The XX Factor

On Television, Faux-Crazy Ladies Trump Anti-Heroes

Claire Danes accepts a SAG award for her performance as Carrie in Homeland.

Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

In an intriguing piece in the New York Times, Heather Havrilesky argues that there’s a worrisome self-hatred in the portrayal of today’s television heroines. They’re somehow off, whether they suffer from mental illness on shows like Homeland and The Killing, or simply wacky, like the main character on The Mindy Project. “These aren’t just complicating characteristics like, say, Don Draper’s narcissism,” Havrilesky writes:

“The suggestion in all of these shows is that a female character’s flaws are inextricably linked to her strengths. Take away this pill problem or that personality disorder, and the exceptional qualities vanish as well. And this is not always viewed as a tragedy–when Carrie undergoes electroconvulsive therapy, we breathe a sigh of relief and draw closer. Look how restful it is for her, enjoying a nice sandwich and sleeping peacefully in her childhood bed.”

I agree with Havrilesky that the posing of a close relationship between female talent and mental illness, addiction, or general kookiness could be an irritating trend. But rather than just treating its characters as screwballs, many shows focusing on vibratingly intense women are actually slyly getting at a point Havrilesky herself makes in the piece: “Many so-called crazy women are just smart.”

Anti-hero dramas start with cool, intelligent, competent men. They draw us in and then show us the rot of Don Draper’s selfishness, the violent consequences of Walter White’s megalomania. At their best, they begin in agreement with our default assumptions about what successful masculinity looks like—confident, forceful, proactive—and over time convince us that these traits can cause an awful lot of damage.

Meanwhile, crazy-lady stories begin with some default assumptions about passionate women—that the Leslie Knopes, Amy Jellicoes, and Carrie Mathisons of the world take everything too seriously, that their passion is irritating rather than admirable, and that they’re out of touch about what is practical—and dismantle them. Parks and Recreation floundered when it presented Leslie Knope as a public-service obsessed flake, but the show took off creatively when it started to treat her enthusiasm for bettering her town as contagious. On Enlightened, Amy Jellicoe is New Agey, irresponsible, and awkwardly emotional, but she also turns out to be right that her giant corporate employer is criminal. Carrie Mathison’s mental illness may become an excuse to dismiss her ideas, but she’s ultimately vindicated and brought back into the Central Intelligence Agency. As these shows teach us how to watch them, they reveal that treating female enthusiasm as madness or silliness—something that happens all too often to visionary women in real life—is a terrible mistake.

After all, at the end of the day, I’d rather be a faux-crazy lady who makes a world a better place than a crazy man who just wants to force the greater Albuquerque area to acknowledge his genius by cooking a whole bunch of meth.*

Correction, March 12, 2013: This post originally misspelled Albuquerque.