'Television Antiheroines'

Wherein Women Stake Their Claim to Darkness and Desperation

by Christopher John Stephens

8 September 2017

An examination of the changing political/ sexual/ power roles of women in international television crime and prison drama, from The Sopranos through Orange is the New Black.
cover art

Television Antiheroines: Women Behaving Badly in Crime and Prison Drama

Milly Buonanno, Ed.

US: Mar 2017

Sometimes the generic blandness betrayed by the title of an academic text overwhelms the nature of the contained essays. Such is the case with this compact, at times dense collection of essays examining how the changing landscape of television (streaming, pay cable) over the past nearly 20 years has afforded women the opportunity to break out of usual tropes (loving wife, liberated daughter or sister, devoted mother) and play unapologetically in dangerous and devious fields. Where Tony Soprano (HBO’s The Sopranos 1997-2007) and especially Walter White (FX’s Breaking Bad 2008-2013) made us feel queasy in how we gradually start relating to brutal and desperate men, this collection of high-minded studies aims to examine how women have been allowed to travel in the same trajectory (the new “golden age of television” started by show-runners like David Chase and Vince Gilligan) gave way to equally strong visionaries like Jenji Kohan (Weeds, Orange Is the New Black) and numerous telenovelas in Brazil, Colombia, and New Zealand.

This volume starts promisingly enough. In their foreword, Diane Negra and Jorie Lagerway note how, at the point of publication (2015-2016), many issues were surfacing that served to make television a sanctuary for creative and daring female performers and creators. Whether it was the insistence of the gender pay gap or the #oscarssowhite movement, non-network television has opened itself up to themes allowing women to be more than just glamorous accessories to their men economically dependent on their success. The goal for this volume is to create a map through which the reader can navigate their way through a regularly changing global television territory of women unapologetically staking a claim to the darkness and desperation heretofore the sole territory of men.

Perhaps the problem isn’t just the generic efficiency and limits of the title. Who is a heroine? What is bad behavior? Why limit it to crime and prison dramas? The bigger problem seems to be this volume’s bifurcated status. Almost a third of the 13 chapters are devoted to telenovelas. While this is a valid and compelling examination of the enormous popularity of this form in over 100 countries, it deserves a separate and more in-depth examination. Barbara Velez’s examination of the French TV series Mafiosa looks at the unapologetically bold lead character, Sandra, and how she connects with the island of Corsica. She is determined to assert her authority in a male environment and the series is played out in a landscape where in reality women had long been gang bosses. Here, though, as with many of the telenovelas, she is able to exert her dominance and control over her foes through sexual expression.

In this volume’s second part, “Drug Dealers and Aberrant Mothers”, writer Joke Hermes looks at journalistic perception of Penoza, the Dutch TV series, and in particular its lead character Carmen, a woman equally committed to her role as a mafia kingpin and mother. Hermes examines how the perspective this series has had on the role of women in Dutch society, and the universal perception that a “good mother” must follow definite standards might help the real status of women in the country:

“…’Penoza’ may well help shift deeply lodged Dutch convictions regarding how mothering can and should be done. The series producers might well try and go for a government subsidy to promote women’s emancipation… what extraordinary campaign material it could provide.”

In her chapter “’La Reina del sur’: Teresa Mendoza, a new Telenovela Protagonist”, writer Yeidy M. Rivero examines the “narcocorridos” (a Mexican Folk music genre about drug trafficking between the Mexican and US border) and how its very “Mexicanness” (the heroes both men and women but the focus usually on men) was transported with Teresa as the primary antiheroine. Rivero also cites the “impossible love” of Teresa and Patty and what that says about the changing nature of women on television (especially telenovelas.) Rivero asks an interesting question at the end of this chapter that could speak to the telenovela form as a whole:

“…Will television networks represent a really ‘bad’ woman who, despite the Roman Catholic Church and the conservative culture, would dare to openly love other women?”

Rivero’s essay makes this reader wish it was included in a deeper study of the telenovela form, especially with this observation: “Since the genre’s birth in 2006, narco telenovelas have been intrinsically interconnected to reportage about drugs and violence in Colombia.” In Samantha Joyce and Antonio La Pastina’s “Women and Criminality in Brazilian Telenovelas: Salve Jorge and Human Trafficking”, the same idea comes across. These stories are vital and compelling melodrama, but they’re also driven by an urgent, political agenda. What we learn in this Chapter is that Brazilian telenovelas last for an average of 150 episodes and have been a foundation of television programming for six decades. In other words, they’re huge business. By the ‘70s, Brazilian writers in this huge business started to explore deeper, real-life situations in their environment:

“Brazilian writers, many trained in theater, started to incorporate real-life social-economic-political problems to the plots as a way to encourage the audience’s critical thinking.”

Again, the curious reader absorbs such observations and wants more. Telenovelas of a romantic or drug-focused nature are overblown and histrionic dramas that have been ridiculed and satirized by American TV in such productions as Ugly Betty and Jane the Virgin. The 2014 series Metastasis is a Colombian remake of Breaking Bad itself a series deeply dependent on the tone and mood of narco telenovelas. English language and Spanish language TV styles have often played off each other, and while the chapters in this volume dealing with telenovelas/ narcotelenovelas are strong, they would be better served in a deeper and more comprehensive history of the form.

It probably seems inconsistent to fault Television Antiheroines for the strength of its telenovela chapters, but their presence here does stand in opposition to the chapters on (among other topics) Weeds, The Wire, and Orange Is the New Black. If there’s a consistent and connective thread between all these chapters, it can probably be seen in sex and how (or if) these characters are able to express their independent agency through a physical connection with another person. These antiheroines are able, like their male counterparts, to mark their territory with such connections, and in Chapter 12, “Your Turn, Girl: the (Im) possibility of African-American Heroines in ‘The Wire’”, writers Bruce A. Williams and Andrea L. Press make some clear assessments of what they see as that show’s inconsistencies:

“While the middle-class professional women are represented with some of the empathy afforded… some of the African American drug lord leads… the African American female underclass is not represented with this level of sympathy. In fact, most of these characters embody a kind of ‘evil’…”

Williams and Press understand that The Wire was about those on either side of the law, and sexual expression outside the confines of social acceptance (hetero-normative) can come with a price. While Kima, the out lesbian African American cop, unapologetically and clearly has fulfilling sexual relations with her partner, the only person on the other side of the law who has comparable “fun” is Omar, the lethal gay crime boss. He is, as the writers claim, portrayed as a “devoted and tender lover”. By the end, when they tell us “We expected better from ‘The Wire,’ but were disappointed,” Williams and Press effectively frame this legendary HBO series in an interesting, problematic context.

Elisa Giomi’s “‘Really Good at It,’ The Viral Charge of Nancy Botwin in ‘Weeds’ (and Popular Culture’s AntiCorps)”, looks at whether or not that character was hyper-sexualized. Was she following the trope of a “MILF”, sexy single mother of three who unapologetically gets into dope dealing and develops a sense of self-respect because she’s good at it, or was there something deeper? She is “…erotic yet at the same time childish, which in a different time would have been inappropriate…” What was refreshing about this program, and Mary Louise Parker’s portrayal of Nancy, was how eventually “...Nancy will regularly use sex for both her pleasure and as a means to secure her business: simply an enjoyable ‘side dish’ to her transactions or a means of transaction and even control…”

Suzanna Danuta Walters’ “Lesbian Request Approved: Sex, Power and Desire in ‘Orange is the New Black’” argues the inconsistency of the program in that good sex was mainly for the white characters. The problem with this argument is that it doesn’t take into account more recent seasons, more recent developments in the characters’ story arcs. Walters makes a good point about how the very presence of actress Lea DeLaria, as Big Boo, “…charts new territory in its embrace of the butch.” While Walters sees some inconsistency in the way some (white) characters have consequence-free sex while non-white women enter that realm at their own risk, she makes a clear assessment of one of the series’ major appeals regarding sex:

“…sometimes it is done for love, sometimes for recreation, sometimes for power, sometimes for competition, sometimes simply to relieve the boredom.”

While there seems to be competing missions in some of these essays; sexual politics, gender identification, female empowerment and geo-political economic control, the bulk of this volume is strong. The writing style can be a little stale and leaden, typical of academic studies. How many times do we need to read “In this chapter we intend to examine…” only to see that intentions are often not realized? Academic writing doesn’t always follow the “show, don’t tell” rule, so let the reader beware. If Television Antiheroines: Women Behaving Badly in Crime and Prison Drama is inconsistent and sometimes cluttered in a primary theme, it should encourage more volumes about television’s “bad women” in other genres. Let’s ride this “golden age of television” as far as it will take us.

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//Mixed media