On broadcast television this fall, Katherine Heigl will play a CIA analyst with special access to the Oval Office on NBC’s “State of Affairs;” Oscar nominee Viola Davis will show us how she handles the law on ABC’s “How to Get Away with Murder;” and Tea Leoni will be the newly appointed “Madam Secretary” on CBS.
High-powered and emotionally complicated, these women join a handful of other female characters on TV who stand on their own as leading ladies, but are far from perfect.
But will we like them? Let’s hope the question never comes up.
For 15 years, TV’s been flooded with male anti-heroes: men who stop at nothing to get what they want and earn the unconditional love and respect of audiences. Were Tony Soprano and Walter White ever criticized for their abominable behavior? In the eyes of viewers, they stayed enticing fan-favorites until the shows' finales.
It's a different story for women on TV. The problem, as Willa Paskin wrote in Slate this year, is “there has long been a plague of poorly developed female characters outfitted with symbols of likability — good looks, one-liners, adorable flaws — instead of personalities.” Those women who haven’t lived up to those qualities, intriguing as they may be, have often been cast as unlovable.
The young women of HBO’s “Girls” can’t be flawed without being “unlikable.” Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie” can’t succumb to her demons without being “unwatchable.” Nancy Botwin of “Weeds,” a mother who made some similar bad choices as Walter White on "Breaking Bad," was "reckless."
“Making a character that an audience can embrace really has to do with making them true, making them complicated in a way that rings true, and finding their soul in whatever their behavior and misbehavior might be,” said Gary Levin, Showtime’s executive vice president of programming. “The definition of likability was always a very shallow, narrow, antiseptic version in traditional television and I think we, along with other cable networks, have really shattered that and allowed the audience to go deeper and it’s made television better, obviously.”
In many ways, fiction is only mirroring how self-possessed women are perceived in the real world. Six years ago, when the issue of Hillary Clinton’s “lack of personality” came up during a presidential debate, President Obama famously stuck his foot in his mouth when he said Clinton “was likable enough.” This year, New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson was fired because of her “management style,” a description that widely drew criticism across the Internet.
“The challenge of being a woman in a position of power is being hard when you need to be hard and being soft when you need to be soft,” said Barbara Hall, executive producer of “Madam Secretary.” “You have this soft side of our life which is about mothering and nurturing and being in a functioning relationship. It’s switching roles without switching personalities.”
The bottom line, says “Homeland” executive producer Meredith Stiehm, is that “the world wants women to be lady-like. It’s a slow evolution of not expecting the traditional niceties.”
Throughout her career, Stiehm says executives have asked her to make her female characters more likable. But the issue has never come up in creating “Homeland’s” Carrie Mathison or Sonya Cross, the lead detective on FX’s “The Bridge,” which she co-created.
“I don’t think you need to be likable, but you have to be interesting,” Stiehm said.
“Private Practice” actress Kate Walsh, who is now starring in NBC’s fall comedy “Bad Judge,” says she is looking forward to playing an archetype usually reserved for men. A tough criminal court judge, Rebecca Wright is a single woman who likes to have a good time when she is off the clock on her terms.
“There was this stunted adolescent part of her that I feel we celebrate in men, and certainly I have,” Walsh said. “It’s one of the reasons why I love Will Ferrell, but I want to see a female doing that. So it’s not that she’s a neurotic mess outside or she’s like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t handle men.’ I want to have that opportunity to play that physical comedy and, yeah, make people laugh.”
For Hall, however, it was important that Leoni’s character Elizabeth Faulkner McCord on "Madam Secretary" be powerful and capable of maintaining personal relationships. McCord doesn't have a larger-than-life personality or neurotic tendencies or adorable quirks. She is a brilliant former CIA agent and happily-married mother of two who is offered a job she can’t refuse.
“I like women to be able to play any role they want to play and be entertaining and interesting to people and not be discarded because of the chances they take,” Hall said. “But I do think there’s a double standard, and this is not just something I write about. This is something I live. When a woman has to be in a leadership position, how do you do that without being worried about being considered strident or harsh? It would be great to have a breakthrough on all those issues so that women can demonstrate various sides of their natures the way that men can and not be discarded because of it.”
There has been progress. Olivia Pope on “Scandal” is sleeping with the married president, but viewers are charmed by her self-confidence. Claire Underwood of “House of Cards” has made morally questionable choices without the tide turning against her as a Lady Macbeth. “Veep’s” Selina Meyer is often incompetent and miserable, but people still root for her to succeed. And the characters of Netflix’s “Orange is the new Black” have defied all gender expectations, even as all of their dirty secrets have been exposed.
“These are women who are making complicated choices and we love them and we stick with them even if it’s a choice we wouldn't make,” said "Girls” executive producer Jenni Konner.
"On ‘Girls,’ they're young and they're making mistakes and it’s OK,” she continued. “To me, the flawed character is likable. People who make mistakes are likable. That’s how humans are. I think it’s so weird that people honestly watch television and think so much about whether they like the characters or not. Just see if you like the show. See how it makes you feel. Don't be so worried about liking everybody.”