Huffpost TV
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Maureen Ryan Headshot

Women On TV Finally Get Their Close-Ups

Posted: Updated:
Print Article

amcbreaking_bad5_1579_rgb_v2

Five years ago, Betty Draper walked out of her house and shot at her neighbor's birds on "Mad Men."

A couple years later, "Parks and Recreation's" Leslie Knope began teaching us that a capable, kind and optimistic person can be infinitely entertaining.

This past year, the klutzy narcissism of "Girls" heroine Hannah Horvath and Skyler White's horrified reaction to her husband's transformation on "Breaking Bad" provided some of television's most memorable moments.

And then there's Carrie Mathison, who contains more multitudes than one post can handle. Ten essays wouldn't be enough to describe everything that's endearing and infuriating about half of "Homeland's" central couple.

Those are just some of the women making TV interesting, but in this slideshow, we've taken television to task for female characters we find it difficult to love. Of course, not every member of the HuffPost TV staff agrees with every assessment on that roster -- each of us contributed a name or two of characters who frequently give us migraines. (And yes, before you ask, a similar roster of annoying male characters is in the works.)

Take a look through to see who made our list:

Female Lead Characters We Hate To Hate
of
Share
Tweet
Advertisement
Share this
close
Current Slide

Now, lest anyone think we are here to bash actresses, that's certainly not the intent. Ninety percent of the time, problematic characters of either gender don't have much to do with performance. Of course, there are issues when a writer's reach exceeds a performer's grasp, but most of the time, the fictional ladies who drive us insane (and not in the good ways) have serious issues baked right into their DNA.

Major problems arise when the conception and the writing of a female character are half-baked and inconsistent; even bigger problems develop when the depiction and portrayal of male characters is generally more interesting, nuanced and complex. It's an issue mainstream movies have grappled with for years, and television is certainly not immune from this disorder.

Though I think the situation is evolving (and I'll have more to say on that in a minute), I've often found this admittedly broad generalization to be true a significant percentage of the time: The dilemmas, hopes, dreams and goals of female characters, especially on moderately to seriously ambitious dramas, are often fit in around those of male characters. Even if a woman is not there to assist or have sex with or inspire the lust (or anger) of a male character, even if she's not there simply to remind him of the rules or limit his transgressions, her concerns generally aren't paramount. Her agenda often isn't allowed to become as interesting. Her behavior and decisions often become less and less consistent over time.

The end result is that, despite the existence of Laura Roslin of "Battlestar Galactica," Tami Taylor of "Friday Night Lights" and Peggy Olsen of "Mad Men," there have been more truly memorable male characters and arcs in the last dozen years of Golden Age TV than female characters and arcs.

As the side salads, the love interests or the supporting players, or as lead characters kept within certain relatively strict parameters, female characters often start with the deck stacked against them. Even shows that use women well on occasion don't seem quite sure what to do with them half the time. (Hello, "Lost," how are you doing "Sons of Anarchy," good to see you, "The Walking Dead.")

Perhaps it's just wishful thinking on my part, but it seems as though these dynamics are changing, if ever so slowly. The success of "Homeland" -- a show that has equally fascinating co-leads -- has been lost on no one in the television industry. And as much as I've loved "Breaking Bad" and "Mad Men," it's hard not to see the not-too-distant ends of those shows as marking the close of a chapter on a great run of shows that put male anti-heroes at their core. Judging by the shows that are in the pipeline at networks like FX and Showtime, and going by what's on the air now, a new crop of quality dramas and genuinely engaging comedies appear to be changing the long-accepted "rules" of the television game.

HBO's "Game of Thrones," for all the (legitimate) questions that are asked about its use of boobs as wallpaper, is a true ensemble piece in which the adventures of resourceful girls and women are every bit as important as the agendas of male characters (several of whom present interesting, non-traditional takes on masculinity). Cinemax's "Hunted" is the story of a female spy who is as deeply damaged and innately proactive as Jack Bauer. Programs as varied as Syfy's "Lost Girl," ABC's "Happy Endings" and ABC Family's "Switched at Birth" depict the complexities of friendship among women and also between men and women. And PBS' "Call the Midwife" may have its more predictable elements, but it also presented a terrific array of female characters who rarely engage in cattiness or shrill bickering, despite their differing ages, incomes and outlooks.

It's possible -- and likely, actually -- for long-running shows to improve their stories by upping the stakes for all their major characters in intelligent, unpredictable ways. In recent seasons, "Breaking Bad" took Skyler from one-dimensional nag to fully realized human being and thus gave the wonderful Anna Gunn an array of great material to play. Leslie Knope quickly went from obnoxious to unapologetically take-charge and winning quite early in the run of "Parks and Recreation." "Dexter" got a lot more interesting when Deb learned her brother's dark secret, "Fringe" improved by leaps and bounds when Olivia became more than a stick figure in a dark pantsuit, and so on and so forth.

Of course, these efforts don't always take; the progress made one season (or episode) might be undone the next. That scene of "Mad Men's" Betty Draper firing a shotgun in Season 1's "Shoot" signaled -- to me, anyway -- that this drama had just gone from very good to all-time great; it was such a jarringly unexpected and terrific thing for that often passive character to do. But sadly, "Mad Men" has continually and stubbornly made the same series of mistakes with Betty: It's depicted her as a terrible mother without acknowledging how much that stacked the deck against her in the eyes of viewers; it made her daughter Sally far more complex and worth caring about; and in general, it hasn't offset her many shrill, narcissistic qualities with enough other attributes that would make her truly interesting and/or deep. Yes, I know she had a bad childhood and a lying spouse. The trouble is, the infrequent and inconsistent attempts to deepen the character and make her more sympathetic have continually run up against January Jones' chilly limitations as a performer.

Yet as a whole, "Mad Men" takes the worlds and the lives of women seriously, and for that, I'll be forever grateful to the show and very sad when it's gone. Beyond that, I'm grateful for the expanding number of shows that take it as a given that every character (regardless of gender, sexual orientation or race) should be more than a collection of predictable traits.

I'm glad there are so many shows that are willing to have their female characters seem unlikable at times, that there are programs happy to show women making mistakes, aspiring to better, being noble and generally being human in messy, fascinating, contradictory ways.

I don't know about you, but I don't need to always like the men and women on my TV. I do, however, always need to be interested in what they're going to do next. My fingers are crossed that TV, which has supplied me with some of my favorite role models for decades now, is doing more to even the score on that front.