Wide Angle

#MeToo-Inspired Stories Have Been Making Women Villains As Well As Victims

On Veep and in Late Night, how uneven power dynamics work when women are in charge.

Meryl Streep, Tina Fey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Emma Thompson.
Meryl Streep in Big Little Lies, Tina Fey in Good News, Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Veep, and Emma Thompson in Late Night.* Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Jennifer Clasen/HBO, NBC, Lacey Terrell/HBO, and Emily Aragones/Sundance Institute.

One week after the first Harvey Weinstein exposé lit a match to a movement waiting to catch fire, Great News, the Tina Fey–produced NBC sitcom, featured a storyline in which Fey’s network president sexually harasses her employees. In an episode that Fey co-wrote, her Diana St. Tropez informs Katie (star Briga Heelan) of the sacrifices the younger woman will need to make if she wants to be successful as a female TV producer. “Worrying about your personal life is a distraction,” Diana says. “Thirty is for working, 50 is for having kids, and 140 is for dying.” On Fey’s 30 Rock, Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy got to savor the playboy perks of the C-suite, but Diana’s existence is defined by regimented scheduling and monkish discipline. Diana’s harassment of her underlings, we later learn, is a tactic to force the network to buy her out of her contract, but she’s too disgusted with her own behavior to see the plan through. “I just want what the men get,” she explains, “$40 million to go away.” The plot ends with a sharp but dispiriting conclusion: that the best we can hope for is a world where women can get away with as much as men have. Someday, Diane sighs to her protégée, “We’ll live in a world where a woman can be a creep and go home with a huge golden parachute.”

The #MeToo movement’s approaching second anniversary is a good opportunity to take stock of how pop culture has reckoned with the Reckoning—and how often movies and TV shows by, for, and about women have courted or stumbled into commentary and relevance by imagining women as the ones who abuse their power.

The number of real-life women accused of malfeasance over the past two years is only a tiny fraction of the total. Actress and filmmaker Asia Argento might be the best known, mostly because she herself furnished some of the most disturbing details in the reports about Weinstein. The accusations against actress and showrunner Frankie Shaw and academic Avital Ronell made smaller waves, and the charges against actress and former cult recruiter Allison Mack don’t really line up with the movement’s focus on workplace harassment and sexual assault in dating and other social situations. But in the past year, films and TV series as divergent as The Bold Type, Late Night, Veep, and Big Little Lies have thrown a spotlight on female misconduct, constituting an offshoot to the movement that feels pat and anticlimactic on the one hand, and sensitive and urgent on the other.

The most bluntly topical is The Bold Type, a Freeform dramedy whose grasping attempts at relevance have rendered it something of a perverse favorite among media types. (Guilty.) In its third season, which wrapped up last month, young journalist Jane (Katie Stevens) and her editor-mentor Jacqueline (Melora Hardin) sought to expose the emotional and physical abuse of inexperienced models by a famed fashion photographer named Pamela Dolan (Laila Robins) in a storyline that recalled but didn’t quite parallel the public accusations against Terry Richardson and Mario Testino, among others. Earlier in the season, the office’s resident good dude, Alex (Matt Ward), discovers through the publication of a viral “Cat Person”–esque story inspired by him that he failed to fully take into account the power dynamics of an attempted fling with a classmate. That storyline initially felt like a desperate stab at topicality, but ultimately redeemed itself by modeling what true introspection about sexual gray areas might look like. The gender-flipped Pamela Dolan story, though, failed to unearth any deeper insights. It did illustrate how difficult it was for Jane to get sources to trust her, but the overall point—that, given the opportunity, women are, in Jane’s words, “just as capable of bad behavior as men are”—was myopically applied to the ills of a theoretical system (the hierarchies within the fashion world, especially between celebrity photographers and unknown models) at the expense of another, actual one (the sexual harassment of female models by male photographers).

Likewise, the female misconduct in the film Late Night illuminates little about the gendered power dynamics it depicts. The Mindy Kaling–penned comedy tackles the informal discriminatory practices that lead to the exclusion of women and people of color from TV writers’ rooms (and many other competitive professional settings), but when late-night host Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) is forced to publicly own up to her shortcomings, it’s because she’s had an affair with one of her male writers, not because she’s been on air for three decades and never hired a writer who wasn’t a white man. Katherine argues that her sleeping with an employee is just as bad as it would be if she were a man, and her logic is unassailable: She’s the boss, and therefore has the power to fire Charlie (Hugh Dancy) or make his job exceedingly difficult in retaliation. But her behavior doesn’t raise the same concerns as the David Letterman case the storyline clearly echoes. Charlie cuts something of a wolfish figure, pouncing on Kaling’s green and isolated writer Molly soon after she’s hired, and the opportunistic timing of his affair with Katherine—soon after her husband’s diagnosis of Parkinson’s—seems just as likely the result of his ambition, or even the emotional exploitation of his boss. Kaling’s script feels like a complication of the blanket rules that came out of #MeToo rather than an exemplification of them. It’s understandable that female creatives would rather dwell on what women are capable of rather than the age-old reality of male dominance. But the movement has been so exhilarating in its demand that we pay attention to the nuances of social dynamics that reductive gender flips, like Late Night’s, feel like a step backward.

Perhaps that’s why the #MeToo stories centered on female misconduct that have been the most successful have tended to focus on women’s complicity in patriarchal repression, often through distinctly female methods. Throughout Veep, including this spring’s excellent final season, Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Selina Meyer has thumbed her nose at women in politics who are unwilling to be silently groped by their male colleagues; she had to deal with it, she reasons, so there’s no reason why other women should be exempt. The HBO series riffed on #MeToo directly with #NotMe, a hashtag used by women across the country to declare their nonaffiliation with wretched clod Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons). But the road to Selina’s eventual presidency—a series of grim betrayals and vicious acts even jarringly gruesome for her—revealed the former VPOTUS was perfectly willing to engineer a #MeToo scandal in order to knock out a competing candidate. In a notably spiteful monologue (yes, even for Veep!), Selina humiliated Tom Jane’s (Hugh Laurie) chief of staff (Rhea Seehorn) in shockingly crude terms that were rendered extra-personal because of Selina’s own personal history with Tom. Selina then convinces the younger woman to speak out against her boss and lover, ending his presidential prospects and his marriage in one fell swoop. The easy read on Veep is that it demonstrates how a woman can be just as venal as any man. But the show was always more interested in the particular ways a powerful woman could be terrible, employing the many tools unique to her, including exploiting her maternal status and criticizing a fellow female candidate’s failure to “man up,” never more so than in its final season.

But the best of the post-#MeToo explorations of female awfulness might be Big Little Lies, which introduced Meryl Streep’s terrifyingly villainous Mary Louise at the beginning of its current second season. The mother of the murdered Perry (Alexander Skarsgard), who abused his wife, Celeste (Nicole Kidman), and raped at least one other woman (Shailene Woodley’s Jane), Mary Louise has proved insidiously talented at dissolving the already weak glue holding together the Monterey Five, the women who decided to keep secret both Perry’s sins and the details of his death (at the hands of the women he attacked, who acted in self-defense). Far from exhibiting solidarity, Mary Louise is eager to doubt Celeste’s accusations of domestic assault, as well as Jane’s account of her rape by Perry. (The HBO drama also does an excellent job of portraying the long-lasting ramifications of sexual assault, as well as the difficult conversations it engenders, like the one that Jane has with her son Ziggy about his provenance.)

Domestic violence hasn’t been a major focus of #MeToo, but it seems fitting that we’re continuing to get one of the best pop cultural depictions of such abuse after reckoning with the ubiquity of male assault. Big Little Lies continues to investigate the complicated grief that Celeste experiences after the death of her abuser, as well as the reality that it’s often not possible to instantly unlearn violence even if one abhors it. When one of her elementary school–age sons hits her after she breaks up a fight between him and his brother, Celeste instinctively punches him back, knocking him to the ground. Later, when Mary Louise upsets her with a rude remark, she unthinkingly slaps the older woman, knocking off her glasses. As with Perry’s other victim, Jane, Celeste is a rare portrayal of a woman living with sexual trauma. But unlike Jane, Celeste isn’t a perfect victim, and the show is richer and more incisive because of it. #MeToo drew much of its initial fuel from mostly perfect victims, but it’s important not to let its momentum slacken as we explore more complicated abuses of power. Even when the abusers are women, and sometimes victims themselves, those messy realities have to be explored, and fiction is the safest place to do so.

Correction, July 10, 2019: Due to a production error, this photo caption originally misidentified Emma Thompson as Laila Robins.