1. Skyler White, Breaking Bad
“I was unprepared for the vitriolic response she inspired,” wrote Anna Gunn in an eviscerating op-ed in The New York Times in August. Gunn, who played Skyler White on Breaking Bad for five seasons, used the reach of The Times to calmly ream practitioners of the internet sport of “hating” female television characters — and often the women who play them. This hatred, as we all know, takes many forms. Name-calling is primary, of course: The characters are sluts, whores, bitches, cunts. They’re ugly. They care only about money. They’re stupid. They nag. You know the words and phrases: It’s just like the way some people talk about women on the internet. And in life!
In the piece, Gunn expressed fear and alarm that hatred for Skyler had slipped into a wish to harm her, Anna Gunn. “The already harsh online comments became outright personal attacks,” she wrote. “One such post read: ‘Could somebody tell me where I can find Anna Gunn so I can kill her?’ Besides being frightened (and taking steps to ensure my safety), I was also astonished: how had disliking a character spiraled into homicidal rage at the actress playing her?”
How indeed. Imagine you are Anna Gunn, at the top of your profession, playing a complicated, difficult character like Skyler on one of the best shows ever to be on television and you have to deal with this shit.
Unfettered and anonymous message board threads (or, as Gunn pointed out, Facebook pages on which commenting is not anonymous) have rarely shown the best of humanity. But when you dive into their depths, it can get truly depressing. You might despair that people have forgotten that there are other ways of discussing things they dislike. That we’ve lost the ability to be critical without seeming unhinged…or just truly dumb.
There’s a lot to analyze and criticize on television (and in any pop culture we consume). And yes, sometimes those things are female characters and/or the actresses who play them. There are characters who don’t work: They are poorly drawn or don’t fit into the narrative. There are actresses who are miscast, or just aren’t talented. Once in awhile, an actress doesn’t look right for the part she plays, and that can be true too!
None of those things apply to Gunn and Skyler, by the way. Which is why the reflexive hatred of female leads on TV shows is often called “the Skyler White effect.”
In 2014, let’s demand a different way of talking about issues we may have with actually problematic characters. Watching television, consuming something in your home, is emotional: We feel love and hate, and we cry and laugh and, once in awhile, shout. It’s no wonder that people flock to social media to share the experience with strangers in real time, or dump their feelings onto a message board, blog, or Tumblr.
2. Dana Brody, Homeland
So let’s address the hardest one. The one that, since Season 1 of Homeland, has caused consternation. Because even when the show was good, Dana was — to me — an intrusion, even when the show’s narrative revolved around Brody’s difficulties in adjusting to his life at home after being tortured and brainwashed into being a terrorist. Back then, we viewers were meant to see their fraught relationship, and Dana’s prescient demands of him, as tethering Brody and calling him back to his non-terrorist, decent self. (Literally calling him in the Season 1 finale, and talking him out of his suicide bombing.)
Because she’s been so essential in the writers’ minds, it’s a real problem that Dana has never worked as a character. It is not 19-year-old actress Morgan Saylor’s fault; she has only improved as time has passed. No matter how many killer boyfriends the show has given her (two out of three in her short life), she still manages to pull off tough scenes with talented actors who are much older than she is and often dreadful material.
When a show does to a character/actress what Homeland has done to Dana/Saylor, it’s actually difficult not to think and express extreme thoughts. I have done it myself. I mean, why in god’s name is Dana still on the show, after all? What I kept thinking about the wonderful motel room scene between her and Brody (Damian Lewis) in a recent episode is how much more powerful it would have been if it had been the first time we saw Dana this season: if we saw the wreckage Brody had caused in his family at the same time he did.
But no, that’s not what’s happened this season on Homeland, which has devolved from Season 2’s frustrating murk into its current state of aimless, laughable nonsense. I mean, Saul wants to overthrow the Iranian government with two people and have the CIA control it. Every single character on the show is terrible.
Meaning, watchers of Homeland, we have bigger problems than Dana. Given that, let’s stop wishing violence upon her and mocking a teenager’s face!
3. Quinn Perkins, Scandal
Another tough one. Scandal hasn’t really known what to do with Quinn since it cleared up the mystery of her importance in the show’s arc in the first half of Season 2. After that, Scandal’s creator Shonda Rhimes has used Quinn to advance some interesting, disturbing ideas about violence-as-addiction, with Quinn (Katie Lowes) and Huck (Guillermo Díaz) mirroring each other. Quinn’s part in that hasn’t been successful for me, but I see what Rhimes is doing.
From what I gather, though, a lot of fans have grown to hate her. And therefore, in the Dec. 5 episode, when Huck tortured Quinn for betraying Olivia, Quinn haters had some things to cheer.
I mean, they literally cheered.
This fan’s use of “ass” is interesting, considering the explicit sexual element in the scenes. (Huck licked her face.)
It’s troubling to me.
We could watch Huck torture Quinn ALL DAY LONG. #Scandal.http://t.co/6kXusVS8a3
4. Megan Draper, Mad Men
This viral Reddit thread that posed the question of whether Megan was going to be murdered during Mad Men’s sixth season must have been gratifying to haters. In her Times piece, Anna Gunn mentioned January Jones’ Betty as a victim of the same syndrome as Skyler. “It’s notable,” Gunn wrote, “that viewers have expressed similar feelings about other complex TV wives — Carmela Soprano of The Sopranos, Betty Draper of Mad Men. Male characters don’t seem to inspire this kind of public venting and vitriol.”
Gunn is right, of course, but at this point in Mad Men’s journey, Megan has replaced Betty in every way. That includes being the primary object of dislike among those who seem not to want Don to be married to anyone.
Even as Betty pointed out during her and Don’s Season 6 one-night stand: “That poor girl,” she said. “She doesn’t know that loving you is the worst way to get to you.”
It’s also pretty awful that if you try to Google Jessica Paré, “teeth” is the first suggestion.
Et tu, Google.
5. Betty Francis, Mad Men
Though “Fat Betty” ended up melting away during Season 6, the transformation wasn’t immediate. She also briefly dyed her hair dark. There was plenty of time, therefore, to talk about Fat Betty on the internet.
I’ve pretty much given up expending energy defending Betty (not as a person, as a character) and January Jones (who I think is perfect in this role). But I will just say this bit: In Peggy and Joan and even in Megan, Mad Men has a number of atypically professionally successful women for its 1960s setting. That’s not a criticism of the show, which revolves around a business. But there were a whole lot of Bettys back then who had been thwarted their entire lives, and funneled into bad marriages and parenting situations they were not emotionally suited for. Yes, Betty is a terrible mother! It’s tragic. Let’s celebrate that Mad Men has brought us this intricate, sad archetype to discuss.
6. Jasmine Trussell, Parenthood
In my anecdotal, very unscientific experience, pretty much everyone who loves Parenthood — and every viewer of Parenthood loves it — considers Jasmine (Joy Bryant) to be their least favorite character. I used to feel that way myself. But when Jasmine and Crosby (Dax Shepard) got married, and the two of them continued to be locked into a dynamic of her reigning him in and making him less fun, I started to get uncomfortable with my dislike. When are we supposed to think Jasmine sucks, exactly? When Crosby isn’t being helpful with their newborn baby? When Jasmine’s mother needs their help financially and moves in for a bit? When Crosby lies about crying when he voted for Barack Obama and it’s later revealed he never has voted in his life? Why would I root for some Peter Pan man-child I would — and do! — despise in real life?
(I find their relationship to be quite realistic, actually. Those man-children do like their scolds.)
Also, Bryant’s Jasmine is the only adult of color on the super white Parenthood. I love the show, and it makes me weep on the regular. But let’s face it: Her characterization is a little tone-deaf, if not sinister.
Like, here’s a typical message board comment:
7. Juliette Silverton, Grimm
Grimm tends to make interesting choices, and one of those is that the lead character, Nick (David Giuntoli), started the show with Juliette, his serious, live-in girlfriend. And that is how it still is three seasons into it. Nick dating is not a factor on Grimm. (They have, of course, have had some issues.) She’s a veterinarian, she had trouble putting up with Nick’s double-life as a Grimm, and then they worked through it. I like her!
I would blame hardcore genre fans for the hate thrown Juliette and Bitsie Tulloch’s way (as the Tumblr user who created the above image does), but as the rest of this list reveals, armchair misogyny has no boundaries.
And how awful are Google’s suggestions for those searching for information about Bitsie Tulloch?
Like, I just don’t even know what to say about it. During the second season of Grimm, I asked the show’s publicists if Tulloch would talk with me about her experience with fan hatred. She declined, which is understandable, but disappointing. I imagined she would have a lot of interesting things to say on the subject because she always seems smart in interviews, and actually graduated from Harvard.
Notice that “bitsie tulloch harvard” is not among the Google suggestions. Sigh!
8. Sansa Stark, Game of Thrones
I don’t think there’s a more obsessive fanbase for a current television show than for Game of Thrones. The George R.R. Martin books have built a rich world that’s now playing out on the HBO drama. Sansa, who begins both the book and TV series as a frivolous girly girl, but deepens as the story goes on, is a divisive character.
I don’t get the anti-Sansa contingent myself. But no one is better at defending her than her portrayer, Sophie Turner, so here’s what she had to say when I asked his question in an interview with her (and Maisie Williams and Isaac Hempstead Wright, her on-screen siblings and real-life friends).
“Obviously, people don’t have the experiences that she goes through. But I can relate to her, definitely, because I was thrust into an acting world where I had no idea — I mean, it can be difficult at times. It’s a challenge. In a good way. But Sansa has difficulties and challenges in a bad way. She has the right intentions. And she’s so much in grief about her father’s death. She wants to be so much like her father was, but she knows that she can’t be, because that’s not what’s going to help her survive. That’s the heartbreaking thing about it; she wants to keep all these Stark traits, but in order to survive, she has to let them go.”
“The thing is, when people started to hate her was when she was confronted by the queen and the king, and they had Joffrey there, and she had to make a decision between her family and her future. She took a middle part and didn’t upset either of them. That resulted in Sansa having to sacrifice something that she loved. But people didn’t understand that. That frustrated me.”
9. Andrea, The Walking Dead
This Imgur GIF is called “Andrea from The Walking Dead is the Tara of True Blood. Confession: I’m incredibly behind on The Walking Dead. But that didn’t stop the anti-Andrea venom from reaching my ears. Perhaps when I get further along, I will hate Andrea too.
If I do hate Andrea, I hope I express it differently from this GIF, which is called “What I think Andrea has turned into on The Walking Dead.”
And this one, too, which was named “My reaction when Andrea from The Walking Dead died.”
When Andrea was killed off in the Season 3 finale in March, TVLine’s Michael Ausiello did a really good interview with Laurie Holden, the actress who played her. They went through all of the questions about fan dislike of the character. Civilly!
10. Debra Morgan, Dexter
In a way, Deb’s trajectory among Dexter fans reflects the show’s larger arc: What once seemed so fresh and intriguing became ridiculous and maddening.
Deb (Jennifer Carpenter) began as a fun and brave heroine you could root for, and a coltish counterpoint to Dexter’s darkness and amorality. That was in 2006. By the final season this year (and for a few seasons before that), Deb was an irritating, nonsensical dupe whose existence within the story underscored the glaring fact that the show’s compass had broken: Its plot had ceased to make sense, and all of its characters had become jokes.
Not every meme was unsympathetic to poor Deb’s sad decline. Like this one.
11. April Kepner, Grey’s Anatomy
Speaking of derp faces, there is a lot of anger toward April Kepner out there. Frankly, I don’t like her much either (which I have admitted in writing). Mostly, I feel that a little Kepner (Sarah Drew) goes a long away, and that my beloved, still excellent Grey’s Anatomy sometimes feels like it’s the April show.
Though she’s not my favorite, I don’t choose to mock her face or voice. And I’m glad that there are viewers who feel this way.
12. Laurel Lance, Arrow
Until I started researching this post, I didn’t realize the depths of hatred for Laurel (and for Katie Cassidy). It shouldn’t have been surprising. As my friend Alan Sepinwall wrote recently in a positive appraisal of Arrow for Hitfix, “The writers seem to constantly be struggling with what to do with Oliver’s ex-girlfriend, attorney Laurel Lance.” It’s true, they do, and there are sane ways to express that struggle. Especially when Laurel does seem to be key to the show’s larger mythology.
See also this recent Reddit thread, “Where did the writers go wrong with Dinah ‘Laurel’ Lance?” The viewers intelligently discussed Arrow’s Laurel problem: that the show now has a stronger and more appealing foil for Oliver (Stephen Amell) in Felicity; that Laurel is showing few signs that she’s heading in a superhero direction herself; and that, as one poster put it, “she only exists to either ruin Ollie’s day, tell him she loves him, or need to be rescued by him.” It was a breath of fresh air to read, especially on Reddit.
Because most Laurel haters seem to fixate on Cassidy’s looks. In particular, on the question of whether she’s gotten plastic surgery.
Also, a side note: The fact that “feet” is usually in the top 5 Google searches for any actress (see the Bitsie Tulloch entry as well) should make us as a species consider lying down right where we are until we all turn to dust.
13. Norrie Calvert-Hill, Under the Dome
Mackenzie Lintz, who plays Norrie, is 17 years old as of last month.
14. Emma Hill, The Following
Season 1 of The Following was so upsetting and misanthropic to me that it’s hard to know where to focus a critique of it. But the show’s thoughtless — like, seemingly without thought — violence, and mixture of sex and violence, is probably its most problematic area. (The Following, which will return in January, was a big hit for Fox, mind you.)
The Emma character (Valorie Curry) — a lost young sociopath in Joe Carroll’s (James Purefoy) cult who kidnapped his son and did a million other awful things — was at the crux of the show. She scared me, so in that, I guess, she was effective. But as with so many things on The Following, I found her to be an empty vessel filled with cheap creepiness. That she survived the season does not bode well for its future, as far as I’m concerned.
But I wouldn’t have put my dislike like this person on Reddit did. “I hate her and i want someone to kill her and i want her to suffer.” (There was more horrendousness to that comment, but I cut it off.)
15. Emily Thorne/Amanda Clarke/”Fauxmanda,” Revenge
Revenge became a complete mess in its second season, but Fauxmanda (Margarita Levieva) made her first appearance in Season 1 as the girl with whom the real Amanda (Emily VanCamp) switched identities while in juvenile detention. For Fauxmanda’s entire run, the show’s writers couldn’t figure out whether she really loved Amanda (now Emily), and would never betray her, or whether she presented a threat to Emily’s revenge plots. Their relationship was confusing. So confusing that there were even Amanda/Emily ‘shippers occupying a sad little corner of the internet.
Fauxmanda ended up dead, a victim of the meandering Revenge plot. Which is fine; it happens.
But headlines such as TV.com’s “The B*tch Had It Coming” are emblematic of misplaced blame. It wasn’t Fauxmanda’s fault, internet!
16. Hannah Horvath, Girls
When first making this list, I didn’t include Hannah initially. Girls, after all, chums these waters. In many ways, provoking outrage — both within the HBO show’s fictional world and from the audience — is what it does. And Lena Dunham addresses these questions herself on Twitter regularly; also, she’s doing just fine.
But the reaction to the February episode “One Man’s Trash,” in which Hannah had a brief fling with Joshua, played by Patrick Wilson, was too insane not to mention. Jezebel summarized it perfectly at the time: Basically, because of the actors’/characters’ perceived looks disparities, the affair was either a Hannah fantasy or Dunham’s.
Never mind that Wilson’s real-life wife Dagmara Dominczyk did her part on Twitter to shut people up. And that Wilson told Vulture months later that the reaction was “was really strange and invasive and weird.”
The most important thing I gleaned from the reaction to Hannah — and every example on this list — is that while it’s revolutionary how we’re engaging with television on social media, it’s too easy to forget why we’re watching in the first place. A character like Hannah (or Skyler or Megan or Sansa) can be complicated and unlikable and even a bad person. A show can also go down a bad road, as Homeland and Revenge have, and leave its characters in irredeemable places.
It’s hard to distill emotional reactions on the internet, the land of superlatives, without sounding like a jerk sometimes. I’m well aware. Yet I’m sure that most of us want brave, intelligent television that tries new things — and sometimes fails.
So here’s to more attempts at well-rounded, provocative female TV characters in 2014. Here’s to more failed tries too. And here’s to Anna Gunn’s call-to-action not to ignore the “dark and murky corners” where the worst of humanity cannot shed the most loathsome and tired ideas about women, even fictional ones.
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