugs a tumbler of white wine, then fetches one of her black sequined tops out of the closet, we’re meant to lament her knee-jerk lasciviousness. Her mania is something she needs to be cured of, or freed from — unlike, say, Monk, whose psychological tics are portrayed as the adorable kernel of his genius.
So why should instability in men and women be treated so differently? “If you don’t pull it together, no one will ever love you,” a talking Barbie doll tells Mindy during a fantasy on “The Mindy Project,” reminding us exactly what’s on the line here.
Don’t act crazy, Mindy. Men don’t like crazy.
Some would argue that we’ve come a long way since Desi treated Lucy like a petulant child or June Cleaver smiled beatifically at her plucky spawn. “Mary Tyler Moore,” “Murphy Brown” and “Roseanne” all demonstrated that a smart woman can have a life outside of cooking, cleaning and begging to be put in her husband’s show. They offered us female characters who failed to blend seamlessly with their surroundings — because they were willing to voice their doubts, confess their crushes, seek out sex and openly confront others.
But right around the time “Ally McBeal” hit the air, the attempts to unveil the truth of the female experience started to sail far past the intended mark. The independent woman took on a hysterical edge; she was not only opinionated but also wildly insecure, sexually ravenous or panic-stricken over her waning fertility. Surprising as it was that McBeal was once heralded as a post-feminist hero on the cover of Time in 1998, what’s more surprising is that since then, we haven’t come all that much further, baby.
Sure, there are lots of exceptions, like Tami Taylor, the self-possessed working mom of “Friday Night Lights,” or Hannah Horvath, the outspoken memoirist of “Girls,” or the intelligent women of “Mad Men,” whose struggles and flaws at least parallel those of the men swarming around them. But alongside every coolheaded Peggy Olson, we get hotheaded train-wreck characters like Ivy Lynn of “Smash” — women who, like the ballerinas with lead weights around their ankles in Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s short story “Harrison Bergeron,” can show no strength without an accompanying impediment to weigh them down, whether it’s self-destructive urges, tittering self-consciousness or compulsive pill-popping. Where Roseanne and Mary and Murphy matter-of-factly admitted and often even flaunted their flaws, these characters are too ashamed and apologetic (and repeatedly demeaned) to be taken seriously.
“Women have often felt insane when cleaving to the truth of our experience,” Adrienne Rich once wrote. There’s truth in these images of women, from the neurotic ob-gyn fixated on finding Mr. Right to the workaholic C.I.A. agent who feels adrift when she isn’t obsessing about issues of national security 18 hours a day. But why must these characters also be certifiable? Give Mindy a tiny slice of Louis C.K.’s poker-faced smugness. Give Carrie Mathison one-tenth of Jack Bauer’s overconfidence and irreproachability. Where’s the taboo in that?
Women, with their tendency to “ask uncomfortable questions and make uncomfortable connections,” as Rich puts it, are pathologized for the very traits that make them so formidable. Or as Emily Dickinson wrote:Much Madness is divinest Sense —
To a discerning Eye —
Much Sense — the starkest Madness —
’Tis the Majority
In this, as All, prevail —
Assent — and you are sane —
Demur — you’re straightway dangerous —
And handled with a Chain —
“All smart women are crazy,” I once told an ex-boyfriend in a heated moment, in an attempt to depict his future options as split down the middle between easygoing dimwits and sharp women who were basically just me with different hairstyles. By “crazy,” I only meant “opinionated” and “moody” and “not always as pliant as one might hope.” I was translating my personality into language he might understand — he who used “psycho-chick” as a stand-in for “noncompliant female” and he whose idea of helpful counsel was “You’re too smart for your own good,” “my own good” presumably being some semivegetative state of acceptance which precluded uncomfortable discussions about our relationship.
Over the years, “crazy” became my own reductive shorthand for every complicated, strong-willed woman I met. “Crazy” summed up the good and the bad in me and in all of my friends. Whereas I might have started to recognize that we were no more crazy than anyone else in the world, instead I simply drew a larger and larger circle of crazy around us, lumping together anyone unafraid of confrontation, anyone who openly admitted her weaknesses, anyone who pursued agendas that might be out of step with the dominant cultural noise of the moment. “Crazy” became code for “interesting” and “courageous” and “worth knowing.” I was trying to have a sense of humor about myself and those around me, trying to make room for stubbornness and vulnerability and uncomfortable questions.
But I realize now, after watching these crazy characters parade across my TV screen, that there’s self-hatred in this act of self-subterfuge. “Our future depends on the sanity of each of us,” Rich writes, “and we have a profound stake, beyond the personal, in the project of describing our reality as candidly and fully as we can to each other.”
Maybe this era of “crazy” women on TV is an unfortunate way-station on the road from placid compliance to something more complex — something more like real life. Many so-called crazy women are just smart, that’s all. They’re not too smart for their own good, or for ours.http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/17/magazine/tvs-new-wave-of-women-smart-strong-borderline-insane.html?ref=television