Fighting Back

From ‘Treme’ to ‘Sons of Anarchy,’ TV’s Women Aren’t Wimps

The small screen’s toughest women needn’t blow their tops to prove their strength. By Alyssa Rosenberg.

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Writing in these pages this week, Maria Elena Fernandez laid out a complaint that’s plaguing her this television season. “It’s as if all of the TV producers banded together to turn some of the small screen’s most intriguing ladies into dumber, duller versions of themselves,” she argued.

While I’m no stranger to the desire to see women kick ass with all the wisecracking elan of Tony Stark or nasty efficiency of Jason Statham, I also worry that in asking television’s strong women to be strong all the time, we’re flattening them out as characters. Asking a woman to be composed and competent all the time can be as limiting as expecting her to be constantly helpless or silly. Asking women to always have the fortitude to fight back, or to stay coolly professional even under the worst circumstances means giving up opportunities to tell stories about how crushing life can really be, even for the strongest women.

Sometimes, watching a strong woman go off the rails can be a reflection of how sick the culture around her is. Fernandez may be irritated that Gemma Teller Morrow (Katey Sagal), the former top Old Lady to the titular motorcycle club in Sons of Anarchy, is sitting “around smoking weed and pitying herself.” But Gemma’s response to her crop of woes actually makes sense to me. She’s given her life to the Sons, helping kill her first husband, suffering the traumatic effects of a gang rape by white supremacists in silence so the attack wouldn’t demoralize the men in her life, and losing her best friend in an attack on one of the club’s businesses. And what does she get for her loyalty? A brutal beatdown by her second husband, and a son who isn’t concerned about her drug use or domestic violence—instead manipulating her into spying for the club and separating her from Nero (Jimmy Smits), the pimp Fernandez says should be putting roses in Gemma’s cheeks. Gemma’s acting out because she’s sacrificed her own health and safety to an organization that’s all too happy to destroy her, and without a way out, of course she needs to numb the pain. Her meltdown is another bad mark in the ledger of the Sons’ misdeeds.

Similarly on Homeland, Carrie Mathison’s jittery return to the CIA, complete with crying-face and, as her colleague Peter Quinn puts it, “stage-five delusional getting laid” sessions with her quarry and lover, Sgt. (and terrorist) Nicholas Brody, may feel cringe-worthy rather than cool and controlled. But one of the themes of the show is how the failure to predict the attacks of Sept. 11 drove everyone in the intelligence community a little crazy. While David Estes and Vice President Walden have found a detached way to pursue their vengeance—launching drone strikes against supposed terrorist camps—Quinn takes it directly, stabbing Brody in interrogation. It says a lot about how the war on terror has changed our values that Carrie, whose approach to turning Brody and thwarting both his suicide bombing and Abu Nazir’s attacks on America, prioritizes bonding and information analysis over violence, and yet she’s the insane, shaky failure in comparison to these men?

And sometimes, women behaving badly—rather than with strength and resolve—can be a kind of heroism. On this most recent season of Treme, I was initially frustrated by Janette Desautel’s reaction to the opportunity to open a large, well-backed restaurant back in New Orleans. Her disregard for human-resources briefings and her distaste for even the prospect of profit margins seemed petulant to me early in the season. But as the restaurant opened, her temper tantrums started to make sense as the reasonable-sounding restrictions began to make it harder for Janette to run her kitchen, manage her staff in a way that was effective, turn out dishes that became so in demand that it was impossible to fulfill all the orders and still keep quality high, or even hold a benefit for a fellow, if less-glamorous, New Orleans restaurateur.

The experiences of that woman, LaDonna Batiste-Williams, raise the question of what it even means to be strong when the world punishes you for being cool and composed. After surviving a brutal sexual assault and struggling to reopen her family bar in the aftermath of Katrina, LaDonna spent much of this season waiting for her assailant’s trial to begin and trying to push back against demands of protection money. Her rudeness to her husband’s upper-crust relatives or willingness to cuss out the man extorting her may not be badass, but they’re an assertion of dignity to people who are all too willing to peel it off her like a layer of skin. And while LaDonna may never get the baseball bat she keeps behind the bar out in time to chase off the man trying to intimidate her into withdrawing her rape charges, or to keep him from burning her bar, her failures don’t make her weak or flailing.

She may say, when the case ends in a mistrial, “Burnt myself out for nothing.” But she’s alive, sane, and sure of who she is, just as Janette is. These may not be badass victories or grand defeats of cinematically grotesque arch-enemies. But when you’re a woman, on-screen or off, those kinds of wins are worth claiming, and cheering. And sometimes blowing your top is more noble—and more revealing—than keeping your cool.