The Rise of Unconventional Women on Screen

By Imogen Baker

We’re used to seeing problematic men adorn our screens – we’ve seen men as liars, cheaters, abusers of drugs, alcoholics and murderers. Look no further than the popularity of recent TV shows such as Peaky Blinders, Mad Men, Breaking Bad (and many, many more). But what happens, then, when women take the lead? Over the past few years, we’ve seen a rise of ‘unconventional’ – and potentially unlikeable – female characters. 

Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s character of Fleabag represents a sense of this unconventionality. She is crass regarding her sexuality, she steals, she lies, and does not conform to a traditional stereotypical sense of femininity. She is honest about all of this, though, even then, she defines herself to ‘have a horrible feeling that [she’s] a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist.’ Because wanting to trade five years of your life to have the perfect body makes you a ‘bad feminist’, right? Well, no – and maybe that’s part of what Fleabag’s character is highlighting, the pressures of modernity on women still to conform to some sort of label, to some sort of archetype. The functionality of Fleabag’s integrity regarding her sexuality is not reduced to something presented through a male gaze, but through her own perspective – one that is wholly female. 

And whilst Fleabag can be criticised for its very narrow perspective on being upper-middle-class in London, and all the privileges that come with it, maybe this only enhances the line that Fleabag treads between being relatable or not. The fact is that Fleabag is supposed to be a character who is questionably likeable or not, but her honesty in recognising her guilt only gives her character a further development, and one that seems truly real: ‘And sometimes I wish I didn’t even know that fucking existed. And I know that my body, as it is now, really is the only thing I have left, and when that gets old and unfuckable I may as well just kill it. […] You know, either everyone feels like this a little bit, and they’re just not talking about it, or I’m completely fucking alone. Which isn’t fucking funny.’ 

Fleabag Trailer – BBC

The character of Nadia Vulvokov (Natasha Lyonne) is one that also resists the stereotype of female conventionality. She’s in control of her own sexuality, she smokes and takes drugs, she swears unabashedly, and claims ‘it’s [her] bad attitude that keeps [her] young.’ So she is far from, in a traditional and outdated sense, a ‘good role model.’ She takes the stereotype of ‘cat lady’ and fixes it to be something on her terms. It’s not the pitiful image that is always presented, but instead illustrates her independence; she knows what she wants, and what she wants is to live alone with her cat. Nadia is an unconventional character, and though she is constantly displaying witty sarcasm, she does truly care about the characters closest to her. The programme’s plot centres around multiple timelines, but within this we are given a central protagonist with multiple layers; a multidimensional character in a, quite literally, multidimensional narrative.

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Female villains have historically been limited to very thin and shallow constructions, to clear-cut archetypes; they’re ruthless femme fatales, or witches, or ‘bitches’ that the protagonists are almost unable to defeat. But with the inclusion of women writers in television and film we see the change in perceptions of female characters, and this includes the antagonists. The character of Villanelle (Jodie Comer) in Killing Eve demonstrates how a character who is an assassin and manipulator can be funny and likeable, despite her constant murderous actions. This is because her characterisation is not merely shoved under the label of ‘murderous psychopath’ and given all the traits to adhere to that, but instead is written as a character who has flaws and is given a range of emotions to present. There is no core motive given as to why Villanelle is the way she is, and the show does not offer the simple excuse that she is a psychopath to explain it. The dynamic between her and Eve (Sandra Oh) further adds another layer to Villanelle’s character and demonstrates the unconventionality to the relationship between the protagonist and antagonist. 

Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) in Gone Girl also represents the perplexity of this issue of unlikeable/ likeable women. Her character is defined as being a psychopath, and whilst she may not seem to be an amiable character, there are aspects of her that are, in a sense, relatable:

‘Cool Girl. Men always use that, don’t they, as their defining compliment. ‘She’s a Cool Girl’. Cool Girl is hot, Cool Girl is game, Cool Girl is fun, Cool Girl never gets angry at her man, she only smiles in a chagrined, loving manner, and then presents her mouth for fucking. […] When I met Nick Dunne I knew he wanted ‘Cool Girl’, and for him, I’ll admit: I was willing to try. I wax-stripped my pussy raw. I drank canned beer, watching Adam Sandler movies. I ate cold pizza and remained a size two. I blew him, semi-regularly. I lived in the moment. I was fucking game. ’ 

The Cool Girl monologue, adapted from Flynn’s original novel, illustrates the issue of adhering to an idealistic woman to appeal to men, and resists it. The fact that Amy conforms to this idea and still Nick cheats on her gives Amy a motive that builds on empathy from the audience. And of course she doesn’t get the audience’s whole empathy – and that’s what makes her so interesting as a character, that we can have conflicting thoughts on whether her actions are justified or not, or to what limit we can justify her actions. Does Nick deserve it? There’s no definitive answer; it’s up to each individual watching. But the fact that it is a question at all, rather than a clear-cut narrative that Nick is the likeable protagonist and Amy the villain, illustrates the depth that David Fincher and screenplay writer Gillian Flynn go to frame these characters. 

Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl (2014)

Whilst many woman characters are still reduced to being one-dimensional, these characters that are all, interestingly, written by women show depth; unlikeable characters with redeemable qualities, protagonists with flaws. This list is not extensive; there are many more films and TV programmes that show interesting and developed female characters, and this trend in creating characters like this should hopefully indicate a continuation in creating more varied depiction of women on screen.

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