Batten down the hatches: the women are here. As we plunge headlong into a new fall TV season , it would behoove us to look at what the first half (give or take) of the TV year has offered us. Now, if you're anything like me, then you've wrestled with your feelings over TV's presentation of unlikable women making unlikable choices in 2017. It's not new to see a female character engaging in morally or emotionally thorny behavior, but there's something about this year's female characters and their decisions that makes me wonder if it's just as valid to like these women for doing the unlikable thing a it is to feel unsettled that they're even doing it at all.
Power, love, the right to choose your own destiny, the ability to find acceptance, the ability to forgive: in the heavy political times we live in, it's hard to feel anything other than sympathy for the unlikable women of TV in 2017. Reading them through the lens of our own morally and politically dubious times has that effect and truthfully, I think it's high time we appreciate these unlikable women and what they've done thus far in their stories.
Blame Laura Moon
Blame Laura Moon for this article's existence. It's thanks to her destructive behavior and deep-seated, self-preservational self-interest that I'm even hashing this out with you, Dear Reader. The reason I didn't completely write her off and instead had to take a long, hard look at how I operate as a #TV watcher is because deep down, I get her. I get her motivations. I empathize with her on a real level. I know that Laura's not a shitty person despite doing some shitty things.
Yes, Laura is callous and cold to Shadow and yes, she frequently does things (while alive and while dead) on #AmericanGods that only serve to satisfy her needs. Cheating on your devoted husband with his best friend while he's in prison? Morally thorny, but when your cat is dead and you feel emotionally alienated from the rest of the world, attempting to find comfort and feeling wherever you can is something we can all empathize with (the dead cat part maybe not so much). Keeping a leprechaun's lucky coin for no discernible reason other than to toy with him? Okay, that's pretty rude, but so is being killed by said leprechaun after a hit is put out on you. See? It all evens out with a little perspective.
It's tough to like Laura when she is working opposite the well-meaning and, post-incarceration, pure-hearted Shadow. When she's with him, it's clear she's using him and she is only doing something — like marry him — to benefit and protect her. By the end of #AmericanGods Season 1, we're given reasons to empathize with her, like knowing that she was ordered to be killed by Mr. Wednesday. As such, understanding that Laura is doing what she needs to stay safe and sane in a world clearly going tits up means recognizing that she is unlikable but she is worthy of our understanding.
Where TV In 2017 Has Been & Where It's Going
A precedent has been set with shows like #GameOfThrones, GLOW, #TwinPeaks and the aforementioned American Gods. All of these shows have stamped into our consciousness in the first half of 2017 a line-up of female characters who are not wholly likable but they deserve our praise. Women put in impossible positions and forced to make impossible choices. Prickly, inaccessible or jaded by the world to the point that it's tough to trust anyone except themselves. These women — Daenerys, Cersei, Diane and Ruth — aren't villainous women nor are they irredeemable; they've simply been put between a rock and hard place and doing what they feel is right and now what expectation demands.
Daenerys, bent on getting to the Iron Throne in GoT Season 7, ignored the rules of war, which included burning the Tarlys alive rather than take them prisoner for information. She was relentless about Jon Snow bending the knee to her and she risked the lives of her allies to that she could show the Lannisters her strength. She questioned the loyalty of her advisors on a whim. She was bloodthirsty and brash, the kind of ruler that Westeros has seen before, but usually that ruler was a man.
Similarly, Cersei's been making some strong decisions in GoT Season 7. She's running low on men for her army and borrowing big from the banks. She is, perhaps unwisely, having her brother's baby, likely for the sake of continuing the Lannister family line rather than what it implies to have yet another baby by your brother. But that clear need to stay powerful, to honor your own desires and to retain what you believe you have earned, to choose without having to consult men: this is Cersei's mental state, this is where we can meet her halfway in empathy.
In Twin Peaks, Diane was tough, a brusque broad who a certain way about her. She was an invaluable ally to Gordon Cole, especially when it came down to finding the real Dale Cooper. But that doesn't mean she took anybody's guff. After waiting 25 years to meet her, she was redeemable but damn if she didn't make us work for it.
The same can be said of #GLOW's Ruth. Sleeping with your best friend's husband is, as we've seen with Laura Moon, not exactly the best move. But while societal norms would have Ruth apologize, go hide in a hole and pay her penance, then emerge a reformed and maybe more chaste woman, Ruth goes big. She leans into being unfeminine with her new wrestling gig, career-driven and even more brash. She has an abortion, refusing to let it slow down the forward momentum of her life. These aren't easy choices and pushing others' comfort to the side in order to achieve it isn't easy to watch, but then again, that's why Ruth is so unlikable and so necessary.
Primetime networks are going to give us lots of women who are all up in their feelings this fall (The CW's #CrazyExGirlfriend, NBC's #ThisIsUs, ABC's entire freaking Shondaland roster). They're going to make tough choices, just like the female characters who have set the precedent here have done. It stands to reason that they aren't going to be entirely likable all of the time. In connecting TV's 2017 trend of putting prominent female characters in unlikable positions, be it narratively or in their characterization, female audiences may find themselves challenged about their own agency and lifestyle choices as they watch. But just know that, especially as a female viewer, watching unlikable women on television is good for you and it can even be a cathartic experience.
In the end, just know that doing the right thing doesn't have to be the likable thing. Self-preservation often doesn't work out in favor of the comfort of others, despite women being constantly told by society we should make others feel comfortable. Living in a world that boxes women in doesn't have to be reflected on TV 24/7; if unlikable women can push back on that, then so be it.
It also, crucially, comes down to compliance. While the powers that be have sought to make the people bend to their will, there have been a group of women, these unlikable women, who haven't. Unlikable female TV characters in 2017 don't give a fuck about politeness and they certainly weren't written to give a fuck about societal norms or doing what men order them to do. When the story demands they do the expected thing or the easy thing or the nice thing, these women have decided to go with their guts and do what they feel is right. They aren't here to comply or be liked and TV in 2017 is the better for it.