Make Way for the Female Antihero: TV Takes a Page from the Bible

By Jenna Barnett 10-03-2014
'Orange Is the New Black' cast, photo via Netflix
'Orange Is the New Black' cast, photo via Netflix

These days, female television characters can almost do it all. But we, the media consumers and producers, are still deciding if we should let them make mistakes, too.

And I don’t mean just the I-dated-the-wrong-handsome-doctor mistakes, or the I’m-an-overprotective-mother mistakes. I mean the type of mistakes that warrant the label of antihero. Merriam-Webster defines an antihero as “a protagonist or notable figure who is conspicuously lacking in heroic qualities.” Over the past several years, TV has become saturated with male antiheroes. Breaking Bad made a meth dealer Emmy gold, and Dexter garnered a cult following behind a sociopathic vigilante. But hey, boys will be boys.

Girls will be girls, too, if we let them. And girls aren’t always perfect. John Landgraf, president of FX, says it’s much harder to find acceptance for the female antihero: “It's fascinating to me that we just have really different, and I think, a more rigorous set of standards for female characters than we do for male characters in this society.”

It’s even more fascinating if we consider the deeply flawed but ultimately heroic women of the Bible — the characters that have been on our bookshelves and in our pews for so long. Let’s not forget Tamar, who did a brief prostitution stint to trick her father-in-law into giving her what she was promised (Genesis 38). Or Rahab, a more veteran prostitute who helped the Israelites acquire the promised land while also saving her Canaanite family from massacre (Joshua 2-7). Or even Mary Magdalene, who was never a prostitute, but did need Jesus to expel seven demons from her (caused by sin or illness) before she could become his unofficial thirteenth disciple.

Tamar and Rahab are included in Jesus’ genealogy (Matthew 1), and Mary was there for his death and rebirth. If the Bible can handle women on the antihero spectrum, so can TV. Let me rephrase that, if the Bible lifts up portrayals of deeply flawed women with moments of heroism, so should we.

Orange Is the Black, a Netflix dramatic portrayal of a women’s prison, has broken onto the scene with a whole cast of antiheroes. While Orange’s portrayal of Christian women is at times parochial and caricaturizing, its portrayal of women, broadly, is nuanced and liberating in its honesty.

In an interview with Daily Xtra, Taylor Schilling, who plays protagonist Piper Chapman in Orange, said she thinks the public is hungry for this diverse, unprocessed portrait of women. “We’re peeling back the stereotypes of all of these people and [revealing] the ambiguity of people. That people have amazing parts, and manipulative parts, and scary parts, and honest parts, and that all of those have a place.”

Last week Shonda Rhimes’ new show, How To Get Away With Murder broke the record for number of DVR views. It also introduced those six million plus viewers to another deeply flawed, critically human female lead. Viola Davis plays the part of Annalise Keating, a successful, deceptive, adulterous, fiery tenured professor.

As viewers, we don’t have to condone the questionable morality of these women, but we do have to acknowledge their humanity and all the complexity that comes with being a sinful human made in the image of a sinless God. This is a difficult, distorted image to capture, but I hope TV keeps trying.

Jenna Barnett is an Editorial Assistant for Sojourners.

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