08.09.138:00 PM ET

Mad Women: The Rise of the Mental Screen Heroine

Thane Rosenbaum on the rise of the mentally disturbed, lonely, workaholic heroine.

American culture is undergoing a dramatic shift in how it likes to see its heroines portrayed on TV and in film. Gone are the days of Mary Tyler Moore, Rachel and Monica, and the fun-loving, heart-of-gold Sex & the City girls. In fact, both men and women are painted in the most unflattering of lights on the small screen these days. We’ve got philanderers and serial killers, bipolar ice queens and small-town drug dealers. While the results can often be dramatically exhilarating, our attachments to these characters can get downright confusing. Harkening back to that Simon & Garfunkel song, it’s no longer just ‘Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio'—the same now hold true for Mrs. Robinson herself. We’ve seen her kind before, but the women on TV and in film today aren’t evil—they’re mental.

Bad boys and mad men are very much the rage nowadays. Chivalry is dead when it comes to TV’s male heroes, replaced by dissolute behavior and moral ambiguity. The public seems to have grown to appreciate the seedier exploits of the new antihero—morally compromised louts though they may all be. James Gandolfini’s recent death was a reminder of his iconic portrayal of a mafia chieftain who was conflicted about almost everything except murder in The Sopranos. The dapper but hopelessly depraved Donald Draper (Jon Hamm) in Mad Men is becoming increasingly harder to root for. And Walter White (Bryan Cranston), the high school chemistry teacher turned methamphetamine dealer in Breaking Bad, can make a viewer long for the innocence, and even some of the inanity, of Welcome Back Kotter.

Heroism has lost a bit of its glamour on TV and in film—and the phenomenon is apparently gender neutral. The public’s taste for fictional heroines nowadays also hews toward the flawed and the broken. The women who police our streets and protect us from terrorists are shown to be Mad Women of an altogether different sort—having nothing to do with Madison Avenue, and everything to do with mental illness. Think Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) in Homeland, Debra Morgan (Jennifer Carpenter) on Dexter, Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) in The Killing. There’s very little to emulate here and lots to pity.

Both Carrie, a CIA operative suffering from bipolar disorder, and Sarah, a homicide detective working in dreary Seattle, have spent time in mental institutions—a consequence of their emotionally demanding work, which appears to self-select head cases. After each season of Dexter, Debra, a Miami police lieutenant, inches closer to a nervous breakdown, no doubt from the paradox that her brother is Miami’s most notorious and elusive serial killer. In The Bridge, which premiered last month, police detective Sonya North (Diane Kruger) misses every social cue due to a debilitating case of Asperger’s Syndrome.

These are most assuredly not your grandmother’s Charlie’s Angels. Oblivious to their good looks, in no mood to crack a smile, they are virtually unable to take in anything other than what’s before their computer screens. (This phenomenon is prevalent on the big screen as well—hacker Lisbeth Salander, from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, oozes damaged, emotional instability, while Jessica Chastain’s Maya in Zero Dark Thirty is an intelligence officer hunting down Osama bin Laden with the zealotry of someone not worried about getting a date for Saturday night.

Compare these tortured tough gals with Pepper Anderson (Angie Dickinson), TV’s first slinky and tantalizing female cop in Police Woman, or Jaime Sommers (Lindsay Wagner) in The Bionic Woman, private detective Jennifer Hart (Stephanie Powers) in Hart to Hart, and beat cop Stacy Sheridan (Heather Locklear) in T.J. Hooker. That was the golden age of the gorgeous detective/cop who dressed alluringly and was very much aware that her wily charms and great hair could lure any wrongdoer into a trap.

Thane Rosenbaum on the rise of the mentally unstable, lonely, workaholic heroine.

Carrie Mathison is really crazy.

Of course, we no longer expect our heroines to be presented as superficial sexpots on prime-time television. Emotionally complicated women can be equally sexy, if not instructive. And true equality of the sexes demands that women take on the most demanding of male responsibilities. On reality TV they are asked to survive on perilous islands; on dramatic television they protect their communities and strive to save the world. Yet there’s something odd in these portrayals in TV and film where female police detectives and intelligence operatives take their work so seriously, they end up losing their minds. Perhaps this belies a deeper cultural ambivalence about powerful women and women in the workplace in general. The TV heroines of yesteryear didn’t actually fight crime, and they most certainly didn’t ‘lean in’.

Today’s female crime fighters (still beautiful, of course—this is television, after all) are frumpily dressed and emotionally withholding. Their sex appeal is subordinated to their brilliance in data gathering. Each possesses a mind riddled with facts, figures and heavy doses of Prozac. All day, they stare at wall charts and encrypted code, looking for connections in pursuit of terrorists and common criminals. Attractive though they may be, loony is what they regrettably become.

TV’s male heroes may be morally promiscuous, but they are also charming, funny, and fully textured. Crime-fighting heroines, however, have become robotic, loveless, and largely alone. Dr. Temperance Brennan (Emily Deschanel) on Bones is so emotionally obtuse, it’s a miracle she managed to find romance with her FBI agent co-star.

These disturbing portraits represent a different way of looking at the glass ceiling. Mad Men’s Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) and Joan (Christina Hendricks) are reminiscent of the first wave of feminism. But through modern TV sets, they are aberrations from a distant time. The takeaway from today’s fictional heroines is that it’s no longer a matter of having it all, but whether career advancement is worth losing all of your marbles.

Women as mere housewives and homemakers are long gone on TV and in film, and for good reason, given that women serve in combat roles in the military and do, in fact, defend the nation. Such fearless keepers of the social peace are something we can all get behind. But these TV characters very much deserve our special sympathy. After all, the longing for balance in our own lives is, in these women, offset by extreme episodes of mental unbalance. Laser focus makes them terrifically relentless investigators, but it also renders them positively incapable of sustaining relationships—either as lovers or mothers. (The Killing’s Sarah has lost custody of her son.) These women don’t compartmentalize their day jobs from their personal lives—they forgo personal lives altogether.

And yet, we still connect emotionally with these new heroines because we realize the sacrifice women must make to be the best in their fields. Feminine instincts apparently make them especially good at counterintelligence work, intuiting where the terrorist is hiding or who the criminal will target next. Yet, their brilliance comes at a price. America’s War on Terror, and the grisly task of solving local murders, seem to be hazardous to the health of fictional heroines for whom “shaken, not stirred” describes how they perform under pressure. For today’s most unfortunate sister spies, the cocktails are only pharmacological.