Sara Fredman | Longreads | February 2019 | 10 minutes (2,982 words)
What makes an antihero show work? In this original Longreads series, It’s Not Easy Being Mean, Sara Fredman explores the fine-tuning that goes into writing a bad guy we can root for, and asks whether the same rules apply to women.
As night follows day, so must the announcement of a woman’s candidacy for high political office compel a verdict on her likability, a quality so ineffable that we can really only say we know it when we see it. And so rarely do we see it in people who aren’t men. Still, likability endures as our gold standard, our north star. Almost 20 years after Sam Adams polled voters on which candidate they would rather get a beer with, we are still obsessed with a candidate’s perceived likability and relatability, despite the fact that we now have the least conventionally likable or relatable president in history. This debating of female candidates’ likability while a man like Donald Trump occupies the Oval Office is confusing but it makes much more sense if you see the current political moment for what it is: our least compelling antihero show.
Whether the antihero show is in its twilight or we’re not quite ready to let it go, there is no doubt that it has been a huge cultural presence for the better part of two decades. As the proliferation of think-pieces around the 20th anniversary of The Sopranos premiere revealed that we’re still in the thrall of the show and the genre it spawned, it’s worth noting that the election of Donald Trump to the highest office in the land followed nearly two decades of tuning in to men who were supposed to be unlikable but whom we somehow liked enough to keep watching. Thinking about political likability and a world in which we say things like “President Trump” is kind of like looking at the wall of Homeland’s Carrie Mathison: it seems crazy but the connections are all there. And in this case, many of the threads lead back to television.
TV is a medium with a particular reliance on likability. Seeing a movie involves just one decision, but when we watch a TV show we must repeatedly make the choice to encounter its characters, tuning in week after week or, in the age of streaming, contributing to a show’s completion rate. When a show features a protagonist who is not conventionally “likable” — someone who does things we recognize as illegal, immoral, or just plain offensive — we must engage in some mental gymnastics. We either flip a switch and start seeing that character as a villain or we decide we’re going to excuse his behavior and continue to root for his success. With a television protagonist, if we choose the latter, it is something that we have to do over and over again, escalating our commitment to the character as his misdeeds pile up.
Trump’s path to the presidency was made smoother by a complex relationship to women and gender that finds its expression in pop culture, like television shows about bad dudes.
TV is also what brought us the concept of likability in politics in the first place because most of the time when we talk about likability, we’re really talking about the appearance of likability, and TV brought us unprecedented access to candidates’ appearances. Each emerging communication technology has changed the formula for successful candidacy and television’s contribution has been to reward a certain type of image. Most radio listeners called the first debate between Kennedy and Nixon a draw, but television viewers overwhelmingly perceived a Kennedy victory because of how Kennedy looked. When we consider TV’s role in the 2016 election, we should be thinking about the way in which television itself took Trump from a local D-lister to an icon of American success with a national profile, but also about the image that we now look for, how the medium has changed our expectations for main characters and, in doing so, changed our expectations for the main character of the country: the president.
And after an election in which we faced two very different potential main characters, we should acknowledge the role that gender plays, in politics and in television. Trump’s path to the presidency was made smoother by a complex relationship to women and gender that finds its expression in pop culture, like television shows about bad dudes. Understanding the mechanics of the antihero genre that came to redefine TV drama, particularly the ways in which the phenomenon of the likable unlikable man relies on the way that man interacts with women, might help us reckon with the politics of gender, and gendered politics, as we look toward another election cycle.
The mythology of the antihero has him spring from David Chase’s head like a late ’90s Athena. In his book on the transformative shows of the late ’90s and early 2000s, The Revolution was Televised, Alan Sepinwall writes that Chase was fighting against “the notion that a TV series had to have a likable character at its center.” It was important to Chase that this new kind of protagonist not be rehabilitated, like Detective Sipowicz of NYPD Blue. There would be no redemption arc but instead further descent into whatever nefarious activities had characterized him as unlikable in the first place.
But there was a disconnect between this vision and the way viewers reacted to Tony Soprano and the other unreformed Sipowiczes who would follow in his wake. Chase has been known to complain about his audience’s relationship to Tony, cheering him on one minute and wanting to see him punished the next; Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad’s Walter White, similarly expressed his surprise that fans were still “rooting for” Walt as his misdeeds became ever more serious and destructive. These kinds of fans have been criticized as “bad readers” missing the point of a groundbreaking new form. But I have always found showrunners’ professions of bafflement at audience reception to be disingenuous at best because the whole enterprise of the antihero show was to create a bad guy people would like anyway. Gilligan seems more in touch with his intentions when he recalls that he cast Bryan Cranston as Walter White because he recalled Cranston’s ability to convey “a basic humanity” in another otherwise unappealing character. When thinking about casting Jon Hamm as Don Draper, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner made a similar observation: “I asked myself a question: ‘When this man goes home to his wife at the end of the pilot, are you going to hate him?’ And I said, ‘No, I will not hate him.’”
Feigned surprise at audience reactions aside, it seems likely that the men who created these “unlikable” men understood that they would still need an audience to invest in them, and that such an investment would not be a slam dunk but would instead require delicate rigging. I like to break down the mechanics of the antihero in the following way:
The antihero is marked as special.
David Chase has said that he used to quote Rockford Files creator Stephen Cannell in the Sopranos writers’ room: “Rockford can be a jerk-off and a fool, but he’s got to be the smartest guy in the room.” The other Golden Age antihero shows followed this formula. Don is a creative genius (“It’s Toasted!”) and Walt is a talented chemist who regularly outsmarts very dangerous people. This distinction of being set apart is something the antihero has in common with regular heroes.
The antihero has interiority.
If, as Chase declared, his character was not going to evolve toward to a more sympathetic future, the case for sympathy would have to be rooted in the past or justified by the present. These shows gave their protagonists an interiority that made sympathizing with them feel less icky. This is where the antiheroes of the early aughts differed from a character like J.R. Ewing, who was also a popular bad guy protagonist. Therapy sessions and flashbacks, revealing monologues, and contemplative moments set to music all softened the blow of the bad things they did. Whatever interiority Chase, Gilligan, and Weiner allowed other characters, it always paled in comparison to that given to their protagonists. Like their smarts and talent, this was another way of distinguishing characters who would have ordinarily coded as villains and instead marking them as the hero of their story.
The antihero is stacked up against antagonists slightly to exceedingly more unlikable than he is.
To me, this is the real key to the antihero’s appeal. Being special and having a sympathetic backstory will only take a traditionally “unlikable” character so far, and there are plenty of movie and TV villains who have been given similar treatment. What separates a true antihero from a villain is that we’re in his corner, we want him to succeed. If we are to root for Don Draper, an identity thief and rampant philanderer, we need to see him opposite, say, a Pete Campbell type: lothario sans charm and talent. Walter White is the small business owner to Gus Fring’s Amazon. Villainy is not a fixed point, it’s a sliding scale. Real people aren’t neatly divided into Supermans and Lex Luthors. Most of us are equal parts potential for good and propensity for shittiness, a heady brew of good instincts and bad inclinations. Our virtue is contextual. While the nature of these men’s misdeeds are (hopefully!) of a different magnitude than our own, part of their appeal is certainly, as Gilligan suspected, the way they mirror our own humanity, the good and the ugly both. And we are able to focus on the former and excuse the latter when showrunners give us other characters who are less multidimensional and therefore easier to hate.
But alongside the Phil Leotardos and Gus Frings, those easier-to-hate people often ended up being women. Skyler White is the most obvious example. Walt was stacked up against all kinds of villains but none inspired the kind of vitriolic responses Anna Gunn famously described in a 2013 New York Times op-ed: the thousands of people who liked the Facebook page “I Hate Skyler White,” the posts complaining that Skyler was “a shrieking, hypocritical harpy … a ball-and-chain, a drag, a shrew, an annoying bitch wife.” Some fans of the show even conflated Gunn and the character she played. One message board post read: “Could somebody tell me where I can find Anna Gunn so I can kill her?” Reddit boards still use her as the bar against which all bad wife characters should be measured. Even the neo-Nazis who killed Hank and made Jesse their slave never raised viewers’ hackles the way Skyler did and still does years later. Fan reaction to Betty Draper was similarly harsh (apparently, the only way to make her “likable” was to kill her) despite the fact that the show was premised on the fact that her life was a lie Don had to tell her over and over.
Women were the accidental antagonists of shows about ‘difficult men,’ but what does it look like when a woman steps into the antihero mold, when it is a difficult woman at the heart of a series?
Sopranos viewers rarely saw Carmela this way because for the most part she declines to take on the role of antagonist. She is instead, as the psychiatrist in season three points out, an enabler. She doesn’t stand in the way of our guy but the show is still built on the foundation of a woman who could wear a man down. In his very first conversation with Dr. Melfi, Tony talks about his parents’ relationship: “My dad was tough. He ran his own crew. Guy like that and my mother wore him down to a little nub. He was a squeaking little gerbil when he died.” Viewers dutifully saw Livia Soprano as an antagonist and a burden Tony had to overcome. In their just released book The Sopranos Sessions, Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller-Seitz write: “Tony adored the ducks in the pool because they were guarded by a mother who protected and nurtured them in a manner free of ulterior motive, of deceit and manipulation, of the urge to annihilate. Livia, for all her evident helplessness, is the most actively destructive force in the pilot, a black hole vacuuming up hope.” They’re talking about the episode where Tony runs over a guy who owes him money with his car but somehow it’s his elderly mother who is the most actively destructive force.
In interviewing Chase for The Sopranos Sessions, Sepinwall reminds him that he once said that The Sopranos, as an idea, began with his friends encouraging him to do a show about his mother. The Sopranos’ origin story is rooted in the trope of the “nagging harpy” and Chase himself suggests that the show was successful in large part because he imported domesticity into the mobster genre: “family shows were a women’s medium, and this was a family show. I thought this might be successful, or at least keep its head above water, because it would attract, unlike most Mob pictures, a female audience because of the family show aspect.” But the kind of domesticity of which he availed himself, one that would become a familiar element of shows about “difficult” men, was one in which women are set up to be either enablers or antagonists. Livia might have been the black hole, but all of the women in Tony’s life are implicated. In that same therapy session in episode one, Dr. Melfi asks Tony, “What’s the one thing your mother, your wife, your daughter all have in common?” His response? “They all break my balls.”
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Wives get the raw end of the deal in an antihero show. They are there to humanize the protagonist but we often see them as villains instead of the victims they truly are because, in opposing our guy, they stand in the way of the show’s plotline. Wives pose a problem in that they fail to deliver on what we perhaps subconsciously assume to be their role. These men provide for their families. They work hard — never mind how or what they do with their leisure time — so that their families can have what they need and all their wives have to do is not call them on it. Philosopher Kate Manne argues that a central dynamic of misogyny is the obligation by, or expectation of, women to give men “feminine-coded goods and service” like attention, care, sympathy, respect, admiration, security, and safe haven. There is, according to Manne, “the threat of withdrawal of social approval if those social duties are not performed, and the incentive of love and gratitude if they are done willingly and gladly.” Viewer response to characters like Skyler and Betty is the natural result of the expectation that wives are supposed to help, not hinder, their husbands. Carmela, on the other hand, explains to Dr. Krakower that her role is to “make sure he’s got clean clothes in his closet and dinner on his table.”
Once you see the degree to which the antihero show is dependent on marriage and heteronormativity, you can’t unsee it. The role of a wife in an antihero story is not incidental but integral: domestic antagonists are a large part of the reason we feel OK about rooting for bad guys like Tony Soprano, Walter White, and Don Draper. These shows taught us to look for the humanity in our male protagonists and ignore it in the women who stood in their way. Television audiences’ identification with and adoration of male antiheroes were the canaries in the coal mine, warning us of the ease with which we might see villains as victims and vice versa.
Looking back, it’s painful to admit that for many in the electorate, Hillary Clinton was the Skyler to Trump’s Walt, the Betty to his Don. We had already spent years seeing her as the Carmela to Bill’s Tony, implicated in her husband’s misdeeds by dint of staying with him, forever tainted by her own moral compromises that, while they paled in comparison to his, were for some reason less forgivable and rendered her eternally “unlikable.” It made sense, then, that when Clinton took a jab at Trump’s penchant for avoiding paying taxes while explaining her plan to raise taxes on the wealthy during the third debate, Trump interrupted to call her “such a nasty woman.” This one, he seemed to be telling viewers at home, is a Skyler.
So where does this leave us, in art and in politics? Are we ready for a female candidate who is – like all of the male candidates over the last 230 years, like all of us – human? As I write this, about half of the announced Democratic candidates for president are women so it is likely that gender will play a starring role this election cycle. Similarly, as television diffuses like so many essential oils over ever-increasing platforms, there are more opportunities than ever before for female-centered shows. How have we done with female characters? Have depictions of women sharing a screen with unlikable men changed at all? Are we able to see the “humanity” that Gilligan identified at the heart of Walter White’s appeal in people who aren’t men? Women were the accidental antagonists of shows about “difficult men,” but what does it look like when a woman steps into the antihero mold, when it is a difficult woman at the heart of a series? What is it, actually, that makes a woman difficult?
When we talk about antiheroes, we’re really talking about the kinds of bad behavior we can countenance and the kinds we can’t, the conditions that need to be met for us to overlook bad behavior; the way we take the sum of some people and not others. Thinking about when and how we extend our understanding and forgiveness is key to understanding the genre and our world. Deconstructing the antihero genre may help us better examine our own attitudes toward women.
This is the first installment of an unscientific and hardly exhaustive journey through shows about difficult people, many of whom are women. Next up? The Good Bad Wives of Ozark and House of Cards.
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Sara Fredman is a writer and editor living in St. Louis. Her work has been featured in Longreads, The Rumpus, Tablet, and Lilith.