Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Rise of TV's Anti-Heroine?...

A few years ago it was the rise of the anti-hero on television. From Tony Soprano to Dexter Morgan to Gregory House to Ted Mosby to Walter White, the trend was to show intimate looks at flawed male protagonists-- some of whom were doing Very. Bad. Things. but who had a vulnerability within them that allowed us to relate and sympathize and most importantly want to follow their exploits week after week while actually rooting for them. Sometimes we even rooted for them to do the Very. Bad. Things. because we had come to accept them for who they were so strongly as to love them just the way they are. Many was written on the topic-- the why behind the type of character as well as the timing-- and I'm not going to rehash it now. But as much as was written, one question seemed to linger in many's minds: When will it be time for the uprising of the anti-heroine? There have been a few select shows (mostly on the always forward-thinking Showtime) to start planting seeds, but now more than ever seems the time for this programming to really strike.

There are degrees to anti-hero characters, regardless of gender. In my opening sentence I referenced characters that were mobsters and murders alongside ones who simply had poor dispositions. Both Nancy Botwin and the titular Nurse Jackie would fall into the category despite the fact that one is a drug pusher and the other an addict suffering from a disease. The spectrum is wide, the tapestry is rich, so it should be no surprise that even broader shows with more mainstream appeals are tacking the tough topic of imperfect women. But what is so fascinating is the divide that is still apparent among audiences: while many loved to watch Walter White spiral further and further into a terrible human being or went along on the edge of their seat as Dexter stalked and then strapped his next victim to a table, Girls' Hannah Horvath flits and faffs her way through life, squandering relationships and job opportunities and people jump all over her for those bad decisions and for being a bad role model.

But if Dexter and Walter White don't have to be held up as role models-- and are instead the best kinds of cautionary tales-- why do all female characters need to be? Female-centric programming greatly appeals to a female audience, and many female audience members want to connection with the characters on a deeper level than just watching some events happen to some strangers. They want to see themselves reflected in the characters, events, and shows; they want validation that the things they experienced or felt are okay. I should know. I am one of these women. 

We are still a little ways away from following a female serial killer (here's keeping everything crossed that FX's Gretchen Lowell series hurries up and makes it to screens soon!), so the female anti-heroines we do have tend to be much more grounded in a "girl next door" quality that inherently makes an audience want to root for them, immediately invested in their struggles, and then a range of frustrated to disappointed to enraged when they don't live up to their expectations. Girls fits in here, but even the titular character on The Mindy Project or Zoe on Hart of Dixie have gotten some of that backlash for being too flighty or too "on-the-surface only" or just plain "not together" enough for those who want more from them. 

MTV's Awkward is a show centered on Jenna, a teenage girl who is smart but arguably has low self-esteem. The first two seasons were about her trying to find her place after feeling (and to an extent being treated) like a social outcast. She was able to climb the social ranks and feel more confident about herself, but she didn't really mature. Now in season three she is showing just how stunted she really is by making bad decision after bad decision and striking out at those around her when those seemingly past feelings of rejection or inadequacy pop up. 

What is fascinating, though, is that this trend of anti-heroine television seems to have emerged slowly, as if not only easing the audience in but also creating a more emotional response by letting you fall in love with the characters so fully first, only to then reveal how broken they truly are. Awkward is just the latest one of these shows to do it, teasing out only some of Jenna's issues early on with how much worth she assigned to herself based on her relationships. More and more time was spent with her, and you began to realize that things were not happening to her to make her feel bad: she was self-sabotaging. Similarly, the characters around her revealed more of their cards as we spent more time with them, and they were all maturing and evolving, and in comparison the divide was that much greater. This, too, is a common occurrence these days in order to offer balance and diversity and (hopefully) an arc of redemption.

Though Piper is the central character on Netflix's Orange is the New Black, the same certainly applied to her. We started on the outside with her, immediately identifying to this well-put together, seemingly upstanding citizen who was actively owning a past mistake and willing to pay for her crime (that alone should have made her a straight hero as it's increasingly rare these days). We entered Litchfield as a tag-along with her, perhaps even making assumptions about other characters based on our attachment to Piper and their initial encounter with her. But as time went on, and the insanely intense setting tore down all pretenses and unraveled everyone for good and for bad, it became clear that Piper was devolving, returning to an almost primal state in prison, while most around her were bettering themselves, finding a sense of community, healing, and maturing. 

In these cases, the characters are not so far gone that they can't grow into better people (and that is the journey you should hope for just about every character on every show anyway). In these cases, though, your instinct is either to protect the character you've come to love fiercely or to recoil from it, sever attachments, and almost deny they were ever even there in the first place as they stumble and exhibit less than stellar behavior. What each audience member decides says more about them as a person than the show or character at all. But both responses are equally valid and only work to enrich the complexity of these works. The key is, no matter what they're feeling besides, there is an ultimate dynamic nature that keeps you absolutely having to keep watching these characters, to continue on the journey whether you're rooting for them to succeed or get a comeuppance in the end...

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