(Editor's Note: Spoilers for t.v. shows Dexter, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead and Weeds)
Excuse me while I dive into a television rant. With the dramatic television series really taking off over the past decade, at least for the cable companies, we have gotten some truly amazing shows, and with them some damn fine leading male characters and actors. Unfortunately, it would seem their female counterparts are getting short-changed.
Of course I don't have time to watch every television show, but from the ones I do follow, that are currently still in production, I have noticed a theme: we often lash out at the women who defy our male protagonists. But here's the rub, those protagonists are alcoholic philanderers, drug dealers, and murderers. In a logical world, I'd say we're siding with the wrong people.
But let's step back and look at this from Rita's point of view. No doubt her past abuse left her with serious trust issues. She had two young children she had to protect. At one point, just as she began trusting Dexter, she suspected him of drug addiction, which he admitted to so she wouldn't find out his real addiction. Then they split up for a bit so he could be with another psychopath. Once they got back together, she ended up pregnant and with a shotgun wedding. So by the time Harrison was born, she was in full on bitch mode. However, she was at home with a newborn, plus two older children, all day while her new husband, with whom she'd had trust issues in the recent past, was at work all day and on a killing spree all night. As grating as she was to listen to, her past experiences shaped her just as much as Dexter's did, but the show wasn't named after her and we side with the far more layered serial killer.
Betty was raised as a rich daddy's girl, went on to modeling and ultimately (for awhile) landed Don Draper. But the fairytale soon ended as Don spent many nights away from his upper-middle class suburban family to "work late," which normally required boffing everyone from secretaries to clients to his daughter's grade school teacher. However, it's not all lack of writing and character development that make Betty an unsympathetic character: it's January Jones. Her acting skills are a bit stunted, especially when up against some of the show's other heavyweights. So while I should have been feeling sorry for Betty as she found out about her husband's whoring around and secret past life, I was too busy trying not to reach into my television to wipe the perpetual sneer off her face. After all, in the beginning, all Betty wanted was more attention from Don and not just his checkbook. Yet once again we felt sorry for morally corrupt Don and we did a happy dance that it was Betty's eventual affair that led to the dissolution of the Draper union at the end of Season 3. And her subsequent demise in her new marriage (to a very decent fellow) is just the icing on the cake.
Then Skyler had a change of heart. After finding out how close a drug lord was to murdering her entire family over Walt's dealings, she decided to become emotionally unstable, so her sister would take their children out of the home until Skyler and Walt could "work things out." When a furious Walt confronted her about her recent shenanigans, she freely admitted she's just waiting for the cancer to end him so they can all be safe again. At first I was appalled at the audacity of the ungrateful witch. But wait...Skyler's just doing what any sane, good mother would do. She's doing her best to protect her children while backed into a corner by her husband who's grown greedy for more. Sadly the way the writer's have presented her leaves the audience screaming for her blood.
Lori had an affair with Rick's best friend because she thought her husband was dead and because Shane helped save her and her son. Faced with such extreme circumstances, I believe it could easily happen. And when her husband returned, she promptly ended the affair. She understandably gets upset every time Rick wants to run off to save the day: after all, she thought she lost him once already, and in a zombie apocalypse, no where is safe. But once again we are faced with poor writing of a character. Lori is bossy, whiny and simply ungrateful for everything she still has. However, as a wife, I don't think she's being unfair. I more detest Lori for her atrocious parenting skills (who lets an 8-year-old run around unsupervised in a zombie apocalypse?) than how she acts toward her husband. And still she's the most hated of the show.
Now widowed three times over, Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) started out as an extremely sympathetic and lovable character, a recently widowed middle class suburban mom of two boys, who turned to dealing pot to other soccer moms to make ends meet. There were so many times in those first couple of seasons that I genuinely liked Nancy and felt bad for the crappy situations she'd fall into. But once she started getting romantically involved with a Mexican coke lord, putting herself and sons in danger beyond belief, her spunky outlook turned to pure narcissism and everything that followed screamed "Me Me Me!" Now I just keep watching the trainwreck to see how screwed up everyone, especially Nancy, will be by the finale, so I can smirk at their deserved demise.
Should it be this way, any of it? Can audiences, myself included, just step back and look at these women with anything but contempt. Not as long as the show runners keep churning out such petty, annoying, weak-willed partners to our flawed, but beloved male protagonists. As long as the male characters are still being written as layered sympathetic villains and the wives have the most annoying gender clichés thrust upon them, nothing will change, though it desperately needs to.