“God save us when an Aaron Sorkin antihero is the closest we get to a good guy.”
A few months ago, the New York Observer ran a piece entitled Bad Men: TV’s Most Reprehensible Antiheroes and the Women Who Love Them. The piece was a follow-up to the Golden Globes, which was argued to be indicative of “a new trend in millennial TV protagonists—men who are, if not quite villains, then at least Bad Men.”
Tony Soprano, Dexter, Nucky Thompson, Sgt. Brody, Tom Kane, Walter White, and Don Draper all fit the description of this type. “At best, our guy is an immoral misanthrope and a latent misogynist. At worst, he’s a sociopath, one who may or may not be running an international drug cartel. Or a terrorist ring. If you’re lucky, he’s merely a serial killer who kills other killers.” The presence of a misanthropic character on a television show isn’t necessarily a new trend – Archie Bunker is a prime example. What is unique about these millenial protagonists is that audiences identify with them. They root for them. They even respect them.
Who we don’t respect, for the most part, are their wives.
These shows “all portray nosy, ineffectual matriarchs who are simultaneously ice-cold bitches, helpless victims and puritanical enforcers.” Betty Draper and Skyler White especially are despised by audiences, seen as the “spoilsports” to their husbands’ activities – even when in fact they are the victims of them.
What these women really do is act as a foil to their male counterparts, foils that question the glorified masculinity that the shows depict through violence and rebellion. These women show the side of these men that can be sexist, weak, self-deluding, unreasonable, and downright threatening. When the protagonist is questioned, the audience is uncomfortable. They look for a scapegoat, the root of the problem. “Why is my hero struggling?”
That isn’t to say these women are perfect moral counterparts – they have their flaws and questionable decisions, their infidelity and maternal struggles. But the widespread negativity towards them has to be investigated, especially in an era where there are examples of complex, interesting, powerful female characters leading many different television programs.
There have been many different articles recently on the topic, which is promising, and Breaking Bad and Mad Men each still have a season (roughly) left to engage with these characters on a more complex level. As well, shows like Enlightened and Girls keep encouraging discussion around female protagonists whose relatability and respect differ widely among audiences, an interesting development for complex television. At the very least, the nagging matriarch is a trope that is being dissected in critical reviews.