New from Jeff York on The Establishing Shot: THE STARTLING ERA OF THE FEMALE ANTIHERO

Original caricature by Jeff York of Carla Gugino in the TV series JETT. (copyright 2019)
There is a moment in the fourth episode of the new Cinemax series JETT, where the title character, a thief played by Carla Gugino, commits a mercy killing of a crime boss while robbing him. He’s an evil old coot, one who tried to have her killed, and he wakes while Jett is cleaning out his bedroom safe. Stuck paralyzed from the neck down due to an enemy’s bullet, he gruffly asks Jett to put him out of his misery. With barely a second’s hesitation, Jett calmly and efficiently suffocates him with one of his bed’s pillows. While doing so, her facial expression is so blasé; it’s startling. 

Female title characters in television series have come a long, long way from the lovable leads in the likes of MAUDE, LAVERNE & SHIRLEY, and even those scandalous DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES. It’s a new era of antiheroes in Hollywood, as more and more films and shows offer actresses the chance to play characters as cold as ice, just like Jett. Such roles used to be consigned to the villain column, but now, they’re fronting more and more franchises as the ‘heroes.’ They’re unapologetic scoundrels, reflecting a more morally compromised and complex world, with audiences clamoring for them more and more.
Antiheroes, the male kind, are nothing new on either the big or small screen. The list is lengthy, including characters like John Wick killing hundreds at the AMC Cineplex, and Walter White breaking bad on AMC television. But now, women are joining in the skullduggery, and these new films and shows cheer on their character’s often vicious amorality. Perhaps it’s a sign of the growing influence of tables getting turned via the #MeToo movement, but the female characters at the center of such fare are more often than not wholly righteous in their indignation and actions, even if it includes murder or breaking the law. They’re not asking for permission any longer to join in the fray, and it makes for fascinating new female characters to follow, as far from the cliched girlfriend and wife roles as you can possibly get. 
The phenomenon likely started with Stieg Larsson’s 2005 bestseller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, not to mention the subsequent international film hits his books inspired. The story of Lisbeth Salander, a computer hacker who helped journalist Mikael Blomkvist solve a missing person case and a series of serial killings, presented an unconventional heroine, to say the least. She was unlike any the world had seen before. Salander was a small framed twentysomething, tattooed and pierced, prone to wearing a scowl on her face along with her extreme antisocial disposition. 

Original caricature of Rooney Mara in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. (copyright 2011)
The punkish lawbreaker displayed a penchant towards violence too, not to mention a coarse tongue that could be bluntly sexual or cut a man down to size with an easy insult. Salander was so outrageous and bold a creation that she challenged most norms of storytelling. Gone was a warm, kind, and lovable female sidekick, replaced by someone who was practically a Manson girl. Yet, audiences loved her nonetheless. Her badass ways were what made her so fun. Soon, other antiheroic female characters would start popping up everywhere with their writers and filmmakers feeling little if any need to soften them.
In the 2009 Swedish-made adaptations of Stieg’s Salander triptych, actress Noomi Rapace rendered Salander as an almost feral animal, black of eyes and soul. For the American remake of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO in 2011, Rooney Mara played her slightly more likable, mostly due to her using her big expressive blue eyes to suggest Salander’s haunted past. The recent reboot, with Claire Foy taking over the role, attempted to make Salander even more vulnerable by a plot that asked her to play ‘stand-in mother’ for a lost child, but audiences rejected this softening and the film bombed. Audiences wanted Salander pitch black. 
Moviegoers have loved female antiheroes for decades, that’s nothing new, but never as dark as they are being served up  Sure, antiheroes like Scarlett O’Hara, Thelma, Louise, and Beatrice Kiddoe are iconic, but today, more and more filmmakers feel less inclined to burnish down the sharp edges as they once did with such characters. 

One way that the movies have enabled female toughness in storytelling is through the vocation of government assassin. Such occupations can refrain from typical morality and societal constraints, and that’s why there’s been such a proliferation of such films, be it ATOMIC BLONDE in 2017 or this year with ANNA. Luc Besson wrote and directed ANNA, a film not far from his LA FEMME NIKITA back in 1990. It felt overly familiar, what with Sasha Luss playing a Russian government assassin in the ’80s and we’ve all seen that kind of story told too many times by now. My God, even the teenage Saoirse Ronan did it in HANNA back in 2011. 

More interesting is how the thieving character of JETT is not an assassin, but one who acts violently to enable her to steal with efficacy. Gone too, for the most part, are any of the gooey, warm middles that evened out such previous badass characterizations. Jett is hard, bitter, and no-nonsense. She steals and hurts and kills as casually as most people breathe. In one scene, Jett mauls and humiliates a hapless office worker to get a file with such brazenness; it borders on cruelty. And in one flashback in the show, Jett is in prison where she defends a prisoner against three gang-bangers. She beats them down in the shower, even cutting the throat of the leader. The wound isn’t deep enough to kill her, mind you, just enough to let the perp know who’s boss. Jett even instructs the bleeding woman on how to stem the flow on her way to the infirmary. That’s about as warm as this antihero gets.  
Even male antiheroes dominating the TV screen for the past decades, such as Tony Soprano and Dexter Morgan, showed far more vulnerability in their series than Jett has so far. Granted, Gugino is such a terrific talent that she manages to infuse flickers of humanity into Jett, especially when mothering her child, but by and large, she has chosen to play the character almost as cold and calculating as THE TERMINATOR. Only Jett doesn’t need to scroll through her brain’s Rolodex to find a fitting insult; her “fuck off” answers comes naturally.
Such a cold character appeared in the first season of KILLING EVE with Villanelle, the international assassin (again, with the assassin vocation!) As played by the marvelously droll Jodi Comer, this menace to society made for an enchanting villain, even though she was a psychopath. Indeed, Eve (Sandra Oh), the British intelligence investigator hunting Villanelle for her crimes, was enthralled. Eve grew to not only appreciate her prey but to envy her, even desiring to emulate her devil-may-care approach to life. 

As the series went on, Eve started to break more and more rules, blurring the line between the hero and the villain in the show. Eve lied continually to her superiors, as well as her husband,  and she even let Villanelle go when she had her pinned down on numerous occasions. As the two characters formed an ersatz mutual admiration society, their roles blurred even further. Eve became the yin in Villanelle’s yang and vice versa. After two seasons, with a third on the way, it’s getting harder to gauge who’s the most morally compromised of the two. No matter, they’re both antiheroes now, and the show is all the more compelling for it.

Original caricature by Jeff York of Zendaya in EUPHORIA. (copyright 2019)
KILLING EVE may have even paved the way for more antihero duo’s playing cat and mouse with each other on the small screen. Netflix had a big hit this spring with their TV-movie THE PERFECTION as it showcased two women just as cutthroat as Eve and Villanelle. In the 90-minute thriller, two classically trained musicians (Allison Williams and Logan Browning) fight each other on several fronts, from the orchestra hall to the bedroom. Their competition starts as a sexy, elegant Hitchcockian tale, but quickly morphs into a body-mutilation horror tale, followed by a revenge fantasy, before ultimately becoming a screed against the patriarchal society and all its sins. 

Throughout THE PERFECTION, the women are cruel, even savage, and their actions lead to a total takedown of the male miscreants around them. Up until the multitude of surprises in the final 10 minutes, audiences may not have been sure of just whom to root for during it all. But make no mistake, it was a daring and compelling narrative, made all the more enthralling by its two leads being so horrid and challenging to cheer on.  
Perhaps the most complex and nuanced version of an antiheroine fronting a show or film these days is on HBO’s teen melodrama EUPHORIA. In it, Zendaya plays Rue, a teen with more baggage than a Samsonite showroom. She’s a drug addict, wholly cynical, a habitual liar, one whose moral compass seems to be without a dial. Rue all but sleepwalk through the first few episodes of the series, in a drugged haze, doing all she could to find her next hit. 

Naturally, such a negative portrayal of a teenager, particularly a young woman, has caused all sorts of controversy, but it’s a stunning movement in the evolution of what kind of character can front a series. Granted, the show’s proclivity to show male nudity, as well as the casualness of its coarse language, can easily be seen as the culprit in getting under the skin of the Twittersphere. But is the real controversy more in the casting of a former Disney heroine as a user of heroin? The show also blames parents for bad examples being set, so it’s no wonder that various religious groups are furious. 
Sure to stick in the Christian craw is the fact that one of the most morally inclined characters in the series is Fezco (Angus Cloud), the young drug dealer who helped Rue become addicted to drugs. He’s consumed with guilt over his part in helping coax out her bad habits, as well as the overdose that almost killed her. By the show’s middle episodes, Fez has cut Rue off and left her at a crossroads. Will her character return to her dark ways, with or without him?  It’s interesting to think that in the new world of female anti-heroes, saving herself may be enough to make her heroic. 
With characters like Jett and Rue, shows are pushing the envelope by focusing on such tremendously flawed, even remorseless, characters. Even so, audiences are becoming more and more accepting of such figures, due in part to shifting morality, and burgeoning amorality being played out in the real world daily. Indeed, when villainous world leaders get coddled like allies, and laws and congressional duties are ignored due to cowardice, why shouldn’t the entertainment world reflect such marred morality? We live in an increasingly unprincipled time, and we should expect filmmakers to reflect it in all characters, including those that are female. 

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