Author Archives

Sara Fredman

The World’s Tallest Dwarf

Illustration by Zoë van Dijk

Sara Fredman | Longreads | November 2019 | 10 minutes (2,750 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.
 
The question at the core of the antihero show has always been what it would take to turn the bad guy — the mobster, the drug kingpin, the Russian spy, the mad and murderous queen — into the hero of the story. And the answer is that our willingness to root for a bad person who does bad things, sometimes to good people, is dependent on a carefully constructed context. Successful antiheroes have all been portrayed in a certain way: as special — particularly skilled at something or somehow different than those around them — and as three-dimensional human beings with unmet desires. They are usually surrounded by even more unsavory antagonists and are invariably trying to survive within an oppressive system they can’t fully understand. Our empathy for them comes in large part from seeing their pain and the forces that oppress them even when they don’t, perhaps especially when they don’t. But our ability to relate to them also hinges on the possibility of redemption, if not its actualization. We see ourselves, however dimly, in antiheroes. Their potential for change is our own. We can stand to watch them do terrible things because we harbor hope that they, and we, can change.    Read more…

Lindy West is Preaching to the Choir

Jenny Jimenez / Hatchette Books

Sara Fredman | Longreads | November 2019 | 17 minutes (4,696 words)

 
The title of Lindy West’s new book, The Witches Are Coming, derives from a New York Times column West wrote in October 2017 about the then-unfolding of the allegations against Harvey Weinstein. Woody Allen had warned against creating “a witch hunt atmosphere,” where men have to worry about their every move, and West was not having it. Or, more precisely, she was all too ready to have it. “The witches are coming,” she wrote, “but not for your life. We’re coming for your legacy … we have our stories, and we’re going to keep telling them.” For West, there is witchcraft to be found in truth-telling, a power that she says “by definition cannot be likable.” 

Likability is in the news again, with the New York Times reporting this week that 41% of voters surveyed who support Joe Biden but not Elizabeth Warren say they agree with the statement that most of the women who run for president “just aren’t that likable.” But, as West and I discussed when we spoke over the phone last month, likability is hardly an objective category. It depends as much on who is doing the liking as it does on who is being liked. In other words, audience — or in the case of politics, the makeup of the electorate — matters. The Witches Are Coming knows its audience. It isn’t aimed at the Woody Allens or the Donald Trumps of the world; its title functions as more of a mantra for would-be practitioners of its witchcraft than a warning to potential victims. And the truths West tells in The Witches Are Coming will likely find a cadre of would-be witches eager to like them. Over the last decade, West has gone from a local Seattle favorite to a writer with a national profile, a best-selling memoir, Shrill, and a well-received TV show of the same name. In one of her essays, West cheekily addresses racists but she acknowledges that her writing isn’t for everyone, least of all Trump supporters. Instead, she talks about the value of preaching to the choir — in her words, the ones “who show up every week.” 

Still, it’s possible that even West’s devoted audience isn’t entirely ready to hear all of the truths she’s here to tell. The essays in The Witches Are Coming cover a wide range of seemingly disparate topics, from the #metoo movement to climate change; Ted Bundy, Adam Sandler, and Joan Rivers all get chapters, as does a 90s culture that West believes taught her that activism was lame. They share an emphasis on the power of voice: Who gets to speak and share their stories? How do we react when those stories are shared? And they often dwell on the ways in which we try to avoid having hard conversations about our culture. What the essays don’t do is provide any easy solutions. When I spoke to her, West was comfortable saying she doesn’t have all the answers and the book functions as a series of questions that attempt, at various points, to challenge, inspire, and reassure an audience she assumes is ready to take on the cultural challenges we face as we head into the third decade of the millennium. 

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Sara Fredman: Shrill told a specifically feminist story: what it’s like to walk around the world in a woman’s body, and in your particular body; what it means to try and fit yourself into like cultural and physical spaces that aren’t built for you. The Witches Are Coming pans out quite a bit and engages more broadly with politics and systemic inequities and what it means to live in our culture right now, particularly for marginalized groups. What compelled you to use this wider lens? How was the writing process different for this book as opposed to Shrill

Lindy West: Well, part of it is that there’s something vulnerable and very raw and sort of overexposed about writing memoir and I needed a break from writing memoir. So that was part of it but I think that a hallmark of the Trump era is this feeling of being overwhelmed. I’m not one of those people who thinks that this is a good thing because it’s forcing people to wake up. But I do think that it has forced a lot of people to confront how many different things are broken in our country and the ways that he’s been able to exploit those broken systems and the ways that his fans absolutely relish that brokenness. It’s really been a dark and scary time. And I just felt like that feeling of being overwhelmed is such a part of this time, so I wanted to address it in some way. I’m not an expert in anything, I don’t have a degree in policy. I’m just a person who I think is a relatively good communicator and I have this platform and this book is my attempt at gathering in all of the different parts of this great, big, overwhelming mess as best I can, trying to hold them all together and look at them at the same time and be honest and accountable about reality. That’s what this writing process felt like to me. I don’t know anything special but the point of the book is hopefully to make people feel less alone and hopefully to galvanize people a little bit. It’s the same as writing a list. If you can put something down on paper in a way where you can look at it all at once, it becomes less daunting. And you can’t cover everything but this was my attempt at trying to consolidate it so you can start cutting it up into bite-sized pieces. 

It reminds me of when my daughter was dealing with anxiety as a really little person and I spoke to a child psychologist who said you have to name it before you can deal with it. And I feel like that’s so much of what you’re doing, naming it for us. Not that we don’t know, obviously, what we’re dealing with, but getting it down on paper is the first step because it’s so overwhelming. 

Yeah, and it’s also scary to look at because it’s so much more comfortable to be in denial. 

Once you start looking at like — “oh my God, what do we do?” — it’s really scary. And I think a lot of people — particularly privileged people and especially white people — who have the luxury of living in denial to a great extent, that’s really seductive. And I think that the first step absolutely is just naming what’s happening around us and what’s happened before us. That’s just the first step to repairing some of these really deep illnesses in our society. 

But I’m interested in how you conceive of your audience. Is there an element in this book, do you think, of preaching to the choir or do you see it as galvanizing those who would already tend to agree with you but just might be complacent or think that there’s not much they can do? Do you think you might change anyone’s mind? 

I know that I have changed people’s minds with my writing before because I hear from them. I clearly did not write this book for Trump supporters to read and be like, “Huh, I never thought about that.” Obviously that’s not going to happen. I don’t feel any kind of qualms about preaching to the choir. I get accused of that a lot and I’m like, great, the choir is who shows up every week. And we have a lot of shit to do and if the choir is feeling despair and doesn’t know what to do with themselves, I have some ideas for them and I would like them to feel energized and galvanized and I would like them to not feel hopeless. The choir is who’s showing up because they want to be preached to so I don’t really mind when people say that about my work. I don’t think everything has to be changing people’s minds. And I don’t know that there are many books that are going to reach across that partisan divide. I think that’s the work of very, very long, slow culture change or one ultra-charismatic politician TBD who maybe hasn’t been born yet. 

When I teach argumentative writing, I usually start our discussion by asking if the students can give an example of a piece of writing that changed their minds because I think it’s extraordinarily difficult to change someone’s mind. And it’s always a very interesting discussion but this semester, one of my students said that he used to be anti-abortion and then started seeing all these Twitter threads of women talking about their abortions and they changed his mind. And I was flabbergasted because when does this ever happen? But then it was like, “Oh my gosh, that was on Twitter.” And I bring this up because you started the Shout Your Abortion movement on Twitter and, in this book, you write that “personal story telling is an engine of humanization, which is in turn an engine of empathy.” So here I have this kid who’s telling me he changed his opinion on abortion because of Twitter threads but Twitter can often be this toxic wasteland for women. What do we do about the fact that this is a major platform for changing minds but it’s also the main arena for policing and punishing women’s voices? What would be your advice for women who want to try to change the world by sharing their stories but don’t want to participate in an abusive garbage platform?

I don’t know. I’m certainly not telling people that they need to get off Twitter. I love Twitter. I think Twitter is incredible in a lot of ways and I had a lot of fun on Twitter and I learned a lot on Twitter. All of that is real and if people can find a place, a way to navigate Twitter that feels safe and productive to them, that’s great, you know, go ahead and stay. I left Twitter because of the president. It wasn’t so much the getting trolled all the time. I just felt ethically disgusting validating that platform or embracing the platform with my presence. So while I do think it might be a net gain for the world if we all left Twitter and let it die and move to a different platform, I don’t know what that platform is. That’s all well and good to suggest but in practical terms, it doesn’t really do much for us. We don’t have it yet. Shout Your Abortion happened on Twitter 100% and I know firsthand that that movement has changed a lot of people’s lives. And it’s just one of many absolutely incredible spontaneous outpourings of truths that have happened on Twitter that have changed a lot about the landscape that we live in. So I don’t have anything wise to say beyond that it sucks. Some people get to use this platform and have fun and feel safe and laugh and goof off with their friends and some people, in order to do any of that, have to figure out how to armor themselves against really, really violent, horrific abuse. And the fact that it’s racialized and it’s gendered, it’s just a really apt and a really disgusting reflection of our society at large. If I had a solution for our society at large, I promise I’d tell everyone. It’s real tricky because people absolutely need that platform and there’s a lot of good stuff happening there. I choose to not be there, but I don’t begrudge people who do. And even though I don’t have a lot of faith in them, I hope that Twitter continues to try to make that space safe for everyone. And maybe they’ll figure it out. 

That idea of how some people get to exist very benignly, safely and other people have a totally different experience of the world, you touch on that in your chapter on Ted Bundy and likability, which kind of fed my soul because I write a series for Longreads on TV antiheroes and gender, trying to figure out why we find it so easy to like men who do bad things and so hard to like women who do anything at all. Your argument is that likability is a con and that it can’t possibly be an objective criterion in our sexist, racist culture, which I found very compelling. But you also have a TV show and, I think, in the opinion of most critics, you created a likable character in Annie Easton. 

I know. 

Although there was some criticism that I remember seeing when season one came out that she wasn’t shrill enough, which I guess meant that she was so likable that she was unlikable, which hilariously and sadly proves your point. Can you talk a little bit about the process of creating that character? Did you fall into the likability trap at all? Were there discussions of “we want audiences to like this character” or “I’m crafting the character in such a way” in order to get audiences to like or relate to her? 

Yeah. I’m sure I’ve absolutely contradicted myself in print because I definitely have said that part of my purpose in the show, part of my goal, was to create a fat person that you like because I just think that that’s such an excellent way to change people’s minds — if you can fall in love with this character that you’re used to seeing as a kind of negative archetype, a stock character, a sidekick, a sort of broken person, a work in progress. If you can make a fully realized human being that people care about in a genuine way, then that might affect the way that they think about the fat people around them in their lives. So I’ve certainly said that in interviews and then I condemned myself in my book, which I hadn’t realized, so thank you for pointing that out. You’re always working within the confines of the culture that you’re working in. I guess maybe you can exploit that system to a degree. 

I think that the way it’s been set up like likability is a con. My argument in the series has basically been that these stories of antiheroes have been told in such a way that it stacks the deck for liking a certain character. We wouldn’t ordinarily like a mob boss or a meth kingpin, but because we get these backstories, because we see that they’re just trying to provide for their families and they’re thoughtful, they get interiority, all that stuff, and we find ourselves rooting for them in spite of ourselves because it’s been stacked. It’s all about how you construct a narrative. And so I think it’s so cool and fascinating to be thoughtful about that, but for the kind of character who doesn’t usually get that kind of narrative structure. 

Yeah and also, you know, Annie is not likable universally. I am, in the chapter, talking more about the idea of this sort of blanket, nice, universal likability that actually isn’t what we’re going for in the show. There’s plenty of people who are mad about her abortion, who hate her for being fat even though she’s nice. But I think you’re right. I think if you are a flattened person, then your likability can only be hollow. And all it can do is pander to stereotypes and traditional gender roles. But if you can make a character that is alive, it’s likable in a much more nutritious way. And you’re still within the confines of a fucked-up culture and there’s stuff about Annie that I’m sure is problematic in some way. But everything is just this kind of weird dance. You’re trying to position yourself in this matrix of fucked-up forces. 

I think it’s a complex thing but I think it’s telling that you were able to create this character who you want to root for despite the fact that she was doing all of these things that have not traditionally been likable characteristics. So that’s moving the needle but also probably reflective of the fact that so many women saw themselves for the first time in this character and that we have more women’s voices in pop culture criticism and all that stuff to say “this is a great portrayal.” So I guess it’s all about representation. Which is another topic that you talk about a lot. You’ve spoken about it in Shrill and in this book as well. And the chapter on likability comes right after the chapter on Adam Sandler, which argues that all Adam Sandler movies share a number of major unnerving qualities. I’m the same age as you and I’ve always seen myself in your arguments that so much of pop culture when we were growing up just wasn’t for us. I’m finding that part of adulthood for me is figuring out what I actually like because so much of my youth was spent subconsciously shaping myself to fit a pop culture that wasn’t created by people like me. 

Totally. 

And actually Adam Sandler was a notable exception in one tiny little way. His Hannukah song was like the first time my religion had a major pop culture moment. But that was literally the one thing. 

I mean, I almost put it in the book that “O.J. Simpson, not a Jew” is an incredible joke. It’s a very, very good line. 

It was so of a moment. You could write a chapter on that. 

Yeah, for sure. 


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So I guess I’m wondering whether you think things have shifted enough. Is it that pop culture has become a bigger tent such that it speaks to girls and young women in the same way it does to boys and young men? Or has it just become fragmented? You have teenage daughters. Do you feel that it’s different now? 

It’s definitely different. I don’t know that it’s like, you know, “Oh, we fixed it.” It’s so much better, there’s so much more diverse representation, different ways to be a girl on TV, than there were when we were growing up. But still 99% of the actresses on TV look exactly alike and lo and behold, that’s what all the teenage girls at my daughters’ schools happen to strive to look like. And that’s just exactly the same as it was when we were teenagers. But at the same time there’s a lot more depth and breadth to the female characters and the different kinds of women’s stories that we see on TV. I mean, when we were kids, you couldn’t have interracial couples. I was at Jezebel already when Cheerios had an ad with an interracial couple and people lost their minds. So that was 2012 at the earliest. So things absolutely are moving and shifting. My daughters are so clued in. They’re so on top of the media that they consume and monitoring it and policing it and thinking critically about it. And that’s another thing that Twitter has, I think, taught a lot of young people. It’s just a constant global conversation churning about every single thing in the world. And so my daughters are hyperaware of racist bullshit and sexist bullshit and homophobic bullshit in the media around them and it’s amazing. In a different interview, someone asked me: How do you equip your kids to navigate the sort of media landscape? And I think I kind of rambled on about, you know, “You gotta be honest with them and always talk to them like they are smart and they can handle it and don’t dumb things down,” blah, blah, blah. But I’m realizing in this moment that my real answer is, don’t worry about it, they got it. My daughters are so much smarter about media literacy.

I feel like I was so dumb. I feel dumb compared to them. 

Yeah. And the thing also about them is they’re not embarrassed to be militant. 

I really appreciated that activism chapter. It was cheering.

I worry about it being a little bit, um, too sweeping, too broad, because I’m ultimately talking about my own experience in high school, but it’s definitely real. 

You talk about how activism was viewed when we were in high school, how save the whales was a punchline, like, “Oh, you care about this? Pretty lame.” And the fact that we grew up in that culture, I mean it’s so sad.

So sad. 

What could we have done if that wasn’t the predominant cultural attitude toward activism? 

And it was absolutely by design, you know? People did that to us and that’s so messed up. 

Changing topics from the future to the past, your Joan Rivers chapter made me think about The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel because the show is supposed to be loosely based on Joan Rivers and other early female comics. But in your chapter you point out the crucible Joan Rivers operated in. There were such limited choices facing women in comedy and she was shaped by the forces around her. If she wanted to do this thing, she needed to work in a certain way. And the show takes a totally different route. It allows its protagonist to remain likable — there’s that likability again — while killing it as a female comic. She gets to keep her humanity and also do comedy. And she’s pretty and everybody loves her but nobody sexually harasses her. Except for maybe comments, like, [old timey voice] “What’s that broad doing here?” Nobody’s grabbing any locations on her body. Emily Nussbaum, the New Yorker’s TV critic, made a very similar point when she wrote about the show. But I think that your chapter on Joan Rivers offers this kind of sliding doors alternative story that the show could be telling and it would be a heavier show and less triumphalist. And I know you’ve worked in comedy and you’ve written about the role that comedy plays in culture and the responsibilities of its practitioners. It seems to me like an example of what you talk about in “choosing the lie,” right? 

Totally. 

It’s enjoyable entertainment but maybe another example of how we choose to gloss over the things that make us uncomfortable. 

Yeah, and that does a great disservice to women who are struggling in that field or in any similar field where, you know, we can just tell a story about a plucky gal who excels in her job and doesn’t face any of those really dark complications, if she’s even able to get there at all. There are so many people who were run out of comedy by sexist creeps. We don’t know who they are, we don’t know how many of them there are, we don’t know their names because they never got to do it. So I think it is easy to be like, [old timey voice] “Well if you just try hard and you got good jokes, anyone can do it!” That’s just bootstraps again. Like, if you failed, you must not have tried hard enough or you must not have been good enough when really there are — not to be a broken record — but there are massive, powerful, entrenched systems in place that move the ride for some people and make it impossible for other people, or at least very, very painful and grueling. And you’re not going to fix that, you’re not going to fix the world, if you don’t look at those honestly. 

I thought about the Chip and Joanna Gaines chapter when the whole Ellen and George W. Bush thing happened. 

Right, I thought about it too. “Oh, my chapter!” 

Ellen commented and said, “Just because I don’t agree with someone on everything doesn’t mean I’m not gonna be friends with them.” But in your chapter on Chip and Joanna, you write: “The partisan divide is not insignificant or cute.” So how did you feel about that whole kerfuffle?

Like everything else, it’s just really complicated. It would have been incredibly powerful if Ellen had made some public statement like, “You know what? He’s my friend and I really love him as a person, but it’s true that he did XYZ horrific things to the LGBTQ community and I feel …” You know what I mean? I think more transparency is always really powerful. But also, she’s walking a tightrope. 

Right. So what do we say to people who, like Chip and Joanna, are trying to shelter in this neutrality cocoon and walk that tightrope? What do we, as consumers of pop culture, do about that? 

I don’t know, like, constantly bitch about it on Twitter? I don’t know. I think that part of this book, that I try to get into over and over and over again, is that all of this stuff is really messy; there’s not a perfect system. I think that it’s good to always encourage people to be principled and transparent and honest. Ellen or Chip and Joanna could have used those moments as an opportunity to have a complicated, candid conversation and they chose not to. And I understand that there are probably teams of publicists telling them what to do. 

Same with the candidates who got that question, you know, about “friends who aren’t like you.”

Yeah, I mean, you know what? I don’t have any friends who are homophobic, right-wing, racist monsters. Monsters is not a productive term. People, real people. I don’t have those people as my friends and I frankly don’t understand how that would work. But I also recognize that I live in Seattle and I live in a bubble and I am not confronted with messy situations. I couldn’t find you a Trump supporter if you were gonna give me $1 million. I don’t even know where to look. And so I recognize that it’s more complicated than that. I think all we can do is continue to have these conversations in public and resist falling into absolutely useless clichés like “I don’t need all my friends to believe the exact same way as me.” Like, yeah, I don’t need all my friends to root for the same sports team as me but I do need all my friends to feel the same way I do about racism and homophobia and transphobia. I do need that and I think that that is a virtue. I think that that is a good thing.

Right, and the stakes of being kind to people who are not being kind on a much grander scale with major systemic consequences. 

Yeah, and that doesn’t mean that we have to — I’m not advocating violence. Look, if there are people in your life that believe horrific things and you love those people and you care about them, of course you don’t have to cut those people out of your life. But I do think that a great start would be to at least try to communicate with them in a real way, like not in a contentious way where you’re arguing about politics, but in a human way, like we’re talking about human beings and people’s lives. It’s yet another question to which I don’t have a perfect answer because, you know, I think I said this in the book that we’ve torn down some old systems and we haven’t built new ones yet and we’re still kind of beta testing, we’re troubleshooting. I think that most people are good, or at least mean well and want to be kind. And I think a lot of people are really controlled by fear and resentment and I don’t think that that’s insurmountable. But I also don’t know how to fix it, except for doing what I’m already doing, which is using my platform to say the same eight things over and over and over again until I die. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands

How Do You Move Past a Dad?

Illustration by Zoë van Dijk

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.

“Mother/Russia” and “And What of My Wrath?” examine two very different mothers in “The Americans” and “Game of Thrones.”

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?

 

Previous installments in this series:
The Blaming of the Shrew
The Good Bad Wives of Ozark and House of Cards
Mother/Russia
And What of My Wrath?

* * *

Sara Fredman is a writer and editor living in St. Louis. Her work has been featured in Longreads, The Rumpus, Tablet, and Lilith.

Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Illustrator: Zoë van Dijk

And What of My Wrath?

Illustration by Zoë van Dijk

Sara Fredman | Longreads | May 2019 | 9 minutes (2,555 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.

 
I didn’t want to write about Game of Thrones. Truly, I didn’t. In the first place, it is an ensemble show and therefore not technically an antihero vehicle. It is also generally the realm of the hot take and this series is usually a place for tepid, if not downright frigid, takes. It is Winterfell, not Dorne. But here we are in Dorne, talking about Game of Thrones, though probably a week or so after it would have been maximally festive. So maybe it’s more accurate to say that we’re in King’s Landing, which is perfect because we’re here to talk about how, on any other show, Cersei Lannister could have been the female antihero we’ve all been waiting for.

Cersei is the closest female analogue to the Golden Age antiheroes who turned the genre into a phenomenon. Those men — Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Walter White — all do terrible things for a host of reasons: because they want to, because power feels good, because they’re doing what they need to do to survive in the world. Despite the fact that these men do terrible things, we root for them because of a careful calibration of their characters and the environment in which they operate. They are marked as special, or especially skilled; they are humanized by their difficult pasts and their dedication to their children; and, finally, they are surrounded by other, more terrible people. Cersei has, at one point or another in the show’s eight-season run, fallen into all of these categories. She is smart and cunning. I recently rewatched a scene I had forgotten, early in the first season in which she pokes holes in the plan her dumb and petulant son Joffrey comes up with to gain control of the North. The scene shows us that she understands the stakes of the titular game and how to play it successfully: “A good king knows when to save his strength and when to destroy his enemies.” The audience knows that Joffrey can never be that king and, despite Cersei’s keen grasp of her political landscape, neither can she. She may be depicted as a villain throughout most of the series but she is also clearly a talent born into the wrong body, and she knows it. As she says to King Robert Baratheon: “I should wear the armor and you the gown.”

This brings us to our next antihero criterion, which is the humanizing influence of interiority and family. It is axiomatic among the show’s characters and creators that Cersei’s most humanizing characteristic is the love and dedication she shows her children. In their final scene together, her brother Tyrion begs her to surrender with the only card he believes will matter: “You’ve always loved your children more than yourself. More than Jaime. More than anything. I beg you if not for yourself then for your child. Your reign is over, but that doesn’t mean your life has to end. It doesn’t mean your baby has to die.” In showrunner David Benioff’s view, Cersei’s children were the only thing that could humanize her: “I think the idea of Cersei without her children is a pretty terrifying prospect because it was the one thing that really humanized her, you know — her love for her kids. As much of a monster as she could sometimes be, she was a mother who truly did love her children.”

But the thing about an antihero show is that it can turn any monster into a hero.

It is of course true that Cersei loves her children, but it is hard to square Tyrion’s description of his sister with the Cersei of season two’s “Blackwater” who was prepared to kill herself and Tommen, her youngest son, rather than be taken alive by Stannis Baratheon and his army. Tyrion thinks that Cersei loves her children like a June Cleaver when she actually loves them like a Walter White. For the antihero, love of family is about self-advancement, not self-sacrifice. Invoking his children will not dissuade him from doing bad things because their existence is the very thing that motivates him to do them. This is why Walter White can yell “WE’RE A FAMILY” right before he takes his infant daughter away from her mother.

David Benioff’s assertion that Cersei’s love of her children is the only thing that humanizes her is possibly the best example of the way in which the Game of Thrones writers misunderstood their characters and their audience. It overlooks the other reasons the show gave us to root for Cersei and betrays an ignorance of the extent to which enduring patriarchy might itself be, for at least a portion of its audience, humanizing. It reveals an inability to grasp the possibility that the mother and the monster can be the same person. For a show dedicated to demonstrating just how thin the line is between good and evil, Game of Thrones was surprisingly blind to Cersei’s potential to become a compelling antihero, to be humanized by something other than her children. Or maybe the show realized it all too well.


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Seasons five and six in particular could have been a — forgive me — game changer for the audience’s relationship with Cersei. Their storyline has Cersei first trying to manipulate and then fighting off a band of homophobic and misogynist religious ascetics called the Sparrows. Initially, the audience appreciates the way the High Sparrow thwarts Cersei’s attempts to use religion to strengthen her own political position. She’s been a villain for four seasons and we relish seeing her hit a roadblock. But the High Sparrow and his sidekick Septa Unella take it too far and our allegiances begin to shift. Septa Unella tortures Cersei in prison and the High Sparrow declares that Cersei must take a walk of penance through the streets of King’s Landing. Her hair is shorn and she walks naked from the Sept of Baelor to the Red Keep as Septa Unella chants “shame” and rings a bell to draw onlookers. In that sequence, we don’t forget that Cersei’s done terrible things, but we feel sympathy for her because she is, in that moment, at the mercy of other, more sinister forces. We also feel sympathy for her because this showdown with the High Sparrow reminds us that her story is that of a woman living under patriarchy, that her autonomy has always been contingent and therefore largely an illusion. We remember that this is not the first time Cersei has been powerless, that in the first season we saw her husband hit her and then tell her to wear her bruise in silence or he would hit her again. We remember the way her father, Tywin Lannister, spoke to her (“Do you think you’ll be the first person dragged into the Sept to be married against her will?”), and we also remember that she was raped by the one man she loved next to the body of her murdered son.

In most of the ways that matter, Cersei’s relationship with Sansa Stark, betrothed to marry Cersei’s abusive son Joffrey, is evidence of her villainy but it is also a frank education in what becoming a wife and mother means under patriarchy. Looking back on some of their scenes together, one gets the sense that Cersei feels compelled to explain to Sansa what she’s in for, to disabuse her of any notions of happily ever after and replace them with the reality of life as a political pawn, a prisoner in expensive dresses. We see this as coldhearted and evil because we hold out hope that Sansa will be able to remain an innocent princess looking for true love, but that’s not an option for girls like her, and Cersei knows it. In a heart-to-heart after Sansa gets her period for the first time, Cersei assures her that while she will never love the king, she will love her children. Sansa has just become a woman, which makes her eligible to be a wife and mother. Cersei knows that this is an occasion for a political lesson rather than a domestic one: “Permit me to share some womanly wisdom with you on this very special day. The more people you love, the weaker you are. You do things for them that you know you shouldn’t do, you’ll act the fool to make them happy, to keep them safe. Love no one but your children. On that front, a mother has no choice.” When we hear it from her own mouth, Cersei’s love for her children sounds less like deliberate self-sacrifice than yet another matter in which she has no choice.

Tyrion thinks that Cersei loves her children like a June Cleaver when she actually loves them like a Walter White.

It’s probably worthwhile to remember that the “game” we have spent eight years watching is only being played in the first place because Robert Baratheon assumed that a woman who left him had to have been taken (“I only know she was the one thing I ever wanted and someone took her away from me”). Women are things to be taken and traded; they are the tools men use to cement alliances and consolidate power. Freedom of movement and freedom of self-determination are precious commodities to which only some people in Westeros have access, either by birth or cunning. None of those people are women. Cersei is hardly the only victim of patriarchy on the show, but she could have been its most symbolic. More than anything, Cersei wants to control her own body and her own destiny. She wants to be a player, rather than a pawn. When Ned Stark confronts her about her relationship with Jaime and the illegitimacy of their children, he warns, “Wherever you go, Robert’s wrath will follow you.” Cersei replies, “And what of my wrath, Lord Stark?” This question is, of course, rhetorical — everyone knows that a woman’s anger only earns 78 cents on the dollar. We side with Ned, but on another show, Cersei’s question could have been a rallying cry. We might have written it on signs taken to #resistance rallies and anti-abortion protests. Neither Cersei nor Robert has been faithful, but Robert’s anger matters more because he is the king and Cersei’s infidelity matters more because her body is for making him a bloodline.

The Sept of Baelor pyrotechnics in the season six finale could have easily been Cersei’s “Face Off” moment: a shocking triumph over her enemies showcasing her intelligence and tactical skill. The move was not only brilliantly efficient, killing off everyone who opposed her at once without leaving home, but also bursting with symbolism. She destroys the religious cult that stripped her of what little bodily and political autonomy she had and blows up the place where she married Robert and was raped by Jaime. Cersei watches from her window as the architectural incarnation of patriarchy goes up in green flames and then takes a sip of wine.

That masterfully shot suspenseful sequence is immediately followed by Cersei’s vengeful speech to her torturer, Septa Unella, before leaving her in the hands of Gregor Clegane:

“Confess, it felt good, beating me, starving me, frightening me, humiliating me. You didn’t do it because you cared about my atonement, you did it because it felt good. I understand. I do things because they feel good. I drink because it feels good. I killed my husband because it felt good to be rid of him. I fucked my brother, because it feels good to feel him inside of me. I lie about fucking my brother, because it feels good to keep our son safe from hateful hypocrites. I killed your High Sparrow, and all his little sparrows, all his septons and all his septas, all his filthy soldiers because it felt good to watch them burn. It felt good to imagine their shock and their pain. No thought has ever given me greater joy. Even confessing feels good under the right circumstances.”

Cersei is hardly the only victim of patriarchy on the show, but she could have been its most symbolic.

This is Cersei’s “I am the one who knocks” speech, the moment where the antihero lays bare her unsavory machinations, and we applaud because a formerly weak person now has some hard-won power. Walter White takes some time to understand that if he is to have any power, he must take it. Cersei has always understood that power is her only available means toward self-determination, a ballast against the whims and wishes of those who would try to use her to further their own storylines and try to capture a bigger piece of the Westeros pie. Power is, for her, a necessity rather than a perk. Thinking about Cersei as an antihero, however brief the time we spend cheering her on, makes clear the extent to which writing a successful antihero always involves portraying that character as but a small player in a much bigger game. This is Walter White up against Big Pharma, which cut him out of profits to which he feels entitled and is now forcing him to forfeit his family’s financial security to stay alive. It is Tony Soprano chafing against RICO and the possibility that anyone in his orbit could help the FBI lock him up. It is Don Draper trying to hold on to a life he was never supposed to have. And it is Philip and Elizabeth Jennings doing the job they were trained to do, while people we never see change the rules and determine its stakes. An antihero isn’t on top of the world but right there in the melee, jockeying for some small measure of self-determination. We realize, as they do, that no matter how much power or control they seem to have, they are only one step away from being literally or metaphorically paraded through the streets naked while someone rings a bell.

Cersei is the closest we’ve come to a female version of this kind of character. David Benioff is right: Cersei is a monster. But the thing about an antihero show is that it can turn any monster into a hero. It compels us to root for a monster by making us see the monstrosity lurking all around him and, in so doing, turns him into our monster. Monstrosity in Westeros is like wildfire under King’s Landing: There is more than enough of it to make Cersei a queen we root for while she sips her celebratory wine. Allowing Cersei to become a full-on antihero could have been incredible, giving the show an opportunity to explore the particular powerlessness of women under patriarchy. What difference does motherhood make? What particular vulnerabilities does it bestow, what kinds of unexpected powers or motivations? But this is the fantasy world we have, not the one we need, and Game of Thrones could never allow Cersei to fully become the antihero character they had temporarily conjured. Three weeks ago — on Mother’s Day no less — we saw her crushed by a building, dying in the arms of her rapist after begging him not to let her die. As bad as Game of Thrones was at writing women, it gave us one possible roadmap for creating a female antihero on par with the bad men we’ve seen win Emmys over the past two decades. But it also makes clear just how tough that road is to travel because it requires that we expand our idea of what kinds of people are allowed to do bad things in pursuit of their own self-determination, to become the one who knocks.

 
Next, we’ll dive into half-hour television for our first solo female antihero — single mom Sam Fox of Better Things — because there’s no audience more adept at pointing out a woman’s flaws than her children.

* * *

Previous installments in this series:
The Blaming of the Shrew
The Good Bad Wives of Ozark and House of Cards
Mother/Russia

* * *

Sara Fredman is a writer and editor living in St. Louis. Her work has been featured in Longreads, The Rumpus, Tablet, and Lilith.

Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Illustrator: Zoë van Dijk

Mother/Russia

Illustration by Zoë van Dijk

Sara Fredman | Longreads | May 2019 | 10 minutes (2,965 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.

 
Something happens to a person trying to watch six seasons of The Americans in just four weeks. First, the math: It’s about 60 hours of television, which is a realistic goal for someone without any significant responsibilities or sleep requirements.

But suppose you’re not that kind of someone.

You might find yourself, every so often, watching with the sound off and the captions on while your toddler feeds herself noodles. You know you should be stimulating her mind and promoting the development of her language, but there is work to be done. A mission, you might call it, though only to yourself. You may also realize that you’ve been wasting perfectly good time in the car and begin to listen to the show while driving, as if it is a poorly executed narrative podcast. This gets tricky when it comes to the Russian dialogue but also lends a new layer of intrigue to the prosaic tasks of suburban living. Against a soundtrack of what closed captioning calls “suspenseful music,” a seemingly innocent Target run could be anything, especially if you happen to be wearing a baseball cap. Later, when your 7-year-old refuses to clear her dinner plate, you might find yourself muttering about how when you were her age your mother was sick with diphtheria and you wished there was a dinner to clear. In short, you begin to have a secret life, which is watching The Americans.

* * *

The spy genre relies on a precise interplay between secrecy and authenticity. We enjoy stories about spies because we get to experience the thrills of skilled artifice while being privy to the comfort of the authentic; the fun comes from watching a person pretend to be someone else while knowing who they really are. The Americans, a show about Soviet spies living in a D.C. suburb in the ’80s, offers this kind of entertainment. We relish seeing Philip and Elizabeth Jennings execute their missions while sporting a dizzying array of wigs, but that pleasure would be incomplete if we didn’t also see them return home, in their natural hair, to help the kids with their homework.

The homework-type scenes are important because we assume that, for Philip and Elizabeth, the authentic part is their family. Like David Chase recognizing the impact that the domestic could have on the mob genre, The Americans brings the spy thriller into the home. And family serves somewhat of the same function for Philip and Elizabeth as it did for Tony Soprano, Walter White, and Don Draper, humanizing them by showcasing their ability to exhibit tenderness and care toward their children. To this The Americans adds another layer. In making the Jennings’ spy HQ the home where they raise their children, the show turns a story about enemy agents raising a family into a relatable metaphor for the way parenting works, the way it has to work: the dining room versus the secret basement passport cache of it all. It becomes a story about the secrets one must keep as a parent, and also about the way feelings and beliefs and habits that have become unremarkable, or perhaps simply the way things are done, become troubling — perhaps even monstrous — when seen through the eyes of one’s children.

And so, it turns out that what we initially identify as the Jennings’ authenticity reveals itself to be just another locus of secrets. Until the end of season three, neither of their children have any idea that their parents are Russian spies; poor Henry doesn’t find out until the series finale that they have already fled the country without him. Every family moment is true and a lie at the same time, and The Americans uses the Jennings family to blur the boundary separating those concepts from each other. Family itself is multiplied on this show, with Philip and Elizabeth constantly making deep connections with other people. They’re always knocking on doors, entering lives and families, gaining trust and playing house. Philip marries Martha, who wants to have a child with him. Elizabeth cooks with Young-Hee and babysits her children. In the fifth season they both play family with Tuan, a Vietnamese agent who later reports them for jeopardizing the mission by indulging “certain petty bourgeois concerns.” When we see them slip seamlessly into these other familial tableaus, it destabilizes our own ideas about what is real and what is pretend. When they return to their children amid and in the aftermath of those missions, the domestic ministrations we once thought of as real can’t help but take on the patina of performance. Which, after all, is the real family? None of these homes is free of secrets.

Of course, we are able to tell which family truly matters to our protagonists based on how much anxiety they express over it. Philip and Elizabeth spend a lot of time worrying about the threats to their family, from the FBI and the KGB alike. This dedication to their children, the precarity of their family, humanizes them. But the show tempers that humanizing effect by presenting it alongside their role in the dissolution of other families. Together and separately, Philip and Elizabeth spend a lot of time threatening other people’s families, exploiting their particular weaknesses to destroy them. They leave those families worse than they found them, a trail of broken homes and irreparably altered futures in their wake. In the end, their own family is no exception. Their separation at the end of the series is not the work of any of their adversaries but instead the inexorable result of an authentic life built on secrets. They choose to leave Henry behind in the only life he’s ever known and, in a scene that guts me every time I watch it, Paige makes a last-minute decision to stay in the U.S. Her parents learn of this decision when it’s too late, seeing her standing on the platform as their train pulls away toward Canada. Philip and Elizabeth will finally be able to live a truly authentic, albeit slightly less comfortable, life in Russia. Henry will continue to live his American life in spite of his parents’ betrayal. Paige is the show’s true victim, most likely doomed to live off the grid. She is stranded forever between worlds, between what is real and what is pretend: a citizen of no country relegated to the purgatory of drinking vodka in a D.C. safe house.

It is this refusal to deal in binaries that facilitates the astounding accomplishment of The Americans: the refusal of the show to turn on its wife.

Read the first post in this series on Golden Age antiheroes and the nasty women who humanized them.

Blurring this line between inside and outside, between real and pretend, between work and family, is representative of The Americans’ goal of weakening our belief in the very notion of lines. The antihero genre, dedicated as it is to selling us on characters who are neither wholly good nor irredeemably evil, is the perfect vehicle for this project, and The Americans hews closely to the antihero script. Philip and Elizabeth are special because they are highly trained Soviet operatives. They are really good at what they do; they get away with things. And we want them to get away with those things because they also have interiority. We’re privy to several flashbacks and reminiscences aimed at illustrating their difficult childhoods, the sacrifices they’ve made in their lives, and the misgivings they have about their line of work. They’re humanized not only by their children but also by the remorse they feel when they kill anyone whose death does not serve their mission.

But what about the other important element of the antihero formula? Who are the easier-to-hate characters who make our murderous protagonists more likable? Here is where The Americans diverges from the genre as we know it and takes it to even grayer pastures. We would expect a show about the Cold War to present an abundance of options for antagonists and there are certainly a handful of stock villains who crop up throughout the show’s six seasons. But more often than not, The Americans surrounds Philip and Elizabeth with individuals who are, like them, neither wholly good nor irredeemably evil. Almost everyone on this show with more than a few minutes of screen time gets nuance, from Nina, who survives by making herself a helpmate to every man she meets but who ultimately risks her life for something greater than herself, to Martha, who starts off as a naïve mark but becomes one of the show’s most sympathetic and respected characters. Claudia, Philip and Elizabeth’s KGB handler, is introduced as an antagonist but by the end gains our respect and some sympathy. FBI agent Stan Beeman is the Jennings’ most proximate adversary but he is also Philip’s best friend. Characters who on any other show would have been the unsavory antagonists meant to make Philip and Elizabeth look better instead serve a more noble purpose, testifying to the ways in which people ultimately defy the categories into which we want to sort them.

It is this refusal to deal in binaries that facilitates the astounding accomplishment of The Americans: the refusal of the show to turn on its wife. When even the American-Soviet binary is called into question, it is easier to imagine a world in which an antihero husband does not need a nagging wife to win viewers’ allegiance. But this feat is still remarkable given that Elizabeth mostly refuses to traffic in what Kate Manne calls feminine-coded goods. In her monogamous American life, she bakes brownies and asks her husband if he’ll be home for dinner, but in her secret spy life she kicks serious — usually male — ass, sleeps with multiple men to gain information, and often leaves her husband and children to order takeout. That we as viewers did not turn on her is especially surprising given that she is not the kind of mother our culture respects and rewards. Flashbacks reveal that she had reservations about having kids and it’s clear that Philip is the more natural parent. The show not only gives us a wife who is smart, strategic, and quick-thinking, but it also allows that wife to be a stubborn and somewhat-absentee parent who is sometimes very, very wrong without losing her humanity and with it our empathy. The result is that we root for a wife and a marriage in a genre that has made a pastime of destroying them.

If their roles were reversed, would we have turned against Elizabeth the way we turned against Skyler? I’m not sure.

Read the second post on the wives of Ozark and House of Cards.

This is not to say that The Americans is free from the marital friction characteristic of other antihero shows. In fact, the show’s dramatic stakes depend as much on the fault line between Philip and Elizabeth as it does on whether they will be caught by the FBI. This was my second time watching the show and I had forgotten how much the pilot relied on the traditional formula for an antihero and his wife, presenting them at odds rather than as allies. Philip wants to defect and live as wealthy Americans while Elizabeth is a loyal KGB agent for whom the mission always comes first. They argue like Marty and Wendy Byrde (“So you’re just deciding for both of us?”) and Elizabeth rejects Philip’s sexual advances. The moment for defection passes by the end of the first episode but the tension between Philip and Elizabeth persists throughout the series, sometimes simmering and other times boiling over. As the one who yearns to stop spying and live a normal American life, Philip is in the position usually occupied by the antihero’s wife, standing in the way of the show’s plot and threatening to undermine its entire premise. We don’t turn on him either, though I wonder whether that’s a function of his gender. If their roles were reversed, would we have turned against Elizabeth the way we turned against Skyler? I’m not sure.


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But in crafting the Jennings’ relationship the way it did, with doubting Philip and committed Elizabeth, The Americans ends up doing something far more interesting than pitting a wife against her husband. As much as the pilot played with the elements familiar from other antihero shows, its conclusion throws the normal trajectory of such shows into reverse. First episodes of antihero shows have to work incredibly hard, establishing what its main character does wrong while making the case that we should root for him anyway. The Americans pilot does that for two different characters at once and the sum of its hard work is greater than its parts. By the closing credits the show has bound us to Philip and Elizabeth individually, and, perhaps more importantly to their relationship.

Most husband-wife pairs in antihero shows share a history of love. We imagine, or are given flashbacks to, a time when they were in a state of uncomplicated adoration and devotion. A Breaking Bad season three flashback gave us a young and upwardly mobile Walt and Skyler; Ozark’s second season offered a similar look back at the happier and non-money laundering Byrdes. Usually, by the time we get to them, most of that love is gone and only conflict remains. The Americans works in the opposite direction, both in the first episode and in the series as a whole. The pilot reveals that Philip and Elizabeth are essentially strangers sharing a home and a family, having been instructed to never divulge anything of their past lives. Their entire relationship is a lie by omission and they don’t fully trust each other. Elizabeth has even reported on Philip’s weaknesses to their KGB higher-ups in the past. But something happens over the course of the first episode. Elizabeth shares an experience from before they met and by the end of the episode has told Philip her real name; there is a moment of real affection between them. Other antihero shows begin with authenticity and devolve into secrets and lies. The Americans takes a relationship built on lies and guides it toward authenticity. It builds a marriage rather than destroying one.

We cling to this marriage like Jack Dawson to a floating doorframe in the vast and icy sea of pain and destruction that Philip and Elizabeth perpetrate throughout the six seasons of the show. We want them to keep getting away with things but we also want them to continue to love and trust each other. The final season unsettles us as the chasm between Philip’s and Elizabeth’s worldviews widens and threatens their family and their mission, if those can be said to be two different things. Philip, a devotee of EST, the personal transformation seminars popular in the ’70s and early ’80s, wants to trust his gut. A convert to the American cult of the individual, he wants to be free to live his life without destroying the lives of others. Elizabeth has put her trust in an institution and, though she is beginning to see that her loyalty may have been misplaced and abused, she still believes in the cause and the collective that she signed up for. Philip ends up spying on her, trying to figure out whether she is part of a plan to overthrow the Soviet government and derail peace talks. But just when it appears that we’ll finally get our showdown between this particular husband and wife, Philip comes out of retirement to fly to Chicago and help Elizabeth with a dangerous mission. He doesn’t want her to do what she’s doing, and he really doesn’t want to be doing what she’s doing, but when he thinks she’s in danger, he goes to help. When he said, “Sit tight, I’m on my way,” I cheered silently. The final season shows Elizabeth at her worst. Not only is she chain smoking and snapping at Philip, but she is also not getting away with things. Her missions are getting sloppier and less successful and it would be easy for us to shift our loyalty entirely toward Philip. What keeps us from turning on her?

The result is that we root for a wife and a marriage in a genre that has made a pastime of destroying them.

In the penultimate episode of the series, Philip talks about Elizabeth with fellow Soviet operative Father Andrei. This is just moments before he will realize that his cover has most likely been blown but at that moment his biggest problem is Elizabeth’s anger toward him. He admits that he has broken some of his vows — “I haven’t been as honest with her as I should have been” — but Father Andrei thinks the marriage can be saved: “There must be something between you she thinks is worth staying for.” The thing is, Philip replies, Elizabeth “thinks bigger than that … she cares about the whole world.” I think this is key to Elizabeth’s success as an antihero: her commitment to a cause outside of herself and her family, and Philip’s commitment to her. Where personal and familial ambition failed to rally us to the causes of wives like Claire Underwood and Wendy Byrde, selfless dedication to saving the world, no matter how misguided, allows us to feel empathy for Elizabeth. Perhaps more importantly, Elizabeth has what other wives do not: her husband’s love and his trust. They may not always be on the same page, but they aren’t rivals. Philip cares about her. He roots for her, so we do, too.

This is not necessarily where we need to be; wives shouldn’t have to want to save the world to gain our support, and I’m not convinced that Philip and Elizabeth could have switched roles without altering our allegiances. I suspect that a line-dancing, responsibility-shirking Elizabeth would have garnered a different audience response. Her success as an antihero is still in many ways contingent on her proximity to heteronormative marriage, and it remains to be seen whether we can root for a woman who doesn’t have a man vouching for her. But it is progress. In compelling us to root for a marriage — no small feat in an antihero show — The Americans tricks us into rooting for a wife.

Next, we’ll take a detour to the Seven Kingdoms, and consider whether Cersei Lannister could be the antihero we’ve all been waiting for.

 

Previous installments in this series:
The Blaming of the Shrew
The Good Bad Wives of Ozark and House of Cards

* * *

Sara Fredman is a writer and editor living in St. Louis. Her work has been featured in Longreads, The Rumpus, Tablet, and Lilith.

Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Illustrator: Zoë van Dijk

The Good Bad Wives of Ozark and House of Cards

Illustration by Zoë van Dijk

Sara Fredman | Longreads | March 2019 | 11 minutes (3,057 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.

 
The antihero shows of the early aughts relied on wives as antagonists. A wife became another hurdle to leap in her husband’s quest to run a criminal organization/become an undisputed drug king/sleep with whomever he wanted in an attempt to outrun his past. More recently, however, there have been shows that seem to push back on the impulse to pit husbands and wives against each other. What if, they asked, an antihero and his wife were partners instead of rivals? But in giving their wives a promotion of sorts, shows like Ozark and House of Cards also open the door to female ambition, which can become as problematic for fictional women as it has been for their real-life counterparts.

The first post in this series, “The Blaming of the Shrew,” discusses Breaking Bad’s Skyler White, among other TV wives.

The first episode of Netflix’s Ozark follows the antihero script to a T. It’s all there: a talented main character, a sad backstory to which we slowly become privy, and foils more villainous by several degrees designed to make our main guy look good in comparison. That guy is Marty Byrde, a financial planner who launders money for the second largest drug cartel in Mexico. His wife Wendy is initially set up as the Skyler to Marty’s Walt: her days are all Costco, Zumba, and cheating on her husband with a man she calls “Sugarwood.” Soon after we meet Marty, he fantasizes about an encounter with a prostitute that gets oddly specific about his life: “Let me guess, your wife won’t do what you want her to do. If you were my man, working all day so I could stay at home — which, uh, let’s face it, it was a bitch when they were little but now they’re both teens and in school all day … not only would I not cheat on you, I’d let you do anything you wanted.” This is the kind of interiority, indispensable to the antihero genre, that lets us know that Marty is doing everything right despite Wendy’s worst efforts.

But when Marty is forced to move his family to southern Missouri and launder $8 million to save them from the cartel, Wendy shifts from antagonist to helpmate. She isn’t excited about the plan but, unlike antihero wives of yore, she hasn’t been kept in the dark about Marty’s criminality and she willingly presents a united front to their children and the FBI. The important thing, Wendy and Marty agree, is that the family stays together and safe, and they’re prepared to do anything to keep it that way. Family as sacrosanct, as the highest good, is a theme of this show. Versions of “I did it for our family” are repeated like a mantra throughout the series. Marty and Wendy both use it as a rhetorical justification and also as a kind of mystical prayer meant to insulate them from their own internal critics.

Ozark offers us an antihero team but finds a different way to humanize a flawed man, with a wife so helpful that she eclipses the antihero himself.

By season two, however, the family becomes a battleground, with Marty and Wendy developing a low-grade rivalry. They operate less as a team than as dueling pianos, each taking turns making decisions “for the good of the family” without consulting the other. It turns out that Wendy has her own expertise to contribute from her years working in Chicago politics, which makes their partnership more equal but also more fraught, and the show’s almost pathological focus on the family becomes yet another way to make an antagonist out of a wife. Ozark’s initial bait and switch turns Wendy from an antagonist into a helpmate who recognizes the necessity of her husband’s infelicities but a more cunning reversal has Marty become the one to stand in opposition to the show’s plotline. The final episodes of season two see him preparing an escape plan for his family only to be thwarted by his wife, who makes the unilateral decision that they will stay. It’s not clear when Wendy makes the decision because she doesn’t get the kind of interiority that Marty does — only long, meaningful looks out onto the horizon. Naturally, she frames the decision as the best thing for their family. But the show’s writers have already given Marty the insight that this kind of rationalization, the very premise of the show, has been undermined: “We’re not fit to be parents. It’s not even a family, it’s a goddamn group of criminals.”

Explaining her decision to stay in the Ozarks, in danger, in criminality, Wendy says: “This is who I am, and this is who I want to be.” Marty was only ever portrayed as a reluctant criminal, a serf in service to his family. Wendy’s first-person declaration is ambition, which we should know by now isn’t usually a good look on a woman. Ozark offers us an antihero team but finds a different way to humanize a flawed man, with a wife so helpful that she eclipses the antihero himself. It turns Marty into the hero who wants to save his family, if only his wife would let him.

* * *

Wendy Byrde isn’t the first wife of an antihero to have higher aspirations. House of Cards was always a show about two people with naked ambition. Frank and Claire Underwood didn’t have any children so their nefarious deeds were never in the service of providing for, or saving, anyone other than themselves. They wanted power and they were going to get it as a team. Until they weren’t. Things start to unravel at the end of season three. Frank walks into the Oval Office to find Claire sitting behind the desk: “Look at us, Francis, we used to make each other stronger, or at least I thought so, but that was a lie. We were making you strong and now I’m just weak and small and I can’t stand that feeling any longer.” House of Cards could be extremely woke about power and gender. More than any other antihero show, it seemed to be aware of the conventions of its genre and what those conventions meant for women. What family is for Ozark, power was for House of Cards, and it recognized what it meant to want power as a man and as a woman, that there was a difference between the two. The show could also be extremely meta, especially the final season, in which lines like “Are you telling me she knew nothing of what he was up to?” and “Are you even capable of defining her on her own terms?” could be talking about the characters, the actors who play them, or the tropes they were called on to embody for six seasons.

If nothing else, the power struggles between the two Underwoods over the course of the series can help us see how the roles of antihero’s wife and politician’s wife overlap. Both kinds of wives are at once essential to their husbands’ stories and outside of them. They are tasked with humanizing the men with whom they partner, but it is understood that the partnership is premised on a withholding of their own humanity; their story must remain the B plot. So when House of Cards suddenly found itself an antihero show without an antihero, you would think the solution would have been simple since, as it turned out, Claire’s ambition was to become a main character.

And an antihero marriage, like a political campaign, does not easily accommodate a woman at the top of the ticket.

Claire’s struggle to move beyond the helpmate/antagonist paradigm of her foremothers and become the antihero of her show is a major plot point of the show’s later seasons. The season four finale has Claire and Frank look at the camera together, her first fourth wall break. This is Frank’s signature move so there is reason to believe that Claire is finally gaining the strength she craves. And, indeed, season five in many ways seemed to be about setting the stage for Claire to eclipse her husband. This is signified, in the show’s mallet-to-the-head way, by Frank’s fascination with the app that turns his face into Claire’s and back again. But there continues to be friction: “We have one rule Francis,” Claire rails, “I cannot be your ally if I don’t know what you’re thinking … You should have talked to me instead of making a last-minute decision like this.” Frank has just let her in on his plan to resign the presidency and make Claire the leader of the free world. You would think Claire would be pleased with this turn of events but she knows, as we do from Ozark, that where you are matters less than who made the decision to put you there.


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Just as concepts like “leader” and “free world” don’t mean quite what they used to, so too Frank has emptied out the presidency of its power before handing it over to Claire. “Where does the real power lie? The power behind the power?” he asks. The answer is the private sector, the existence of which the supposedly brilliant politician Frank Underwood is apparently just learning. Exaggerated eyerolls aside, this show is one in which a woman finally gets her hands on some agency, only to discover that the rules have changed and she’s not holding anything at all. “It’s no longer about who lives in the White House,” Frank’s civic lesson continues, “it’s about who owns the White House … the real power isn’t here.” And when he says, “I wanted you to be the president, I’ve made you the president,” Claire realizes that for an antihero and his wife, there is no such thing as equal partnership. And an antihero marriage, like a political campaign, does not easily accommodate a woman at the top of the ticket. While wives may humanize presidents and antiheroes alike, for this wife at least, a husband is only a liability.

So season five ends with Claire ignoring Frank’s calls about a presidential pardon and turning to the camera to declare: “my turn.” This could have become more true than anyone had planned once the allegations against Kevin Spacey became public and Netflix cut ties with him when the show was already into production on season six. But the show wasn’t prepared to become a female antihero show. Frank had already told us that “If she doesn’t pardon me, I’ll kill her,” and season six was supposed to be a showdown between the two Underwoods. Instead of coming up with a new story line, we get Frank by proxy. Unable to use his face or his voice, the show’s writers turn Frank into a series of human horcruxes, transposing his malintent onto several new characters we are supposed to care about but don’t. Oh, and Doug. Poor loyal, murderous Doug, who is like if the legion of antihero fans sticking with Tony, Walt, and Don to the bitter end became one person with a weakness for sad brunettes. While the final season can identify the predicament of the antihero’s wife who yearns to break free — it begins with a reading of threatening tweets and other online content, including a contest for the most creative way to kill Claire — it never comes close to resolving it. Instead it centers on Frank’s absence. Claire spends most of her time as commander-in-chief trying to figure out how to distance herself from Frank’s crimes and escape Frank’s shadowy posthumous vendetta against her. She never gets a chance to be a president, or an antihero, on her own terms.

Even when Claire makes it to the Oval Office, she is only, as Frank tells her in their very last conversation, ‘the most powerful woman in the world.’

It wasn’t just the writers who couldn’t seem to let Frank go. In December of last year, Kevin Spacey, who had no qualms about using Frank’s face or voice, released a video in which he blurred the line between himself and the character he played for five seasons. Looking straight into the camera, he attempted to recreate the camaraderie with the audience that made his House of Cards character so unique and effective:

I know what you want. Oh sure, they may have tried to separate us but what we have is too strong, it’s too powerful. I mean after all, we shared everything, you and I. I told you my deepest darkest secrets. I showed you exactly what people are capable of. I shocked you with my honesty, but mostly I challenged you and made you think. And you trusted me even though you knew you shouldn’t.

This is Frank’s shtick of making us feel like we’re in on a secret while also implicating us in the violence necessary to keep it. Spacey’s inhabiting of his character as a response to the real-life allegations against him shines an unflattering light on the cultural power of the antihero, particularly our complicity in enabling bad behavior if the person is good enough at what they do. In taking his case to the public this way, Spacey was betting on the magnetism of the fictional Frank Underwood to insulate the real-life Kevin Spacey from the bad things he did, kind of like what must have happened during the first season of House of Cards, when he had only to participate in a “training process” after allegedly harassing someone on set, a training that does not seem to have had its desired effect. The sheer brazenness of the video, that it ends with a play for a Spacey-led House of Cards revival (“wait a minute, now that I think of it, you never actually saw me die, did you? Conclusions can be so deceiving”) and hit the internet on the very day that it was announced that he would be charged with indecent assault and battery, suggests that Spacey must have really believed that his character could save his career. The video has almost 250,000 likes, which isn’t enough to bring Frank Underwood back from the dead, but is yet another testament to the power of the male antihero — in this case the character and the man who plays him — to command adoration in spite of the destruction he leaves in his wake.

The Kevin Spacey/Frank Underwood mash-up video can’t help but point out that “all this presumption made for such an unsatisfying ending,” an opinion held by mostly everyone. But what was it that made the final season so anticlimactic? Was it, as Kevin/Frank implied, the absence of its antihero? Was it because, as FX network president John Landgraf argued back in 2013, a female antihero just isn’t the same? Is the antihero genre, ultimately, a male one? Kind of. Like presidential politics, antihero shows have been built for men. Claire never got a clean break and she spent the final season fighting off the ghost of Frank. But even if she had, the show was never calibrated to make her its centerpiece. In an interview with the magazine Capitol File, Robin Wright recounts that the only note David Fincher gave her when she started on the show was to be still:

People were suggesting to base the character on Hillary Clinton or other strong women personas, and I didn’t want to do that. When we shot the first couple of scenes, David would come over to me and say, “Don’t move. Don’t move. Claire is a bust.”

Statues are memories of heroes, not the heroes themselves. House of Cards was built around Frank’s dynamism; Claire’s steely mystery could stoke or temper that dynamism but was meant to always exist alongside it. The show was about seeing Frank work and he kept us close, bringing us in and making us complicit. Even after Claire promises us that it’s going to be different (“I’m going to tell you the truth”), she keeps us at a distance. This is partially because the show wants to preserve the mystery of who killed Frank until the very end, but it’s also because that’s who Claire has always been: a stoic and a secret keeper. Instead of finding the right formula that would allow her to become the antihero she’s always wanted to be, the show shoehorns her into Frank’s.

* * *

In writing wives who don’t fit neatly into the antagonist/enabler binary of shows like Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, Ozark and House of Cards allow them to operate in the gray alongside their husbands. By bringing their wives into the fold instead of shutting them out, these shows get us thinking about what would have to be true for a woman to step into the role of an antihero herself. But while both give their wives more to do and the ability to exercise their own ambition, they ultimately handicap that ambition. Even when Claire makes it to the Oval Office, she is only, as Frank tells her in their very last conversation, “the most powerful woman in the world.” For the wife of an antihero, the glass ceiling is her husband. Perhaps Ozark will surprise us and turn Wendy into the show’s new antihero rather than an antagonist standing in the way of her family’s well-being, but season two hinted at the way a wife in control might go. Local drug lords Jacob and Darlene Snell are two of the more villainy foils who serve to humanize Marty and Wendy in season one. They initially operate as a well-oiled machine: when he asks for more lemonade, she knows it’s time to murder the man who launders their money through a strip club. But eventually, caught in a standoff with the cartel, the fissures appear. Darlene wants to keep fighting while Jacob wants to live in peace. “What do you do, Martin,” Jacob asks, “when the bride who took your breath away becomes the wife who makes you hold your breath in terror?” The show has already emphasized the parallels between the two couples: “What deals did you just make behind my back?” Darlene asks Jacob; “You made these plans without me?” Wendy demands of Marty. Darlene out-villains her husband, killing him before he can kill her, and the Snells’ storyline influences how we see Wendy’s season two arc. The lesson is that your helpmate can eventually become your killer and what is exciting and intoxicating in a man — quick thinking and smart, strategic maneuvering — is off-putting and unsettling in his wife.

Is there any hope for the wife of an antihero? Will we ever see a female antihero we can actually root for? Does having a family make a female antihero more effective, or less? Does Soviet Russia hold the key to one or all of these questions? Maybe! Tune in to the next installment on The Americans.
 

The first installment in this series: The Blaming of the Shrew

* * *

Sara Fredman is a writer and editor living in St. Louis. Her work has been featured in LongreadsThe RumpusTablet, and Lilith.

 

Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Illustrator: Zoë van Dijk

Everything is Fine

Illustration by Brittany Molineux

Sara Fredman | Longreads | March 2019 | 10 minutes (2,523 words)

Everyone is screaming.

It is 4 p.m. and we are in the car. The 6-year-old and the 3-year-old are cranky from a long day at school, the baby indignant at having spent too long strapped in a car seat. Still, when my phone rings over the cacophony, I answer because it is my father and because he has dementia.

“Hi Daddy, is everything OK?”

“Yes, yes, everything’s fine,” he whispers, with unusual loquacity.

“Then why are you whispering?” I yell over the din.

***

We are sleep training the baby. She is our third so I am no longer surprised by the uncomfortable feeling that I have somehow become pitted against my own child in a fight for survival. This does not make the feeling more comfortable. Every night before bed, I jam Amazon’s top-rated earplugs into my ears in the hopes that I can sleep through her crying and her father can perform the prescribed rituals. It rarely works. Apparently, a baby’s cries are like a “sledgehammer” to its mother’s brain. The next person who tells me that the days are long but the years are short is going to get a sledgehammer to the brain. It is always an older person who says it, their soft words offered up as comfort. But what they no doubt intend as knowing reassurance I hear as a warning of still more different sorrows yet to come; their nostalgia seems deployed to shame me into recognizing my blessings before it is too late.

How long do I have before it is too late?

I do, of course, recognize my blessings, and I know, with a certainty I rarely possess, that someday I will look back on this tired person and I will want to be her. But it’s not just the sleep-challenged baby, it is also the auditory assault that begins before dawn. There are so many voices. More voices, it sometimes seems, than there are bodies from which they supposedly emanate. I move through my day to a soundtrack of temper tantrums and raucous laughter, endless questions and knock-knock jokes with nonsensical punchlines. Almost every sentence begins with the words “And, Mom.” They have so much to say and they want to say every bit of it to me, all at the exact same time.

When the real voices have quieted for the night, the imagined ones take over. Earplugs are powerless against the phantom baby cries and other voices, similarly faithful to their waking life counterparts, that live in my head. One dream has me caught in a loop, over and over again, hearing the baby from another room and grabbing her right before she is about to fall down the stairs; in another I am once again living in my childhood home, caring for my father as he loses his memory and his ability to speak. On a good night, these dreams can provide a solace: In real life, I don’t always catch the baby, and neither my father nor I have lived in that house for more than a decade. In my dreams I can sometimes be in two places at once, both called home.
Read more…

The Blaming of the Shrew

Illustration by Zoë van Dijk

Sara Fredman | Longreads | February 2019 | 10 minutes (2,982 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.

 
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.

 

Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Illustrator: Zoë van Dijk

The Possessed: Dispatches from the Third Trimester

Illustration by Lily Padula

Sara Fredman | Longreads | October 2018 | 11 minutes (2,913 words)

 

In the second season of Stranger Things a tentacled smoke monster forces its way into poor Will Byers’ mouth, taking up residence inside his body. When his mother draws him a warm bath, he refuses. “He likes it cold,” Will intones creepily. The demon inside is invisible to others but exerts its will on Will, who is himself but also something else. As I watch the story unfold, the human being growing inside my body moves frenetically, as if it is popping and locking to a beat I cannot hear. This flurry of activity makes my stomach look like a potato sack with several distressed squirrels stuck inside; this is likely due to the cookie-dough ice cream I have recently eaten. I, too, have something inside of me; it also likes it cold.

“Pregnancy has every element of an alien invasion,” I read on the NPR website. “The human placenta is one of the most invasive placentas.”

We often turn to the extraterrestrial when we describe the phenomenon of growing a new person inside of an existing one. Early ultrasound images recall the classic imagining of alien form: a giant head attached to a smaller, translucent body set against a black abyss. It’s not just the optics. As pop icon and formerly-pregnant person JLo once remarked, “Pregnancy and giving birth are weird, strange. The growing life inside you — it’s like an invasion of the body snatchers.” I assume this creepy description reflects the way in which the growing fetus influences, commandeers even, so many of the bodily processes of its host. Google “alien” and “pregnancy,” and the least-frightening video that comes up will confirm: “Clearly, the fetus has no qualms about doing whatever it needs to do to get things for itself.”

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