Difficult men have dominated the TV landscape ever since the dial expanded beyond three channels that feature shows about talking animals and the quirky families that care for them. These men: Tony Soprano, Walter White, Don Draper, Jimmy McNulty and all the rest were so dominant that one of the key books on this era of television is called Difficult Men. After decades of watching middle-aged white guys brood as their women looked on wondering where they might be hiding the coke, the money, and the hookers, something has changed. 2016 has finally seen the rise of difficult women.
When it came to women committing crimes and kicking ass, Weeds’ Nancy Botwin was all alone for a long time. The show even acted like a novelty, making sure to trade on the dissonance of a housewife slinging dope every chance it got. Without fail, the promo art always featured her in the most domestic pose possible. Just like shows about female doctors and businesswomen always focus on whether or not women can “have it all,” so to did Weeds. Whether its a law firm or a drug empire, for the longest time Hollywood couldn’t stop asking if it was possible for a lady to have it all, as if anyone anywhere at any point in history has had “it all.”
Then, this year something strange happened. All of a sudden, women are no longer relegated to waiting up late hoping their husband will come home from the strip club. Instead of Carmela Soprano and Skyler White vacillating between cold stares and impotent rage, now the women are taking charge. Women are running drug empires and music empires. Why are women suddenly in the driver’s seat doing bumps of cocaine off of the dashboard?
The Fruits of Their Labor
The most obvious reason that women are finally getting their time to shine under the light of an interrogation room is also the most important: many women have worked tirelessly to get here. Perhaps it is because of the Internet. Perhaps it is because of changing attitudes as one generation replaces another. Whatever the reason, for years women have been clamoring for a seat at the table, and they are finally getting it. Showrunners like Shonda Rhimes, directors like Ava DuVerney, and actresses like Alice Braga are capitalizing on a time where women can finally break through. Every one of these women is careful to call out the women who have come before. Though there is still a long way to go toward equal representation, when studios and networks fail at putting women in front of or behind the camera, they are finally being taken to task.
For example, prominent TV critic Maureen Ryan wrote about the lack of diversity among TV directors last fall. Those who follow Ryan’s work know she has been talking about representation in TV for her entire career. But this time, people listened. FX President John Landgraf was just one of a number of execs who made it their personal mission to change the damning statistics Ryan’s piece revealed. That’s how change gets made. We live in a world where female filmmakers can be championed by female critics who hold executives accountable to female fans.
Difficult Times for Difficult Men
It helps the cause of these emerging leading ladies that the market was right for their move to center screen. In the early years of the twenty-first century, The Sopranos and the The Wire felt fresh. TV had never been this gritty, this intense. But, with success comes imitation, and after Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, True Detective, Justified, Sons of Anarchy, Deadwood, The Knick, Vinyl, Dexter, The Shield and dozens of other, more forgettable series, maybe we’ve seen enough of the troubled white man balancing his illicit activity with his family life. Whether you’re selling TV shows or washing machines, the laws of supply and demand matter.
Now that these shows have run their course, we are getting bad guys who look a little different. On USA, we have Queen of the South, which chronicles a female crime lord. TNT has introduced Animal Kingdom, which follows a matriarch crime lord and her nuclear crime family. The Girlfriend Experience follows a different kind of illegal activity. HBO has tasked Jennifer Lopez with the task of telling the story of Griselda Blanco, one of the most notorious drug lords ever. While Cookie’s Empire isn’t technically illegal, she’ll do what she has to do to get the job done. Audiences eventually get tired, and they may finally be tiring of middle-aged white men.
50 Shades of Orange
Sometimes, all it takes for the industry to change is proof that something new can work. There is an interesting trend in television where prestige shows with lower ratings expectations pave the way for industry-wide risk taking. In previous seasons, we have seen a rash of Mad Men copy cats (Pan Am, The Playboy Club) and Walking Dead inspired pitches (The Returned, The Strain). Even if these cable shows don’t do network level ratings, they are the talk of Hollywood lunch spots, and influence development cycles. Orange is the New Black has been a critical darling, and it’s clear that many less adventurous networks are wondering if a toned down version could work on their air. It’s interesting: it takes one work of art, featuring a cast of “difficult women,” to take a risk and break through, and the hordes will follow their lead.
A Future For Female Felons?
Given all of these factors, it sure feels like we’re in a Renaissance of lady anti-heroes. The question is, how long will it last? Some of these trends feel temporary. Maybe next year, everyone will be busy trying to make their own Mr. Robot or Stranger Things to ape Jenji Kohan’s style. Perhaps our fatigue with difficult men will ease once there have been a few less of them on the screen. This is possible, trends may change, but there is reason to believe that these ladies are here to stay. Now that a number of shows on a variety of networks have proven the female baddies can anchor a show, and now that numerous initiatives and fellowships like Ryan Murphy’s Half are bolstering diversity behind the camera, ladies will get to do more than make sandwiches and look pretty from now on.
Here’s hoping that for years to come when you make like Tony Montana, point your fingers, and say “That’s the bad guy,” you’ll be pointing at a woman.