Sara Fredman | Longreads | July 2019 | 9 minutes (2,492 words)
What makes an antihero show work? In this 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.
Golden Age antihero plots were inextricably tied to marriage and the family. Women were often written as villains, antagonists to their husbands who were humanized by the way they loved and provided for their families, no matter the means. Parenthood in particular fulfilled another key requirement for the success of an antihero show: the perfect balance of power and powerlessness the antihero had to maintain in order to retain our sympathy. There is nothing quite like parenting children to make a person feel like a superhero one moment and dust in the wind the next.
New to this series? Start with “The Blaming of the Shrew,” which explores Golden Age antiheroes and the nasty women who humanized them.
But the antiheroes we’ve rooted for over the past 20 years were almost all dads and it is often the idea of parenting, rather than its reality, that plays such a critical role in making those antiheroes compelling despite their moral and ethical shortcomings. Children were invoked as the motivation for the bad things that antiheroes like Tony Soprano and Walter White did but those characters were rarely shown actively engaged in the mundane tasks of parenting. In this we might identify a commonality with the use male politicians make of their parenthood. “Fatherhood for male politicians,” as Rebecca Traister writes, “so far has, for the most part, worked only as a bonus. … at its best, presenting publicly as a committed father has offered an opportunity for men who otherwise cast themselves as tough and authoritative to demonstrate their tender side.” Parenthood does not serve the same function, Traister argues, for women in politics. Women running for office walk a tightrope when it comes to their relationship to motherhood: “Everything associated with motherhood has been coded as faintly embarrassing and less than — from mom jeans to mommy brain to the Resistance. And yet to be a bad mom has been disqualifying, and to not be a mom at all is to be understood as lacking something: gravity, value, femininity.” Whether a woman is fulfilling her domestic responsibilities, be they real or imagined, is applied as a key evaluation of her candidacy. For politicians and would-be female antiheroes, it is possible that satisfactory performance of motherhood is too high a threshold to successfully clear.
And indeed, on shows about women who did bad things that aired around the same time as The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad, motherhood was far from humanizing. Nancy Botwin, Weeds’ pot-dealing suburban widow, was excoriated and named TV’s worst mom. Her husband, conveniently dead when the show begins, is the saint to Nancy’s hot mess. Nurse Jackie’s Jackie Peyton is a drug addict who is very good at her job — so far, so good — but we turn against her as we see her disappoint her children time and again. It doesn’t matter that she is a more involved parent than Don Draper and Tony Soprano combined. Jackie’s husband Kevin is portrayed as long-suffering and worthy of our sympathy. Why does he stay with her? we wondered. Until he left, at which point we agreed that it made eminent sense. We didn’t so much root for these women as wait for them to finally fall apart completely. They were not privy to the precise calibration of their male counterparts and the fact of their motherhood detracted from their humanity rather than highlighting it.
I’m open to being surprised by a female Walter White but, in the meantime, we must consider the possibility that creating a difficult character who is also a mom requires a different kind of show. Pamela Adlon’s Better Things, a half-hour show in the vein of Louie, lays bare all that is expected of mothers and all the ways in which they can fail, while compelling us to root for the mother at its center. (Louis CK collaborated with Adlon on seasons one and two of Better Things; she cut ties with him when sexual misconduct allegations against him became public in 2017.) It is a show about the realities of motherhood and its difficult mom is neither beatified nor villainized. If the genius of The Sopranos was importing the mafia genre into the domestic sphere, Better Things is here to tell us that the mobsters were extraneous and that the domestic has a drama all its own.
She can be abrasive and antisocial; she’s not very nice to her mother. This is the way men have been allowed to be unlikable for a long time.
It is hard to overstate how groundbreaking it is to portray a mother as both flawed and the protagonist of her story. The genius of Better Things lies in the way it hijacks the formula that made us root for bad men and uses it to make a hero out of a mother. As a working actor who isn’t a celebrity, Adlon’s Sam Fox is certainly a small player trying to make it in a much bigger game. We see her doing voice-overs for cartoons and pharmaceutical commercials, being passed over for a lead television role in favor of a younger actress, and waiting in line to use the porta potty on the set of a zombie movie. She is ambitious but we often see her stymied by industry roadblocks in spite of her talent.
Following the antihero script, Adlon surrounds her alter ego with other flawed people meant to elicit our sympathy despite her “difficult” persona. There are plenty of clueless men and sexist Hollywood executives, annoying fellow parents, but also Sam’s actual family members. My husband thinks that Sam’s kids, who seem to be always yelling at her or asking her for money, are the villains of the show. I think this means that either he considers his own kids to be villains or he doesn’t spend enough time with them. Of course, what seems hideous in other people’s children is often deemed adorable or quirky in one’s own. If Better Things does have a villain, it is Sam’s ex-husband, who lives off of her money and regularly disappoints her daughters. Being surrounded by more unlikable people is important because, while Sam is not a mob boss or a murderous Machiavellian queen, she is not a straightforward hero. She is, rather, the kind of mundane version of the antihero popularized by Louis CK, the kind of woman we might call “difficult” or “rough around the edges.” She can be abrasive and antisocial; she’s not very nice to her mother. This is the way men have been allowed to be unlikable for a long time.
Better Things may have the same brand of relatable protagonist as Louie but in focusing on Sam as mother, Adlon’s show parts ways with CK’s show. Louis CK used his kids as a means of telling a story about himself; fatherhood was just one of a number of arenas in which he was fumbling and falling short. If we rooted for him, it was because we could tell he was trying, and because the stand-up vignette with which every episode began reminded us that there was a very funny man behind it who could view it all somewhat objectively and didn’t necessarily take any of it too seriously. Better Things takes Sam’s motherhood very seriously. The special skill that compels us to root for her is not, in the end, her day job but mothering, which she makes clear is very much full-time work. The show’s greatest achievement is, perhaps, that we root for her to succeed as a mother.
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Sam doesn’t just mother her biological children. Better Things is a portrait of a woman who mothers people wherever she goes. Sam calls out the irresponsible director of her zombie movie for the bad conditions on set (“This is a job and people aren’t being taken care of”). When a formerly judgmental fellow mom breaks down and tells her that she “can’t do it,” Sam switches from defense to offense: “Honey, it’s OK, it’s OK, I can’t do it either. You don’t have to do it, you don’t have to. You just — you get up and you do your best.” There is a way in which this scene alone encapsulates what it means to be an antihero. Why do we care about creating an antihero who is a woman? It’s not because we need the female equivalent of Tony Soprano or Don Draper but because antihero shows mirror our own complexities, albeit dramatized and hyperbolized. But having only some kinds of complexities mirrored and not others reinforces the already strong cultural messaging about who is allowed to be flawed and who isn’t. To do this for a woman who is a mother is nothing short of extraordinary. Mothering is my superpower, Adlon seems to be saying, and it can be yours, too.
Season two featured an episode called “Eulogy,” in which Sam, fed up that her kids won’t watch one of her movies, demands that they eulogize her (“I don’t want to have to wait ‘til I’m dead for my kids to appreciate me!”). When they refuse (“Mom, you’re being dramatic”; “Mom, you’re, like, traumatizing us right now”), she storms out of the house. When she returns, the kids and two of her friends have set up a funeral complete with photos and votives. They each take turns eulogizing Sam, for better and worse. “Sam was an unhinged, complicated woman,” her friend Rich begins, “she lied a lot. … she was the rudest, most inappropriate woman I’ve ever met.” But her friend and agent, Tressa, adds that Sam is “the best mother I ever saw.” Her two older children, who had earlier railed against their mother for being a “drama queen” who “acts like a child,” are uncharacteristically vulnerable and emotionally expressive. “My mom was my rock,” her middle daughter Frankie says, “every day of my life I wake up and I feel bad, I feel like I’m not going to get through this day, just with all this stuff that’s in my own head. And as soon as I see, would see her in the morning, I would unload on her … because I needed to give her some of my pain because I knew she could carry it when I couldn’t.” “She’s my mother,” her oldest daughter Max says, “I learned from her how to be a woman and how to be a person.” On Golden Age antihero shows, children gradually open their eyes to how bad their dads are; on Better Things the revelation is that Sam is actually doing a great job with her kids.
The episode is emblematic of what makes Better Things so good. What could have provided evidence of Sam as a flawed, petulant parent and her kids as impertinent brats becomes a meditation on what we ask of mothers. When Sam brings up how many of her kids’ performances and games she’s been to, how she showers them with praise, and asks why they won’t do the same for her, we’re with Frankie, at whose retort (“Because you’re the adult, Sam, and we are the children”) we can’t help but nod our heads. But Sam’s vulnerability, her insistence that “it also hurts my feelings that my work means nothing to you,” insists on her own personhood. It reminds us how easy it is to hate on a mother because of our cultural expectation that mothers relinquish their wants and needs at the door to labor and delivery. We might think about how we would probably hate any mother if we had to watch even one whole day of her life because no one can do this job with grace 24/7.
A previous discussion of Ozark and House of Cards focuses on Wendy Byrde and Claire Underwood.
It’s impossible not to compare Better Things’eulogy scene with the (also brilliant) “Free Churro” episode of Bojack Horseman, which is 26 minutes of Bojack eulogizing his mother. He is the antihero, the flawed guy we root for in spite of the shitty things he does. The eulogy is meant to humanize him, to show us that he has not been properly mothered. This is a common complaint of the antihero. Beatrice Horseman isn’t completely villainized; previous seasons offered a number of flashbacks that suggested she herself had endured trauma and parental malpractice. But this is Bojack’s show, and the point of his eulogy is that Beatrice is a Betty Draper: Her job was to make him feel loved and she failed. It reminds us — as do Betty Draper and Skyler White and Wendy Byrde and people who want to run for office but happen to be mothers — that mothers make for easy villains when you’re only hearing one side of the story. Mothers don’t stand a chance against the antiheroes we’ve grown accustomed to seeing on television. Turning a mother into a three-dimensional character requires that we take her seriously as a person, in all of her complexity.
If the genius of The Sopranos was importing the mafia genre into the domestic sphere, Better Things is here to tell us that the mobsters were extraneous and that the domestic has a drama all its own.
In its most recent season, Better Things gives us a possible metaphor for moving past our cultural fixation with difficult dads to something no less complex and compelling. In episode 11, Sam brings in a medium to help her daughters deal with their belief that the ghost of Sam’s father is haunting their house. “I couldn’t help but notice that this house is filled with women,” the medium says before noting that he nevertheless feels a strong masculine presence. “What you’re sensing,” Sam’s mom Phyllis interjects, “is the deadbeat father, Sam’s ex-husband.” When the medium advises them to move past the toxic people in their lives, Max asks, “How do you move past a dad?”
If you are, like me, asking how we move past the tortured dad as celebrated protagonist, Better Things offers a possible answer. The show is not a riff on the antihero show so much as it is an antidote to it. It transposes the premise of the complicated protagonist working hard for his family to a place where it could have flourished all along: motherhood. Male antiheroes talk about doing things for their family, but we see Sam doing the highly unglamorous work of raising one — making dinner (she’s always cooking) and shopping for school supplies and endlessly driving her kids from place to place; every season has at least one scene of Sam plunging a toilet. “I wish for one boring day,” Sam says in the pilot. Unlike the male antihero, this mom doesn’t have to go looking for thrills. Here the nagging wife and mother is not the antagonist but the hero we root for. The show doesn’t remove the nagging — it leans into it and recasts it as understandable and relatable and likable. Her flaws give her depth instead of providing the evidence we use to define and condemn her.
What would our political landscape look like if we thought of women in this way? What would the world look like if the mom reminding you to be a decent person didn’t have to be a saint herself? The truth is that Better Things does this, in part, by exiling the men. The show strips away heteronormativity in order to make a mother into a person. But the question remains: Is this the only way?
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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.