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Finally, TV Gets a Few Difficult Women

After a television golden age of troubled male leads, two shows celebrate the female antihero

Lifetime/Starz/Ringer illustration
Lifetime/Starz/Ringer illustration

In the finale of The Girlfriend Experience, the 13-part collaboration between filmmakers Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz shepherded onto Starz by Steven Soderbergh, the protagonist puts on a show.

The episode doesn’t air live until the end of this month (the entire season is available to stream via Starz’s website), so I’ll leave out the details, but it depicts a single, sustained encounter between law student and escort Christine Reade (Riley Keough) and one of her clients. On its face, the encounter is a particularly extreme instance of role-play. As it progresses, however, we recognize the skills Christine has gradually acquired in her new profession. Her client hasn’t just purchased sex; he’s paid for the nebulous suite of additional services referenced in the title of the show. In return, Christine offers not just her body but a performance of personality, the exact contents of which change depending on the emotional needs of who’s paying for it. Some performances need more commitment than others.

Christine is a singular creation, but she’s not without a kindred spirit. The Lifetime drama Unreal, a candy-coated evisceration of the oxymoron that is reality television, contains literally dozens of such transactions per episode. The series follows Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby), a “producer” at a blatantly Bachelor-esque show called Everlasting. In truth, her responsibilities are some combination of actress, psychiatrist, and twisted social scientist. Tasked with quite literally creating drama, Rachel observes her charges until she figures out exactly what she has to say or do to elicit the response she’s looking for, whether it’s anger, neediness, or tears.

Comparing other professions to sex work is one of the more blunt and imprecise instruments in the rhetorical toolbox, but there’s an uncanny similarity in how Christine and Rachel go about their jobs. Both women are emotional mimics, acting out a feeling in order to get the genuine article, and the financial reward that comes with it, in return. It’s an incredibly difficult line to walk, requiring enough empathy to understand others’ needs and enough detachment to slip between registers as the situation demands. But each woman does it with ease, and with an ever-diminishing amount of remorse. In short, they’re both sociopaths.

It’s a shared characteristic that manifests itself in both Keough’s and Appleby’s performances, two of the best currently airing on TV. Christine and Rachel share a certain aloof, robotic affect, as if they’re reading from a script in their heads. Which they essentially are, a fact both actresses communicate without ever making their own acting, or their characters’ skill, any less convincing. There’s something off just enough for the viewer to pick up on, but not so much that their characters’ ability to get what they want rings hollow. It’s an authentic performance of an inauthentic performance, a balance that’s even harder to achieve on camera than it is on the page.

A television protagonist with a personality defect is hardly a new concept. For nearly 20 years, virtually every lead in every drama has been measured against the archetype of The Antihero: heedlessly cruel, frequently criminal, and up until now, unmistakably male. Many of the so-called Golden Age’s greatest hits were arguably about exposing masculinity itself as a kind of sociopathy, methodically stripping the glamour from one romantic figure — mob boss, rogue cop, Western outlaw — at a time.

There’s been speculation about the existence, even the possibility, of the female antihero before. Does Patty Hewes in Damages count? She’s mean! What about Carrie from Homeland? She’s erratic! Elizabeth Jennings on The Americans? She’s ruthless! Compelling as some of these characters are, however, they often feel like the gender equivalent of colorblind casting, well-meaning but unspecific. They’re variations on the same prototype, with a box checked F instead of M.

It’s a strategy with a built-in ceiling; the more Nurse Jackie acts like Dr. House, the longer she’ll live in his shadow. Though the mold for the female antihero has gotten more flexible with age — Elizabeth feels more original than Carrie, who feels more original than Patty — a decade of handwringing over Where the Golden Age Leaves Women has yielded mostly predictable results. (The great exception is comedy, whose proud tradition of female narcissism started with Carrie Bradshaw and continued in an uninterrupted line through the likes of Valerie Cherish, Selina Meyer, and Rebecca Bunch.) But dramas, where the bulk of prestige still stubbornly resides, have stayed largely static.

Which makes it all the more important that, on Unreal and The Girlfriend Experience, we have an explicitly feminine counterpart to the difficult man, rather than a female character who simply replicates his defining traits beat-for-beat. These women aren’t oblivious, or violent, or even aggressive. Instead, they channel their sociopathy through professions, and skill sets, traditionally relegated to women.

Chief among them is emotional labor: the idea that projecting a given emotional state is work, too. Coal mining is hard, but so, in its own way, is smiling your way through a 12-hour shift as a waitress. And overwhelmingly, though not exclusively, emotional labor tends to be part of the job description in professions dominated by women — waitresses may be the most obvious example, but nurses, teachers, realtors, and even housewives all do it, and they see their finances (or relationships) take a hit if they don’t.

Because emotional labor is such a feminized task, it’s not one we’re used to seeing in action, at least not from characters at television’s center rather than its margins. (Carmela Soprano had to play the happy homemaker through her periodic bouts of inner turmoil; Tony never did.) The great exception is Don Draper, who convincingly taught an entire generation to see advertising as the art of associating a product with a feeling. But it’s no coincidence that Don, of all the Golden Age leading men, has the greatest affinity with women, one that was always more than sexual or even romantic. Don understands women, through the same twisted form of empathy that makes him great at his job; he’s able to provide them with the same, fleeting sense of compassion his campaigns give the American consumer. He’s after a one-way sense of connection, because that’s how you keep them — the woman or the customer — coming back. Is it any wonder Don is so successful, or that his true successor is a woman who began her career performing the nonstop emotional labor demanded of a 1960s secretary?

Lifetime
Lifetime

The new model, on the other hand, takes an unrecognized obligation and fashions it into an underappreciated skill. At the beginning of The Girlfriend Experience, Christine is concerned enough about her disinterest in other people to ask her sister, played by Seimetz, if her selfishness is pathological. By the end, she’s pushed through her trepidation and turned it into a business advantage. The entire first season of Unreal saw Rachel tortured over the contradiction between her ideals and her singular talent. By the second, she’s both the literal and spiritual successor to the boss who once had to blackmail her into meeting her full potential.

These aren’t exactly aspirational figures. But Walter White wasn’t, either, or at least he wasn’t meant to be. What they are is intriguing, entertaining, and above all, terrifying. If the male antihero showed us the fundamental lie of masculinity, then the female sociopath shows us the hidden power, and potential threat, of femininity. Her abilities come directly from the knowledge she’s gained in her lived experience as a woman, trained to pick up on and respond to the needs of those around her. She’s taken a survival skill and turned it into a weapon.