The horror genre is carving out a place on the small screen, and programming lineups, both present and future, are showing a tendency toward gore as an entertainment commodity. In fact, “Penny Dreadful” on Showtime, now in its second season, might just be one of the most intriguing additions to the horror genre yet. Moreover, it establishes itself as one of the many popular shows featuring female monsters, both real and imagined, as complex, nuanced characters.
The most exciting part about “Penny Dreadful,” and other shows in the horror genre, is that leading women are the ones doing the killing instead of the dying; they are tortured souls, complicated, often difficult to stomach, yet they still remain the protagonists and drive the show’s narratives, almost exclusively — much like the male-driven “antihero” boon of the last few years.
Both popular opinion and critical acceptance suggests the traditional binary that exists in stories about women is beginning to shatter. Women don’t have to work in either/or tales anymore, performing as the old hag OR the beautiful siren; the madonna OR the whore; the distressed damsel OR the sexless workaholic. “Penny Dreadful” is setting precedent for a burgeoning tolerance for female characters that are hard to love (or are at least perceived as such).
Roxane Gay, in her essay “I’m not here to make friends,” draws attention to the many female villains on reality tv who declare this very sentiment, thus branding themselves the outsider or “the bitch.” Audiences are conditioned to dislike a female character who doesn’t perform the social norms — whether that is traditional beauty, heteronormative relationships, pathological apologizing, or the other reality show trope of being “here to make friends.”
Gay goes on to say about another hard-to-love character, Mavis Gary, the lead character in the darkly funny film “Young Adult.” “[Critics] require a diagnosis for her unlikability in order to tolerate her. The simplest explanation, of Mavis as human, will not suffice.” Gay heralds the “unlikeable” female character, suggesting the whole concept of likability is merely a societal construct performing gender bias.
“Penny Dreadful’s” Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) and the Night Comer characters are transcending the debate about likable and sympathetic women on television, and upsetting the hierarchy of “acceptable” female behavior by performing in direct contradiction to the constructs to which Gay refers.
The women of “Penny Dreadful” are both literally and figuratively claiming power over their male counterparts, and the show is decidedly female-centric. Although the existence of the hag/siren dichotomy exists in Vanessa’s story arc, she is meant to stand in the gap, asking audiences to consider a third space for female characters, one that encompasses the binary and pushes against it boundaries.
Vanessa Ives, with her blood rituals, demonic language and sexual freedoms, represents the rise of the female monster on popular television and a burgeoning acceptance of female characters, even the “bad” ones, as whole human entities instead of a sum of the established gender politics.
The Cut Wife (Patti Lupone) performs the hag archetype explicitly and stands in direct opposition with the beautiful siren Madame Kali (Helen McCrory). Both characters perform their archetypical legacy faithfully, but it’s Vanessa, as the show’s protagonist — and the season’s main focus — that helps to deconstruct these tired cliches and dismantle the notions about what a female character must do in order to win over an audience.
She is possessed and pursued by demons, but it’s not pretty or tidy. The audience has seen her at her ugliest, most heinous and are meant to pull for her still. She is allowed to maintain her sexuality, her availability and her ability to be sympathetic to viewers, even if they find her cold, aloof and, dare I say, difficult.
Vanessa Ives is only one of a handful of female killers and monsters to grace the small screen. The BBC’s “Orphan Black” originally presented the Ukrainian character Helena as a damaged, tortured, sociopath who has been victimized by every person in her life. On a different, more procedural, show, Helena would be treated like a throwaway character, isolated to one episode in which the caring detective would solve her case and send her on her way.
Audiences had other plans for Helena however, and she’s become a fan favorite; now one of the more heavily featured clones. Without considering the new shift in paradigm, Helena seems hard to love and even harder to relate to. However, her sheer presence suggests viewers are willing to consider female characters relevant that are not traditionally attractive or who do not perform as traditionally “feminine.”
Male antiheroes have saturated the TV programming for years with the likes of Walter White, Dexter, Jax Teller, Rick Grimes, Ray Donovan and more. We’re supposed to accept their evil deeds, their lack of respect for social boundaries and their destructive tendencies as texture for their character — reasons they need our sympathies. There is far less dichotomization for male characters, and it seems audiences are beginning to make the same allowances for the anti heroines.
WGN’s “Salem” has Mary Sibley (Janet Washington) doing unspeakable things to her husband, to her community, and to other women. The entirety of the show is built around the idea that viewers will tune in not because of the atrocities she inflicts, but in spite of them. Although Mary is traditionally beautiful and acts like a good Puritan lady for the most part, she is wholly terrible. This suggests that audiences’ expectations about a leading lady don’t depend on her being nice, or friendly or even mildly tolerable; just interesting and well-written.
Meanwhile, “American Horror Story” has asked us to buy into this with every character Jessica Lange has played in the anthology. The result? Winning Emmys and being, arguably, one of the best things about that show. Most every female character in the history of that show is complicated and flawed, yet writers still rely on them to draw audiences.
Male characters who are flawed and multidimensional (often with horrible acts of their own doing in their past) are called antiheroes, but women are called villains. Proof of this exists in the story of the Evil Queen of Snow White stories (before Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent came along).
Although it seems counterintuitive to celebrate the uptick of female killers, monsters and psychopaths, it’s actually a significant shift towards an equity in the roles for women. Acknowledging that women can be the antiheroine just as much as a man promotes a synergy that the rest of Hollywood could stand to adopt more of.
All of these shows are currently airing (with the exception of “American Horror Story”):
“Penny Dreadful” airs on Showtime Sundays at 9pm. You can catch up on Season 1 on Amazon Instant Video.
“Orphan Black” is currently in its third season, airing Saturdays at 9pm on BBC America. Seasons 1-2 are available on Amazon Instant Video.
“Salem “airs on Sunday nights at 10pm on WGN. Season 1 is available on Amazon Instant Video.
“American Horror Story” Seasons 1-3 are available on Hulu.
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