The Rita Bennett Problem: Why Are So Many Great TV Dramas Weighed Down by Horrible, Annoying Female Characters?
I’m not sure how else to frame this except to say that television drama has a woman problem. In recent years, we’ve seen a huge rise in the number of television dramas that feature women in leading roles, but the way they are characterized — even in shows in which they are the major star — has been problematic. It’s nice to see women featured prominently, but why must so many of these women be so thoroughly unlikable? Why is it the female love interest we often find ourselves rooting against the most? Why are they depicted so often as selfish or narcissistic or shrewish? There are exceptions, obviously: Julianna Margulies in “The Good Wife” comes quickly to mind, as do the women of “Parenthood” and Connie Britton in “Friday Night Lights,” but nevertheless, television drama has a Rita Bennett problem, and it’s getting tiresome. Why has Rita Bennett become such a huge influence on otherwise great dramas?
Rita Bennett, “Dexter”: One of the happiest moments on “Dexter” for many viewers (SPOILERS) was when the Trinity killer finally ended seasons of whining and controlling and manipulation. She was an unpleasant, annoying character from the outset, and she only got worse as the series went on. What was her biggest sin? Protecting her family, trying to make Dexter a better father, and berating him occasionally for being an irresponsible family man or for putting his work ahead of the family. What’s so wrong with that?
Tara Knowles, “Sons of Anarchy”: I am among the many who fervently hope that Tara Knowles is killed off in this season of “Sons of Anarchy.” But why? Because she’s trying to protect he children? Because she wants to leave a dangerous situation? Because she’s attempting to extract her husband from a outlaw gang? Why are these motivations being characterized as negative? Why must her character be framed as the battle axe because she wants what’s best for her family?
Winona Hawkins, Justified: Dan Saipher wrote at length about the Winona Hawkins problem on “Justified” last season and, like Daniel, I’m one of the characters few defenders. She’s made a few bad decision (but, then again, so has Raylan) and yet, she, too, only wants what’s best for Raylan: A job where he’s not being shot at every day. (SPOILERS) She recently became impregnated with Raylan’s child and instead of celebrating this, most viewers saw it as a manipulation, a way to maintain control over Raylan. force his decisions. Why is she depicted as such an unlikable character while Ava Crowder gets in bed with a bad guy and is applauded for it?
Carrie Mathison, “Homeland”: I think most would agree that Claire Danes is turning in the performance of her career in “Homeland,” as a psychotic, neurotic, paranoid CIA agent. It’s a great, meaty role, and she’s taken incredible advantage of it, but what it isn’t is a likable character. She’s attempting to track down a terrorist, and there are a lot of hints suggesting that Damien Lewis’ Nicholas Brody is a bad person. And yet it’s Brody who the audience gravitates toward, while Carrie is just a crazy paranoid bitch. And if she’s right about Brody, well, that’s just a matter of luck, right? And not because her medication-fueled suspicions are well-founded.
Lori Grimes, “The Walking Dead”: Lori is fiercely protective of her son, but she also slept with Shane during the apocalypse. Sure, she thought her husband was dead, but then again, he’d only been “dead” for a few weeks and for such a fiercely protective mother, you’d think that she’d have higher priorities than sleeping with her husband’s best friend. She’s quickly becoming the Tara Knowles of “The Walking Dead,” a overpowering nag.
Skyler White, “Breaking Bad”: Skyler, perhaps more than any other female character on television drama, epitomizes the calculating shrew. She’s almost a villain in her characterization, and what is she so mad about? Well, her husband — the meek high-school teacher she married — is a meth manufacturer who constantly puts her and her family in danger and even got her brother-in-law shot. In the real world, she’d be the sympathetic one, but not in the world of “Breaking Bad,” where — even when she got involved in Walt’s criminal operation to help her brother in law — she’s still seen as the no-good, scolding bitch. And she is a scolding bitch, but doesn’t she have the right to be?