TV’s White Women Antiheroes Are Promising — And Problematic
By Tallyn Owens
One of the single most significant failures of white feminism, both historically and today, is the inability of white woman to acknowledge that they are complicit in the marginalization of other people. They use their oppression by the patriarchy to justify prioritizing issues that are most pertinent to them in feminist organizing and discourse. Centuries of idolizing and prizing white womanhood as a mode of upholding white supremacy created varying levels of both narcissism and fragility among white women, which contributes to their inability to think of themselves as capable of harm.
In October, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protests “dumb” and “arrogant,” showing that even (and perhaps especially) the most intellectual, revered white feminists are prone to acting far less worthy of the high praise they receive.
As is often the case, this dynamic is also very much evident in the world of pop culture. Over the past few years, there has been a trend of “complicated” female protagonists populating the TV landscape. Aside from providing quality entertainment that’s comparatively more representative of the complex nature of the human condition, this trend can be positive because, with some introspection, it can allow white women to recognize that they are capable of doing harm and of being amoral in pursuit of their own desires. But it can also perpetuate problematic white feminism at the expense of intersectional feminism.
To be clear, many more marginalized groups, especially women of color, have been speaking for decades on white women’s capacity for harm. Ideally, all white women who call themselves feminists would listen to people more marginalized than themselves and work to rectify the harmful behavior we have engaged in for decades. Still, the portrayal of white women as antiheroes can enable much-needed progress toward opening their eyes to the structural violence they regularly reinforce with their actions.
There are a number of white woman protagonists currently on TV that fall into the category of “complicated” or “messy,” including Gretchen Culter (Aya Cash) on FX’s You’re The Worst, Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) on FX’s The Americans, and perhaps most infamously, Hannah Horvath on Lena Dunham’s HBO show Girls.
Two shows in particular, though, provide keen, fictionalized examples of the way in which white women prioritize themselves over the most marginalized people in their lives, all while using “feminism” as a defense mechanism: UnREAL and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
Only one of these shows (mostly) gets things right.
The protagonists of The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which was well-received by critics during its first season last year, and Lifetime’s UnREAL, which had a similarly received first season but struggled through a racially problematic season two this past summer, have both been explicitly called antiheroes by their creators and showrunners, which sets them apart in terms of artistic intent.
But while on UnREAL, viewers are asked to sympathize with oppressive behavior, on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, they’re asked to question and rebuke it.
On UnREAL, Rachel Goldberg, played admirably by Shiri Appleby, is an emotionally and financially unstable producer on a Bachelor-esque dating show called Everlasting. The central conflict of the show is between Rachel’s morals as a self-described feminist and the validation (financial and otherwise) that she receives from manipulating Everlasting’s contestants into situations that will provide maximum drama.
UnREAL’s first season was genuinely good, mostly subversive drama. Season two, on the other hand, was messy and fraught with problems. In it, the Everlasting team’s black suitor, Darius — who Rachel feels extremely self-satisfied about having gotten on the show in the first place — isn’t treated as a fully fleshed-out character. Instead, as Ira Madison III at MTV put it, he is used as “a prop for white characters to experience racism.”
This culminates in an episode in which Rachel “produces” a scenario, as they say on the show, that results in Darius’ cousin Romeo being shot by a police officer. UnREAL then chooses to focus almost exclusively on Rachel’s guilt, not even mentioning Romeo by name until the 40-minute mark of the following episode.
It was at this point, as a white woman watching the show, that I became completely incredulous that any white woman who watches the show — least of all UnREAL’s white showrunner who co-wrote the episode — could see this and not clearly see that the focus on Rachel was grossly misplaced.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, conversely, takes a different approach. The show, which is lighter in tone than UnREAL but comparably melodramatic, features our protagonist, Rebecca, quitting her job and moving cross-country in pursuit of her summer-camp ex-boyfriend. The show’s first season follows Rebecca as she adjusts to her new life and dives deep into her obsession with her ex, Josh.
While Rebecca is generally more sympathetic than Rachel, she is similarly antiheroic in that she is clearly egomaniacal. She is also oppressive; the entirety of her behavior toward Josh, who is Filipino, is abusive. She stalks him, lies to him, and goes so far as to file a class action lawsuit regarding hot water access in order to spend more time with him.
This behavior is obviously reprehensible on an interpersonal level, and the show would run the risk of validating similar behavior from white women everywhere — if not for its refreshingly unforgiving treatment of Rebecca. The show makes sure to present all of Rebecca’s failures and fuck-ups as unambiguously of her own creation, which is good for both the show and for solidifying white women’s capacity for interpersonal reinforcement of structural oppression.
My most consistent feeling while watching Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was frantic anticipation at what embarrassing misstep Rebecca would make next. This is important because white women often deflect blame from themselves, carelessly citing “the patriarchy” as the reason they are apparently incapable of any wrongdoing.
In spite of itself, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend works shockingly well, with ample discussion of mental illness and even more ample musical numbers. The prioritization of white women’s struggles plays into this as well, because as a society we’ve been conditioned to be generally more tolerant of manipulative, egomaniacal behavior from white women.
Zoé Samudzi, an academic and writer whose work focuses on social determinants of health, says that the reason it’s so difficult for white women, or any other singular strong marginalized identity, to accept that they’re capable of harm is because we tend to see victimization as single-faceted. “Specifically with cis hetero white women,” she says, “recognizing their complicity means recognizing their role in white supremacy, which includes fighting white men for more power within this violent structure that oppresses basically every other racialized group.”
When asked whether she thinks these kinds of portrayals will actually prompt white women to become more cognizant of their complicity, Samudzi says it depends on both the show and whether or not there are thoughtful, analytic deconstructions of a particular character, citing Marvel’s Jessica Jones as an example of the kind of thoughtful discussion that can facilitate a growing self-awareness among white women. From what I’ve seen, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend also fits into this camp.
So what accounts for the crucial differences between UnREAL and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend? One reason has to do with production.
The Darius storyline on UnREAL prompted people to critique the lack of diversity in its writers room. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s writing staff, on the other hand, is comprised of mostly women, including three women of color. And Filipino writer Rene Gube has been spotlighted for going to great lengths to ensure that the aspects of Filipino culture featured on the show are accurate and fair.
If these shows create the opportunity for white women watching them to become more aware of their own capacity for harm, and to listen to people of color when they tell us so, then the question is this: Are the people working on these shows listening to people of color during production as well?
Lead image of ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’: Facebook