“I am a terrible woman,” Siobhan Wilson sings at the close of Back to Life first episode. Seconds earlier, the BBC show's heroine, Miri Matteson (creator Daisy Haggard), walked past some bright red graffiti emblazoned on her home reading “PSYCHO BITCH.” Miri, as we learn in bits and pieces during the opening episode which has recently landed in the US, has just been released from prison after 18 years behind bars. Now she is infamous in her coastal hometown for fatally running something — and more likely someone — over.
Miri is, in the lexicon of TV character flavours, a Bad Woman. Or as Siobhan Wilson would say, a terrible one. That’s why Miri’s series was dubbed “The New Fleabag” for months, ever since its initial UK debut in April 2019. Miri certainly does have a few things in common with Fleabag’s titular protagonist. When we first meet Miri, she’s talking to herself. Only this time, the conversation is transmitted to us through a mirror rather than a fourth-wall breaking monologue. Miri argues with her family and is prone to bad behaviour, particularly when love is involved.
Everyone around Miri has accepted her unruly spirit. They’ve stopped trying to “fix” her, whatever that would mean. Audiences are meant to celebrate her. It’s this turn that has inspired such headlines as the Wall Street Journal’s “The Rise of the Flawed Television Heroine,” which arrived the same day as the Los Angeles Times Story confirming women are now “full-fledged human beings” on film. The next day, the New York Times asked if women can ever just be artists.
In the year of our lord 2020, major publications still seem to reckoning with the fact that women exist, and sometimes they’re complicated — even terrible — in public. Yet they’re completely overlooking all the messy women who have ruled the television decade and been celebrated by multiple news cycles.
But all of this supposedly pro-woman navel gazing is helping to hide the legitimately necessary conversation at hand: Why are all these women so very white?
When we look back on the 2010s, we’ll see that the television landscape wasn’t merely dotted with Bad Women, or the kind of characters who proved naughty women weren’t merely old-school soap opera villains, femme fatals, and crones. It was the era that proved misbehaving ladies were the heroes of their own story and capable of ills both unspeakable and relentlessly funny. In 2011, Game of Thrones premiered, introducing introduce us to Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), a queen who was fucking her brother (they had three children together) and murdered her husband (who thought he sired those three children). Daenery Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) was a woman who would one day eviscerate a metropolis. Between then and now, we met Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), Hannah Horvath (Girls creator Lena Dunham), the pot smoking ladies of Broad City (Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson), House of Cards’ Claire Underwood (Robin Wright), The Affair’s Alison Bailey (Ruth Wilson), and the aforementioned Fleabag (creator and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge), amid dozens of other chaotic ladies.
Just last year, Apple TV+ birthed The Morning Show, where Reese Witherspoon’s Bradley Jackson goes viral for a very public, screamy meltdown in the midst of a reporting gig. She’s already known as Bradley “Two Fucks” Jackson, because what’s messier than a white woman accidentally cursing during a live news report? (Everything is messier.)
Until very recently, the excess these women displayed, as Kathleen Rowe writes about in her 1995 book The Unruly Woman, was a form of the grotesque. Society in turn gawks at their behaviour as a freakish spectacle as much as it would enjoy it. Rowe’s main examples of unruly women at the time included Roseanne Barr and proto-Kim Kardashian template Zsa Zsa Gabor. They were known for amassing humongous audiences as much as they were for defying the traditional limits society puts on female desire; whether that was a desire for glamour, processed foods, or fart jokes. Viewers’ need to gawk at the performers, rather than embrace them, abated in the last decade. The women who played your Hannahs and Cerseis received Emmy nominations and heaps of praise — rather than eyerolls — for their off-the-rails women.
You might be thinking, Why hasn’t Olivia Pope been mentioned yet? Or Annalise Keating? They broke bad. First, if you can pick out just one or two women of colour as an example of anything, there are not nearly enough of them. You should be flooded with options, which is precisely how you would feel if you were asked to name white antiheroines (it would take more than a beat to get through the Game of Thrones cast alone).
There is another, far more dark point. Fictional women like Kerry Washington’s Olivia or Viola Davis’ Annalise may be shadowy, but they’re not messy. Not like Homeland’s Carrie, whose unhinged cry face is an immortal meme. Olivia and Annalise are defined by their control, both of themselves and the most chaotic situations. The loss of that tightly held perfection — like when Oliva’s silk press went coily during an abduction, or Annalise famously removed her makeup to confront her awful husband — is used for dramatic tension and contrast to their usual selves. These women aren’t intrinsically messy. The mayhem of their lives simply sometimes forces them into mess.
Even an over-the-top soap character like Empire’s Cookie Lyons (Taraji P. Henson, who received two Emmy nominations for the FOX role) shouldn’t be described as a mess. Instead, she is a genius businesswoman who left prison and immediately stepped into an executive at a multibillion-dollar music conglomerate. When Cookie swings a bat around the office or a family member’s head, you’re meant to think she’s in the right — not fully untethered from reality. Similarly, Issa Dee (Issa Rae) may lead a show called Insecure, but she is defined by a fairly neat arc towards self-discovery, success, and improved romantic relationships.
Neverthless, there’s a freedom in being allowed to be a character who is bedlam personified and still revered for it. It’s proof that someone like you can go completely wild and still be respected at the end of the day.
While Cookie and her Shondaland sisters have at least been able to break a little bad, other fictional women of colour haven’t even been given that amount of leeway. Asian characters made up 5% of television roles or fewer during the 2016-2017 season, a UCLA study confirms. That leaves little room to explore their complex humanity. Right now, the messiest Asian woman on television is Killing Eve’s eponymous Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh), a hyper-competent intelligence agent who is tempted by the dark side, but ultimately rejects it in the season 2 finale. Mindy Kaling’s Mindy Lahiri previously held Eve’s knotty distinction. She is also a hyper-competent doctor who juggled a bustling romantic life, a medical practice, a separate fertility clinic, motherhood, and one of television’s best closets. A fully realised messy life appears to always be out of reach for women characters of colour. They always must contain at least an ounce of chaotic good.
Each of the women in television’s growing legion of Latinas is mostly defined by her goodness, poise, and intelligence. Just take a look at the lives of Jane the Virgin’s Jane Villanueva (Gina Rodriguez), Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Amy Santiago (Melissa Fumero) and Rosa Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz), One Day at a Time’s Penelope Alvarez (Justina Machado), Superstore’s Amy Sosa (America Ferrera), and teen speakeasy purveyor/criminal mastermind/philanthropist Veronica Lodge (Riverdale’s Camila Mendes). These women are all pillars of their community.
Roswell star Jeanine Mason is dreaming of “a Girls moment” for her Latina sisters, as she told Refinery29 earlier this year. She is even talking to a few Latinx writers about the boundary-breaking project. “The Bridesmaids thing is what’s calling me,” she explained. “The unapologetic-ness of it. It is so freeing.”
As Lena Dunham told us, you and your people are only free when you can strap on a sheer mesh tank top, do a bunch of illicit drugs, and still be celebrated for it.