Shapely limbs swollen and wavering under water, lipstick wiped off a pale mouth with a yellow sponge, blonde bangs caught in the zipper of a body bag: Kristy Guevara-Flanagan’s 2016 short film What Happened to Her collects images of dead women in a 15-minute montage culled mostly from crime-based television dramas. Throughout, men stand murmuring over beautiful young white corpses. “You ever see something like this?” a voice drawls.
Conventional female beauty on crime shows has usually been treated more or less like this—even when a woman doesn’t end up dead, she’s a plot point that serves a man with a motivation. But these days, a lot of beautiful women on television are getting angry instead of getting killed. Anger is no longer an exclusively male emotion or a flaw for a female character to overcome before finding her happy ending with a handsome man. Several recent series are proving that a woman’s anger can be her own plot point, a source of strength, a galvanizing force.
Shows starring angry heroines range from arty to commercial, realistic to fantastical, and they’re set in the past, present and future. And they’re garnering ratings, reviews and awards—HBO’s Big Little Lies and Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale took every major drama trophy offered at last year’s Emmys except best lead and supporting actor. Add in Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, starring another angry woman, and the three shows dominated the Golden Globes too. The list goes on: Alias Grace, Jessica Jones, Insecure, Top of the Lake, The Crown.
Historically speaking, women on-screen chose between anger and conventional physical beauty, and anger made beautiful women crazy. Consider the snappy Carla from Cheers or the intimidating Dr. Miranda Bailey on early Grey’s Anatomy, as opposed to the statuesque women of Melrose Place, acting on their fury in lusciously insane ways. Columbia University film professor Hilary Brougher points out that MASH’s Major Margaret Houlihan became “pretty” within the show only in later seasons, when her anger was no longer a plot point.
“We’re beginning to see angry women in a range of modalities—angry TV heroines can be strategic, passive-aggressive, revolutionary or compassionate,” says Brougher. “And while they may have male allies, they’re no longer dependent on men to be effective.”
The thing about angry women is they’re just talking about it: ‘This is what was done to me.’
These days, injustice—often linked to the tangled ramifications of a heroine’s beauty—gives women license to take all sorts of juicy actions that are far more interesting than killing. On Marvel’s Jessica Jones, it’s fury at being raped and manipulated by the evil Kilgrave that spurs the protagonist to become the righteously bitchy superhero she’s meant to be. When her husband dumps her for his secretary, Midge Maisel on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel—a woman who spent four years waking up before her husband to put her face on—funnels her rage into a coarse and hilarious act as she pursues a career in stand-up comedy, a double no-no for a 1950s mother of two. On the Netflix/Canadian Broadcasting Corporation series Alias Grace, the titular character may or may not have helped kill her male employer, but the show’s true pull is how the 19th century domestic servant twists and revises tales of daily abasement and violence for the psychiatrist who hopes to understand and possibly exonerate her. We see the anger shimmering beneath her placid expression, her milky skin and blue eyes. If she did commit the crime, would we blame her?
“I didn’t think of anger as a motivating force, probably because I think women are always angry women,” says Alias Grace director Mary Harron, whose previous films include American Psycho and I Shot Andy Warhol. “It’s a normal response to circumstances.”
It’s that very normalcy that makes the current surge of angry women on television so remarkable. Even when anger is not the point of a plot or a character’s central trait, even when realism is cut by fantasy, on-screen women face situations that the average female viewer will recognize immediately. On Insecure high-powered attorney Molly discovers that her white male colleague makes a whole lot more money than she does. Big Little Lies, last year’s most visible conflagration of entirely normal female anger, cuts between the competitive moms of Monterey, California. Reese Witherspoon’s Madeline seems to live in a highlighter-bright shimmer of barbed quips lit by her frustration and uncertainty. Laura Dern’s fierce Renata Klein, the doyenne of the working moms, throws her phone into the pool when cracks appear in her finely cultivated all-ness. Shailene Woodley’s Jane runs hard and fast, flashing back to scenes of her rape and packing a gun in her purse to meet with a man who might be the perpetrator. Their anger is nuanced, caused by a range of situations, and on-screen they struggle to tame it into something else: self-defense, loyalty, grudges, power, career.
The shift in representation aligns with the increasing number of women behind cameras in Hollywood. Harron points out that the executives who greenlit Alias Grace at both Netflix and the CBC were women. Witherspoon, Dern and co-star Nicole Kidman all recently launched production companies. Last year marked the first time three women were nominated for a best director Emmy—one of whom, Reed Morano, won for The Handmaid’s Tale.
And if these shows conjured a zeitgeist throughout 2017, now, in the post–Harvey Weinstein moment, they look not only cathartic but prophetic. Anger, when expressed by such a range of female characters, amplifies the point that reacting to injustice doesn’t make a woman crazy, no matter what she looks like. On-screen, as in life, anger is a powerful energy that can begin the change by which one moves through the world as agent rather than victim.
Their lessons spiral outside the TV universe in strange and interesting ways. The second season of Jessica Jones will be helmed exclusively by female directors, and women—black women in particular—have reported negotiating pay raises after watching Molly do so on Insecure. The cycle continues: women in positions of power putting complex female characters on-screen, encouraging more women to claim more power.
The lesson, pertinent to men and women, is that the way toward change is through and not over anger. But there’s more to it than that.
“The thing about angry women is they’re just talking about it,” says Harron of the current moment in Hollywood. “Are they talking about it in extraordinary ways? No. They’re just talking about it. ‘This is what was done to me.’ People think, Oh, it’s women with pitchforks. No, they’re just saying, ‘This happened.’ ”
Sometimes what’s labeled as anger, when it comes from the fairer sex, isn’t anger at all; it’s just women asking to be heard, asking to narrate their own stories, to shift What Happened to Her to “what happened to me.”