On the occasion of James Gandolfini’s memorial service in New York on Thursday, the Atlantic asks a question that’s popped up repeatedly in the pop culture conversation since antiheroes started to dominate prestige television: Where, Akash Nikolas wants to know, is the female Tony Soprano?
It’s an understandable query, particularly if you care about having more great female characters on television and more good roles, particularly for the middle-aged actresses who are so often wasted by the movies. But I wonder if we might be better off accepting that antiheroism is a specific way of exploring hypermasculinity and masculinity gone toxic. The tension of an antihero comes from an audience rooting for a character against our better judgment, and again and again, the things that have lured us in have been masculine-coded traits. We’re drawn to Tony Soprano’s pride, his sense of responsibility for his family and his friends, and his capacity for violence. Walter White’s initial grab for his dignity after years of meekness was exciting, until he convinced himself that his superior intelligence gave him the right to dominate his wife, poison a kid, and kill anyone who stood in his path. Don Draper’s dominant seducer persona made retro sexual politics look decidedly delicious. The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men have all been about testing the limits of our tolerance for those traits and examining the extent to which competence and cool convince us to turn a blind eye to these characters’ bad acts.
There really isn’t an equivalent framework available for women, who get penalized rather than rewarded for displaying masculine traits like aggression, physical force, ambition, or selfishness. Efforts to create female antiheroes with masculine qualities like Damages’ Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) have failed because those characters are initially seen as evil rather than admirable. And trying to make antiheroism work in a distinctly feminine way, by giving heroines characteristics like weakness, indecisiveness, or self-absorption, as has been the case with Girls, doesn’t quite land either. Shows with difficult female heroines have to travel in a different direction than shows about difficult men do, dismantling distaste for their female characters and building sympathy for them, rather than moving toward a moral revelation about how we’ve fooled ourselves by worshiping that man.
So instead of female antiheroism, maybe what we need is television storytelling that deals with our preconceived ideas about femininity in the same way that antihero dramas have served and challenged our understanding of what it means to be an American man. Rather than trying to fit women into a trope that serves men best, we’d be better off to build our own.