Why We Need To Talk About Hated Female Characters

BB-S5B-Skyler-590As 2013 comes to end, I’ve seen a lot “wrapping up the year” lists. Quite a few have discussed the most hated characters on television which, surprise, are mostly comprised of women. A recent Buzzfeed article does a take down of 16 characters who were cyberbullied this year, with characters such as Skyler White and Dana Brody receiving a particularly bad lashing.

Now.

Why is this important? Why should we care about the “feelings” of fictional characters? They are played by rich and famous actresses, who aren’t under attack themselves (well, often times they are, as topics quickly shift to the actress’ appearance, but more on that later). Why should we care?

Well, two reasons:

1. All Female Characters Represent Women

Whether you like it or not, female characters on television are representing women in society. While this is not an all-inclusive representation, it is one non the less. I hate the statement, “It doesn’t matter, it’s just a movie.”Stories and characters are not just for entertainment. Stories are how we interact with the world, how we live and how we learn.  As the legendary Robert McKee explains,

“The world now consumes film, novels, theater, and television in such quantities and with such ravenous hunger that the story arts have become humanity’s primary source of inspiration, as it seeks to order chaos and gain insight into life. Our appetite for story is a reflection of the profound human need to grasp the patterns of living.”

Stories matter. Which brings me to my next point…

2. It’s What The Characters Are Hated For That’s Important

If stories help us navigate life, what these characters are being attacked for becomes extremely important.

Internet hate is magnified. People feel they can say extremely vicious things because the platform of a message board holds less weight than an article. However, here, the character hate is about quantity.

“This hatred, as we all know, takes many forms. Name-calling is primary, of course: The characters are sluts, whores, bitches, cunts. They’re ugly. They care only about money. They’re stupid. They nag. You know the words and phrases: It’s just like the way some people talk about women on the internet. And in life!”

homeland Dana Crying

I was having a conversation with a friend (a woman) who was annoyed that a television wife divorced her husband because he was never home. She was a guest character, the male a lead in the series. The wife was so two dimensional it was almost embarrassing, and had about three minutes of screen time total. My friend said, “Ugh, thats so annoying. She should know he would have to work like that when she married him. What did she expect?” She was right, that’s how the audience was meant to feel. There was no backstory, no details of the 30+ years of marriage, just an annoying housewife, giving her husband stress when he is such a stand up guy at work.

While the trend of the white, male anti-hero protagonists continues, I find that the writers often vilify female characters, making them the “annoying moral compass” of the show. Examples include Dexter, (Rita, Deb), and Breaking Bad, (Skyler), whose’ the females are seen as “holding them back”. Anna Gunn, who played Skyler, wrote a great Times article  addressing the hate towards her character.

It makes sense. The protagonist needs a conflict. If all protagonists have “bad” qualities that are metamorphosed into “good” qualities, the “good” conflict becomes “bad”.

Writers are twisting traditional female characteristics to create the opposing want of the lead character. Many wives are hated for being nagging, or worse yet, needing love. “It’s notable,” Gunn wrote, “that viewers have expressed similar feelings about other complex TV wives — Carmela Soprano of The Sopranos, Betty Draper of Mad Men. Male characters don’t seem to inspire this kind of public venting and vitriol.”

Parenthood Jasmine Joy

The article cites another character, Jasmine on Parenthood:

“When are we supposed to think Jasmine sucks, exactly? When Crosby isn’t being helpful with their newborn baby? When Jasmine’s mother needs their help financially and moves in for a bit?….Why would I root for some Peter Pan man-child I would despise in real life? Also, Bryant’s Jasmine is the only adult of color on the super white Parenthood…her characterization is a little tone-deaf, if not sinister.”

Additionally, the most important difference in hatred of female characters vs. male characters is that the hatred immediately becomes about physical characteristics. The article sites many examples, among which, a 17-year-old who endures excessive internet memes about her forehead.  And while Lena Dunham has gotten a lot of flak for almost every aspect of Girls, the episode in which her character hooks up with Patrick Wilson, was “too insane not to mention. Jezebel summarized it perfectly at the time: Basically, because of the actor’s/characters’ perceived looks disparities, the affair was either a Hannah fantasy or Dunham’s.”

The point isn’t that these characters are great and that we should stop hating them.  I, too, often rolled my eyes at Dana’s quivering face. Many are not great, and that’s because the writers write them that way. Not always for the same reason. Sometimes they just don’t “work” after a point in the show, don’t fit into the story or are not well written, or are simply miscast (all film teachers ever with me: “casting is 80%of directing!”).

However, it is important to note why we hate them and if their qualities are accuretly portrayed in a negative light.

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