Arts & Entertainment, Film and TV, Pop Rhetoric

It’s time to give complex women characters leading roles

In a recent interview with The New Yorker, acclaimed director Sofia Coppola argued that Apple TV+ executives slashed her latest project after finding the woman lead “unlikeable.” Known for her work on films such as The Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette, and most recently Priscilla, Coppola was set to partner with the streaming service to create a limited series based on Edith Wharton’s novel The Custom of the Country starring Florence Pugh. According to Coppola, “the idea of an unlikeable woman wasn’t [the Apple executives’] thing.” While complex women characters have been around for ages, the idea of them in a lead role is often critiqued much more than roles for men of similar “complex calibre.” Coppola herself even admits to the interviewers that, while her leading character is “unlikeable,” “so is Tony Soprano!” Her words highlight the misogynistic hypocrisy that is deeply embedded in the entertainment industry. 

In television, audiences often enjoy watching a character that is unlikeable or complex, especially as these individuals are generally easier to relate to than flawless characters.

While some of the highest-rated and most critically acclaimed shows ever feature an unlikeable lead, these characters are overwhelmingly men: Walter White of Breaking Bad, Tony Soprano of The Sopranos, and, more recently, Kendall and Roman Roy of Succession. Part of what I enjoy most about a show is watching a protagonist whom I know I should really hate but still find myself rooting for in the end. 

The cancellation of Coppola’s project reinvites debates over why complex women characters are so widely disliked in television, especially in comparison to their counterparts. In all three of the aforementioned shows, the woman lead is consistently disliked by audiences; Breaking Bad’s Skyler White is arguably one of the most hated female characters in television history. When looking back at the show, it’s hard for me to remember what I actually disliked about Skyler while watching. Did I grow to find her annoying because everyone who has seen the show constantly emphasizes their dislike of her, or did I dislike her too? With Skyler’s role being so well-written, why did viewers despise Skyler—and Gunn’s portrayal of Skyler—yet seem to love Walt? The obvious answer is internalized misogyny. While complex male characters like Walt are considered heroes, especially due to his justification of his actions by “providing for his family,” women complex characters who do the same thing—Skyler, trying to protect her family from Walt’s evil—are considered hypocrites. I’m sure if some people rewatched the show, they would hate Walt as much as one should—as many of his actions are despicable—and perhaps recognize Skyler as the voice of reason that she was meant to be. 

Unfortunately, these double standards are not exclusive to Breaking Bad. Perhaps almost as disliked as Skyler is Shiv Roy in Succession—the only daughter in the HBO family drama. Shiv is not as disliked as Skyler, but many view her as the worst sibling on the show. Many view her as unlikeable due to her conniving and almost “evil” nature, but it is important to view her actions as doing what is necessary to succeed as the only daughter in the family. 

Going back to Coppola’s show, the cancellation is disappointing not only because audiences are missing out on the potent combination of Coppola’s directorial talents and Pugh’s ability to play a diverse range of roles wide but also because there is a need for more complex women characters in leading and better-written roles. Maybe Apple TV+ didn’t want to take the risk, but some production company at some point in time will have to—TV needs to have a complex woman lead for viewers to resonate with. The trend of complex women characters being labelled “unlikeable” while their male counterparts are applauded needs to end. After all, how can viewers ever be expected to like one if they’re never given the chance?

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