For the last ten years or so there has been a slight but noticeable change on American television, especially in the category of American TV series. Aside from mystery series such as Twin Peaks and X-Files, the narratives of nineties TV series followed rather traditional patterns of good vs. evil, or the gendered version of chaste intelligent girl vs. dumb slut (Beverly Hills, 90210). Buffy, The Vampire Slayer and Ally McBeal have given feminist critics much fodder since they first aired, but often enough television was simply not considered progressive and relevant enough to be critical of society. After all, female characters often remained sidekicks or love interests of the male main character, thus remaining underdeveloped and clichéd.
Of course, there have been counter-examples. Sex in the City (first aired 1998) comes to mind here as the first TV series to actively focus on women’s sexual pleasure and, to my chagrin, women’s shopping habits. One can surely criticize Sex and the City for many things, but throughout the six seasons (I am not getting into the horrendous movies) it has succeeded time and time again to portray likable female archetypes who find happiness and recognition outside women’s traditional “spheres of joy” (the home, the family, and male companionship). At times, Carrie and her friends displayed horribly backwards views on gender and sexuality, but they were still far more progressive than the rest American TV had to offer (7th Heaven, anyone?).
However, the change that interests me here is the move towards a darker and edgier portrayal of the main character in American TV series. Sure, even Buffy occasionally had to face her dark side and 7th Heaven darling Mary Camden even ended up vandalizing the high school gym! Most of the time, however, those changes in character were explained by influences of bad people or simply supernatural forces than by human desires and structural forces. In any case, the “deviant” characters had to be punished in order to redeem themselves and to ensure the restoration of the pre-existing order.
I trace the beginnings of the shift to morally more ambiguous characters back to the series Six Feet Under (first aired in 2001). The focus was on an American family- a rather traditional point of departure for an American TV series. However, this family’s business, their relationships with each other and outsiders were anything but traditional. Lies, deceit and trauma were the drivers of the narrative, which managed to balance human tragedy and black humor. The drama series was about life and death and human psychology, and the psychology of its characters was depicted as more complex and twisted than ever before, without diminishing the potential for the audience’s empathy.
Since then more and more TV series have reached cult status for their originality, their progressiveness and love for character development, and today they are often viewed as culturally more relevant than American film. The producers of these TV series quickly understood the demand for narratives and characters that were more intricate and complex than the average 120 minutes of screen time allowed for.
More recent and radical examples of this development are the series Dexter and Breaking Bad. One is about a serial killer, the other about a drug dealer, but what renders both of these characters truly morally ambiguous is that they risk the lives and well-being of their friends and family in order to pursue their questionable goals. However, since they are the main characters of the series, the audience becomes the most involved with them emotionally and continues to root for their ultimate success and survival.
The audience comes to understand human behavior as something volatile, something that cannot always be explained by rational or ethically sound motivations. People just try to live their lives according to their own judgment (for better or for worse), as they have learned how futile it is to rely on the state in matters of justice and social and financial security.
One question remains: Where is our female Dexter?
I don’t know of any female serial killers at the moment, but there certainly is a female drug dealer on television, and she’s been around for six seasons to date: Nancy Botwin. The storyline of Weeds is similar to that of Breaking Bad: In order to provide for her family, the main character resorts to dealing drugs (in her case: pot) and gets involved with the underworld. What I like about Nancy’s character is that she is not a tough-talking, flawless power chick but neither is she a helpless, overly emotional type of woman. She’s a “Mama grizzly”, but certainly not as Sarah Palin would anticipate: she tries everything to keep her children out of trouble, even though most of the time she is the reason for the trouble to begin with. She takes matters into her own hand, even if that means breaking the law and ruining the possibility of a normal life for her and her family.
The last season has taken her always questionable character several steps further: sex with a married man, neglect of her baby boy, escape from the baby’s father at the expense of her entire family’s safety! Running around in skimpy skirts and with her bra straps showing she is in many ways the anti-feminist heroine, but somehow I cannot help but marvel at the courage of the show’s writers. Here’s why: because Nancy Botwin pisses people off – not just other characters on the show but her viewers as well. Former fans of Weeds keep complaining about the irrationality and willful negligence of her behavior, but what they’re truly criticizing is the fact that Nancy is a mother who doesn’t stay at home, doesn’t want to be held captive in an underpaid, under-appreciated job and doesn’t want to give up her own life for the sake of her children. She is a modern-day Medea: in order to free her children and herself, she must kill them (metaphorically). To some it may seem that Nancy is losing it, but the truth is that she never had “it”. And by “it” I am not just referring to her mind but to control: of her life, and her choices. She is not a suburban housewife gone mad; she should have never been a housewife to begin with. As she is trying to find herself, she transgresses the final female taboo: that motherly love may not always be unconditional. Most of the time she is just trying to do damage control, and she’s not claiming otherwise. Nancy Botwin is not a role model, but her spiralling towards greater and greater crises is not a deterrent either. Her willingness to go to great lengths for either the best or the worst of lives may not be for everyone, but for those struggling with the incontestable mother ideal it certainly can be one thing: liberating.