Why TV Needs ‘Weak’ Female Characters
Comedy-drama series like Fleabag and Transparent show how vulnerability is as important as unlikeability and strength when it comes to portraying fictional women.
In the first episode of the HBO series Enlightened, the show’s heroine, Amy Jellicoe, learns that she’s been fired. She does not take the news well. Within minutes, she goes from pitiable victim, sobbing abjectly in a bathroom stall, to mascara-streaked fury. “Go back to your sad, fucking, little desk,” she sneers at her assistant before tracking her ex-lover and presumed betrayer to the office lobby. “I will destroy you—I will bury you—I will kill you, motherfucker!” she screams at him through the elevator doors that she somehow, in a feat of desperation, manages to pry open.
Though the scene aired five years ago, it’s still a pretty radical few minutes of television, and not just because of the ferocity of Laura Dern’s performance. What feels most striking is the series’ willingness to dramatize an extended scene of female distress for something other than a moralizing end. In this sense, Enlightened anticipates the Amazon series, Fleabag, which evinces a similar empathy toward a female character in the grip of powerfully negative emotions: anger, sadness, grief, self-doubt, shame. It’s probably no accident the two shows have almost identical promotional stills—close-ups of their protagonist’s makeup-smudged faces, staring directly to camera. Like a number of other female-centric, female-created tragicomedies to have emerged on TV in recent years—Transparent, Girls, Catastrophe, Insecure—the series also share a commitment to more compassionate portrayals of dysfunctional heroines, by suspending judgment even (or especially) when they’re at their worst.
At a glance, it might seem as though no such considerations are needed. “Peak TV,” after all, has yielded a surfeit of deeply flawed female characters, to the extent that critics have begun to hypothesize an entire subgenre of shows featuring “unlikeable women.” Yet in most cases, these flaws are at least partly redeemed—generally by the heroines’ professional acumen and career success—or subject to punishment (see: Cersei Lannister’s long walk of shame in Game of Thrones). By contrast, dark comedies like Transparent, Fleabag, and Girls take a refreshingly amoral approach, and are thus distinguished less by the quality or quantity of their characters’ shortcomings, than by their refusal to adjudicate them. “Competence,” for instance, has often operated as a get-out-of-jail free card for female characters; it’s a quality, as Willa Paskin has observed, that most regularly preempts debates about their “likeability.” So when shows like Catastrophe offer an unapologetic presentation of their heroines’ failings, it feels like a provocation: a way of challenging audiences to confront their own biases against historically less sanctioned forms of female behavior.
Put another way, what distinguishes this run of TV tragicomedies isn’t their heroines’ unlikeability, but rather, their vulnerability, that is, the frankness with which they disclose feelings and experiences women have long been encouraged to suppress. It is no coincidence that so many of the programs mentioned make deliberate (and much-derided) use of nudity. Like the shots of unmade-up faces that fill Transparent’s third season premiere, the images of Hannah Horvarth sans culottes are a sign not of the shows’ prurience, but of their politics: their insistence on giving women the license, and space, to be exposed. In contrast to the “strong female characters” that have dominated popular culture in recent decades—and that, as Carina Chocano argued in The New York Times, are often distinguished by their lack of gendered behavior—these comparably “weak” characters undermine the conflation of complexity with an implicitly masculine code of values. Too often, to be “strong,” in Chocano’s phrase, is to be “tough, cold, terse, taciturn, and prone to not saying goodbye when they hang up the phone.” Instead, these shows take the bold step of assigning to their lead characters some of the most disparaged of “female” traits.
On the one hand, contemporary media’s deprecations of female “weakness” are understandable. Ever since the writer Mary Wollstonecraft weaponized the term in her 1792 treatise “A Vindication of the Rights of Women”—which eviscerates the forced imposition of “weakness” on female subjects—both the language and concept of vulnerability remains almost a feminist taboo. For postfeminist audiences, even a hint of frailty in female characters can be an uncomfortable reminder of the pre-second-wave world.
Yet worlds populated only with aspirational characters pose hazards of their own. As the literary scholar Lennard Davis has argued of the novel, such narratives can offer “false or surrogate examples of change that might satisfy any external need or desire for change.” In other words, fictions that focus disproportionately on women’s triumphs might suggest to readers (or viewers) that no impediments remain to their broader attainment. In this sense, it might not be paranoid to suggest that pop culture’s fetishization of female strength is at least partly a compensation for, or distraction from, its real-life curtailment. “Strong female characters,” in this light, are truly the least Hollywood can do.
In this way, the cultural value of these socially and emotionally vulnerable characters becomes increasingly clear. When popular media sends the message that women are to be valued inasmuch as they are “strong,” it tacitly endorses their derision, if—or when—they are not. What feels significant about the appearance of Fleabag, Enlightened, Transparent, Girls, Insecure, Better Things, and Catastrophe, with their flailing and failing characters, is the possibility that they might collectively help to normalize a broader and more naturalistic range of female bodies and behaviors. In their willingness to focus on weakness, these shows have a paradoxically empowering effect: affirming the idea that women’s humanity is not jeopardized by any momentary lapse. In particular, they accomplish something that feels more like a feat than it should—they uncouple female error from moral judgment. Fleabag’s protagonist, by the finale, has copped to some startling sins, and yet the episode’s mantra (“people make mistakes”) signals the sort of equanimity with which viewers are invited to accept this news. No matter how deplorable her actions, the point is for audiences to feel with the character, not about her.
In so doing, these series position themselves less in a specific televisual tradition, than in the genealogy of feminist filmmaking dating at least back to the 1970s. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, A Woman Under the Influence, and An Unmarried Woman, for instance, are striking in part because of the degree of naturalism with which they document their heroines’ imperfections. Roughly contemporaneous films by female directors go even further. Chantal Akerman’s Je tu il elle, Barbara Loden’s Wanda, and Agnès Varda’s Vagabond, among others, all make it a point to focus on characters in desperate or disenfranchised states. Unlike some of the melodramatic “women’s films” that preceded them, however, they do so for the sake of critiquing social expectations of women, rather than the women themselves. This tactical use of disempowered heroines has more recent cinematic inheritors, as well—perhaps most notably, Kelly Reichardt, a poet of the down-and-nearly-out, whose 2016 film, Certain Women, focuses on characters who in her words, “don’t have a net, who if you sneezed on them, their world would fall apart.”
By contrast, much contemporary film and TV inclines toward the uncritical celebration of female toughness. In a 2013 interview, for instance, the actress Natalie Portman decried the “fallacy in Hollywood” that “if you’re making a ‘feminist’ story, the woman kicks ass and wins. That’s not feminist, that’s macho.” The critic Sarah Blackwood has argued in The Hairpin that literary culture has witnessed a similar devaluation of conventionally “female” traits. Thus, for instance, she notes of the Twilight series that Bella’s preference for sentimental experience condemns her among many young (female) readers, who idolize The Hunger Games’s Katniss Everdeen for her archery chops.
A handful of shows, of course, is hardly a panacea. That nearly all the characters mentioned above are white, and at least middle class, suggests that the opportunity to be less-than-tough is still a privilege only certain female demographics can enjoy. There’s also the fact that so many of these women remain confined to the 30-minute “comedy”: the format and genre that, compared to the hour-long drama, still enjoys comparatively less prestige.
Yet there is something encouraging about the fact that so many of these female-driven and -scripted series are gaining acclaim, even with their non-aspirational ethos. Viewers of Girls, for instance, may argue about whether they’re a Jessa or a Marnie, but in contrast to the Sex and the City cast, these characters invite comparison because of their flaws, not despite them. In the years since Carrie Bradshaw made her debut, television comedy, at least, seems to have grown more comfortable presenting less palatable—and less marketable—depictions of the female experience. These characters may spend screen-time seeking each other’s approval. But they don’t need yours.