Hi there! This post is about something I love doing while eating and even having in the background while I’m working: I am of course talking about watching TV shows!
I especially enjoy watching well-written TV shows and after a few years of watching no TV shows at all (and almost zero movies), I have rekindled my love for them with great shows such as Taboo, Legion, Mr. Robot and the Expanse. After having developed the concerning habit of watching TV shows while I work, I am in constant need of finding new and watchable (non-annoying) TV shows.
On my quest for finding new shows, I have noticed that any type of female lead character is always annoying or boring. This seemed strange to me because surely male and female actors are on the same skill level and I am not prejudiced (as far as I’m aware of) against women being boring/annoying in particular so what is going on here?
In the show, Hannibal, one of the protagonists (Hannibal, actually) says “I have shown you the negative so that you can see the positive” (paraphrased). It means learning about something by studying its opposite. To make the hidden become apparent. In respect to why female lead characters were always so hard to watch, the show Killing Eve was this opposite for me. Through this show, I have realized why most female lead characters are just so bad.
Killing Eve has two female lead characters and no male protagonists other than supporting characters. When I saw the trailer and poster, I was skeptical at first. I saw two women and was almost uninterested but since I had absolutely no other shows to watch…..I just went for it. And I am glad that I did!
1. Archetypes of Female Lead Characters
But before we get into Killing Eve, let us look at my conclusion as to why female leads usually suck:
I have identified two major archetypes that most female characters in TV fall under: The Dumb Girl and The Overpowered Woman. Let’s get into each one of them.
1.1 The Dumb Girl
This is the most prevalent archetype that I see again and again in movies and TV shows. The Dumb Girl is usually a female lead character who is at the center of some organization (office, police force, spies, freedom fighters, politics, …) but has no reason to be there other than being the female counterpart to an otherwise male-dominated space. Her presence is usually justified by some superficial reason but skill wise, she seems too unprofessional to be believable.
Here is why I have called her the Dumb Girl: She argues, complains, gets emotional, draws attention and often keeps the story from progressing because of her attention seeking behavior. She is also usually cast as reasonably attractive (in her mid-twenties) so that she is less annoying to watch but I do not think this reasoning makes the situation any better for the long term.
This archetype is extremely common and I rarely find its male counterpart in a TV show because guys are rather displayed as action seeking (story progressing) rather than attention seeking (halting the story). Interestingly, I often see The Dumb Girl (incompetent and dramatic) transition to The Bitter Woman (competent and cynical) after a few seasons (e.g. Hannibal, Mr. Robot, Black List, Dexter).
The Bitter Woman is by no means better than the Dumb Girl even though its a slight relief to see her complain less and be less annoying to watch. At this stage, she has usually stopped being emotional and starts to scheme and manipulate to get what she wants (a complete 180°). This transition is actually mirrored in some way from reality because some people who have been superficially idealistic do become more bitter (and less curious) when they get older but for a TV show its just lazy writing.
I think the idea behind The Dumb Girl is to make a woman seem less like a man and to portray unique female characteristics (a good idea actually). The problem is that, in practice, women are then portrayed as over-sensitive, vulnerable and unprofessional. Lazy writing, indeed.
One more character worth mentioning in this respect is Michael, the female lead in Star Trek: Discovery. In the beginning, the character is portrayed as tough, in control and emotionless which looked really promising at first but the more the show progressed, the more her character turns into The Dumb Girl by becoming illogical, emotional and always making a scene in each and every episode (plus she randomly hugs EVERYONE at some point). She starts seeking attention and to put herself into the middle of everything which is the complete opposite to the woman that was the cool and introspective prisoner in the first episodes….. the dumb girls strikes gain.
1.2 The Overpowered Woman
The overpowered woman is the second most common archetype for female lead characters. Once again, the girl is usually cast as relatively attractive (in her mid-twenties) but instead of being annoying and complaining, she has an unrealistic level of physical skills. She is usually good at fighting and kicks ass….. a lot. She knows martial arts and, in many ways, she is more manly than the men around her while still being attractive. She is usually written as a strong man with tits.
She drinks beer, she hits the heavy bag, she makes fun of the guys and she has few to zero emotional episodes. What I do not like about this stereotype is that its core feature (an overpowered woman) does not make the story more interesting. The show would have the same value with a male lead instead of a woman and in both cases, the value of the show depends on the story, not the gender. There is nothing female in The Overpowered Woman’s character except for her looks (and her looks will get boring fast).
There is a reason why MMA fighters do not have gender mixed divisions and why even having a slightly higher weight is seen as an advantage over the opponent. If I see a slim woman (with a woman’s bone structure, few muscles and low weight) knock out 5 trained soldiers then I stop watching. That’s just ridiculous. The same would go for men if the matchup is too unbelievable.
If you want her to be overpowered then you must give her something other than just fighting skills. She will need to have a personality that allows her to use methods that other people (men or women) are not able to use. To plan and use her skills in a smart way.
2. Killing Eve
And this is the perfect transition for Killing Eve. To begin, let me give a quick description of the two main characters – Eve and Villanelle.
Eve is an unattractive woman in her early forties who is working at the British Intelligence Agency, MI6. Her job is not very exciting and her day to day life is portrayed as you would expect for a boring office job. This description already stands in contrast to the archetypes presented above where the female leads whole personality is based on looks or an interesting environment.
There is nothing in this scenario that seems interesting so in order for the story to be enticing, Eve herself needs unique and interesting personality traits to move the story forward. In the case of the presented archetypes above, these characters had no unique personality traits and the story does always weight on the environment and other characters.
Eve is quirky. She seems like someone who just wants to keep a low profile and not rock the boat too much but she also has a fascination for death and assassins in particular. In her free time, she investigates unsolved murders and has created a profile for an unknown and prolific killer who she alone believes to be out there. What is of particular interest to her is that she believes the killer to be a woman which stands in stark contrast to her rather timid and unexciting personality.
This is a key part of her character and the story as a whole because she wonders what could lead a woman to pursue such an occupation especially compared to her own boring life. Eve seeks excitement. She views the female assassin as the most interesting thing that has ever happened to her and when she sees the opportunity to pursue her during her work, she comes out of her shell and finds a way.
Why this character works
There is something unique about Eve which makes her progression believable and instead of letting others carry the story, she carries the story herself. She has typically female quirks such as liking dresses, being moody, passive, agreeable but all these traits are necessary to further the story and do not halt the story as in the Dumb Girl archetype. It is much more believable to have someone her age in such an important position compared to a 23-year-old, therefore her looks are entirely irrelevant to the story.
Also, characters such as James Bond are usually in their forties while female versions of these characters are typically in their twenties which makes them highly unbelievable and shows a great disconnect in how female characters are written.
Villanelle is a Russian woman in her late twenties and she is attractive but nowhere near the usual pretty girl found in media. What makes her unique is (once again) a character trait: She is a psychopath and seems like a dangerous lunatic who has no issues killing people. At the same time, she is a fun and lighthearted woman who almost resembles a little girl in her excitement and mischief (a very female quality).
The reason she is so good at killing is not her physical power or strength but her disregard for human life which makes her kill people when they least expect it. She is not super slim which helps her character since she seems like she could at least have some hidden muscles to help her overpower men. Her whole personality is based on the charm and quirks of a small girl. She gets excited, is creative and easily bored which makes her character even scarier since it is impossible to reason with her or predict what she will do next.
Why the character works
Her youth and looks are irrelevant to the story. She has a unique character trait which furthers the story on its own and she does not rely on her environment to be interesting. Quite the opposite, actually: her environment is overwhelmingly boring to her. She does not overpower her (usually male) victims but kills them in surprising ways which make her an extremely believable female assassin. Except for one or two scenes, she never seems like someone who is stronger then taller men but is always using fear and cunning to kill. Her “little girl” personality brings out a lot of female quirks without halting or disrupting the story as happens for the Dumb Girl. Villanelles female traits even further the story.
3. Summary: Why Killing Eve provides the best portrait of female characters in a TV show or movie
Most TV shows use emotional episodes and complaining as an excuse to construct a well-written female lead character. In most TV shows, women are either men in a female body (Overpowered Women) or are just there to be looked at (the Dumb Girl). Killing Eve deliberately avoids both of these traps and has created characters who are unique in their personalities and do not rely on looks, moodiness or complaining to be recognized as female. Furthermore, Killing Eve found a way to portrait uniquely female traits which are fun to watch such as a woman acting like a little girl or a woman being calm and loving.
So, I hope you enjoyed this article and let me know in the comments if you liked Killing Eve!
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