One afternoon, my friend and I decided to watch the film Lady Bird. As I sat there in her dorm room, tears pooling at the mother-daughter relationship on display (despite it being my 30th rewatch), her roommate walked in and announced, “ugh, I hated that movie! The mom was SO mean.” This interpretation of events shocked me–I saw a complicated, depressed woman driven by love to act callously, she saw a mean girl. My friend’s roommate was not alone in this thinking. The character is considered to be immature, emotionally inept, and controlling.
I began to think about the titans of my adolescence and ponder over their vastly different receptions. Be it Amy Dunne and her psychopathic rampage in Gone Girl or Cassie’s revenge plot in Promising Young Woman, these women are admired for breaking through the confines of being “good girls” via malicious and vile means. Amy Dunne is idolized for the way she successfully gaslit her partner and framed men for rape and murder and is met with memes of “good for her” and “I’m about to go girl myself.” It seemed stories of complicated and emotional women were only acceptable if their negative behaviors were expressed with admirable precision and murderous zeal. I understand the want for ruthless, unshakeable women; for so long women have been expected to be meek, passive objects in a man’s story, and, while their actions are deplorable, women that feel similarly confined to that ideal are allotted two hours to live through the boldness of these characters. Well, as long as those characters are white. And blonde. And beautiful
Perplexed that a financially inept mother was considered more of a mean girl than two women who sought to psychologically abuse people, it was then that I realized realistic depictions of women’s bad actions struggle to be well-received by audiences. Although the journeys Amy and Cassie embark on are exciting to witness, the characters are so exaggerated that it’s more fun to marvel at them than consider their humanity. This isn’t to say there aren’t honest depictions of women out there, but the highly acclaimed ones tend to align with these tropes. I find myself yearning for portrayals of hurt women that aren’t steeped in rage, but unfortunately, women are not allowed the luxury of exploring their pain in realistic, human ways.
Our current wave of feminism is obsessed with reclamation. Heavily scrutinized for our choices, especially those surrounding the body, it’s admittedly nice to have iteration feminism that isn’t focused on being in complete opposition with the things patriarchal society has deemed vapid. However, instead of reclaiming traits that have been cited as the reasons why women are the lesser gender–being “overly emotional”, passive, and gentle–we have resorted to behaving as abhorrently as our male counterparts. In a similar vein of makeup and plastic surgery being reclaimed as celebrations of a woman’s right to choose how she appears, the high-functioning destructive psychopath reclaims something men already value in themselves. From Shiv Roy in Succession to Piper Chapman in Orange is the New Black, an empowered woman is one that is willing to practice toxic masculinity, acting out typically male traits–aggression, ruthlessness, apathy–to get what she wants. A woman’s expression of pain must be rooted in the male consciousness, lest she suffer the fate of being “unlikeable” or “mean.”
(I am hesitant to include characters like Annelise Keating (How to Get Away with Murder) and Olivia Pope (Scandal) despite their actions being as awful as the aforementioned examples. Their race provides an interesting intersection; black women are already seen as more masculine due to our blackness which, historically, meant black women have had to enact masculine traits in order to survive, but also this gives us more freedom to act out in comparison to our white counterparts.)
This phenomenon is ironic considering a popular theme of women-led media is love, a distinctly feminine attribute. Losing a loved one, falling in love, loving the wrong way, feeling unlovable, many explorations of the emotion serve as the motivation for characters’ (mis)behaviors. Typically female traits are often spoken about with condescension and disdain; to prevent this, characters have to establish that wanting something associated with femininity doesn’t make them weak, however, since being a woman is synonymous with being weak, the only way to achieve this is to behave like men.
Wanda Maximoff in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a clear example of this circumstance. After the loss of her partner, she becomes a witch who wreaks havoc on those around her. An offshoot from the “empowered-by-toxic-masculinity” trope, the “unhinged woman” finds herself desperate for an escape from her mundane lifestyle of being a polite woman and will partake in deplorable actions to do so; they are usually coded as having some sort of mental illness (often depression), are charismatic, manipulative, and–of course–beautiful. Wanda spends the film waxing apathetic about how little she cares about others, as long as she gets what she wants. And what does she want? What’s this great desire for which she will happily kill thousands? To be a mother to two young boys. This is not to imply it is not admirable to be a mother–it’s probably one of the most honorable things a person can be–but Wanda’s only wish being motherhood makes the sympathy she garners unchallenging. A woman so devout to her sons she will eagerly destroy thousands of lives–what man would oppose this presentation of womanhood? And her willingness to enact this aspiration through violent means makes her fight empowering and noble to female viewers.
Many lives are lost because of Wanda’s villainy, yet she ends the film with an empathetic portrayal of motherhood. Why is it that a character as violent and unflinching as Wanda receives more empathy than a portrayal of a mother who makes mistakes and unintentionally takes her pain out on her loved ones? A notoriously despised characterization of motherhood is Skyler White from Breaking Bad. Forced into participating in her husband’s meth-dealing business, she spends the series trying to protect her family–protect her husband, Walter, by masking his illegal activities, and protect her children from their father. Instead of receiving empathy for navigating the abusive relationship, she’s trapped in as well as possible, her messy behavior has made fans view her as the show’s true antagonist. In an essay for An Injustice Magazine, Shawn Laib says, “Walter is the ultimate depiction of male power. He gets what he wants, whenever he wants, and nobody is going to stop him except himself…Skyler provides incessant reminders to the male audience that the character so many of us are rooting for is a representation of toxic masculine dominance.” Skyler’s biggest fault is daring to condemn Walter’s actions; maybe if she unquestioningly embraced his version of manhood, fans would be less inclined to hate her.
We are seeing how female manipulator narratives have skewed people’s perceptions of women’s pain. This idea that women are ingenious manipulators who have well-thought-out plans to get the better of men is negatively impacting our culture. The most obvious example is Amber Heard. She is beautiful and blonde and largely regarded as cunning and aggressive, but is that all she is? Where Heard confuses the public is in her inability to neatly fit into one of the pre-established archetypes women are allowed. Heard’s biggest downfalls–like Skyler White–are failing to protect herself in a way the public deems defensible and having the audacity to challenge her abuser. She has been cruel, and she has gotten violent, but why do her imperfections warrant ruthless, vitriolic harassment? Men want Heard to be punished; it’s their way to get back at the Amy Dunne’s and the Cassie Thomas’–it’s their way to officially make an example of the “manipulative psycho bitch” they’ve been taught to fear their entire lives. It seems this is becoming a popular opinion of the zeitgeist: victims that make mistakes or fail to be perfect are rendered unsympathetic at best and vicious psychopaths at worst. Women are allowed to be messy, women are allowed to make mistakes, women are even allowed to hurt people, and in doing so, women don’t need to be empowering, all-encompassing representations of the gender. I think it’s time we stop punishing women for being human.