Television and film have always celebrated the damaged, overwritten male antihero, but now women are being portrayed in the same shades of muddled, bloody gray.
Warning: This contains spoilers for season two of Fargo, season one of Mr. Robot, and the movie Gone Girl.
In the history of TV and film, there is a short list of stereotypes to which female characters conform. Even in modern, critically acclaimed productions, women often end up playing supporting roles: either as a wife holding the family together while the flawed, nuanced, and overwritten male lead sucks up all the juicy stories, or as a love interest adding sex appeal and sensitivity as we once again witness the eternal struggle of being young, white, and male in this world.
In the last few years, we've seen that start to change. Shows like Orange Is the New Black and Broad City have women acting mean, failing, and pooping. Women who have issues but issues that don't mean they show up at their ex's house in the rain, sobbing uncontrollably while holding out a photo of what their baby would look like, snottily singing Adele. These new TV women are messy and chaotic, and they only seem manic and pixie-like when they're really, really high.
The thirst for these kinds of characters is growing with each TV season, and comedy actresses, in particular, have broken down the door to allow darker and more morally ambiguous characters in drama. In particular, a new type of female character has emerged, made up of glamour, instability, and eye shadow. These are women who are unmerciful in their actions and unbalanced in their temperament but always look like they just stepped out of the salon.
The TV embodiment of these coiffured Ophelias is Peggy Blomquist, Kirsten Dunst's magazine-hoarding beauty queen from season two of Fargo. Peggy feels like a glimpse of what Amber Atkins, the midwestern pageant obsessive Dunst played in 1999's Drop Dead Gorgeous, would be if we revisited her in her early 30s. Peggy is cold-blooded and merciless, but she never has a hair out of place. After killing a man with her Chevrolet Corvair, she calmly drives home and dishes up Hamburger Helper ready meals for dinner, ducking questions from her husband over whether or not they should have a kid.
A few weeks later, she is too engrossed in a black-and-white romance on TV to notice that the man bound and gagged next to her has escaped. That same man later pleads with the sheriff to rescue him from Peggy because she calmly and coldly slid her knife into him while preparing lunch.
None of Peggy's transgressions affect her demeanor. Her sociopathic tendencies aren't just glib characterization. Fargo is less about these rare violent outbursts and more about the importance she places on winning over others. As Dunst herself says, "She can't let anything stop her from her search for a better life."
Peggy was cheek-bitingly frustrating to watch: Through her complete refusal to admit that she'd fucked up, she inched herself and her bumbling but devoted husband closer and closer to danger. She was one of the most engaging and exhilarating female characters on TV in the last 12 months.
If Peggy had a cinematic sister, it would be Rosamund Pike's Amy Elliot Dunne in Gone Girl, the 2014 adaptation of Gillian Flynn's bestselling thriller. Amy is cold and callous, a woman who exacts the cruelest revenge on her cheating husband—by faking her own death. Then she sits in grotty motel rooms, stuffing her increasingly pale and puffy face with chips, as he's implicated in her murder by the press. Her revenge is perfectly planned, and watching her binging on the rolling newsfeed day after day is intrusive and disturbing. She's living only to see him suffer, but there's a twisted intimacy to it as you grow to know a character who's invisible.
When she decides to go back to her husband, the first thing she does is get fit and elegant again. She's a woman who knows what she wants and how to get it. So as she staggers back to her own house, covered in the blood of an ex-boyfriend whose throat she managed to slit in the process, she falls into her husband's arms, once again in complete control.
Some might say these women promote a helpful version of various different kinds of mental illness, somehow managing to stay undeniably glamorous while losing their minds. They're "bad role models," a concern that never seems to apply to men. No one seems to be bothered about that when Don Draper is somehow a deathly alcoholic who smells amazing, never farts, and is irresistible to women. It's all right when Elliot Alderson from Mr. Robot manages to hack the world's most difficult security encryptions while extremely high and suffering from so many forms of psychoses he regularly has conversations with hallucinations. Why should women be the only ones who can't be unhinged and fabulous?
In more light-hearted fare, these kinds of characters have become well-established. Lena Dunham's narcissistic Hannah in Girls or Krysten Ritter's self-centered party girl in the underrated sitcom Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 are able to play lead roles despite being resolutely unlikeable. The more of these manic manipulative characters there are, the more we get used to seeing complex women in lead roles. It may sound counterintuitive, but perhaps progress is seeing women on TV fuck up and get away with it.
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