Made in Heaven, Fleabag, Girls: Why this decade's 'messy' heroine trope in television is a welcome change
Fleabag is that show, the one that takes all that’s seen by society as ‘messy’ and pumps it into one central character.
(The end of 2019 also marks the end of the decade, and so we bring to you a series of best films, TV shows and music, top moments and deep dives into trends from a momentous decade in the history of pop culture.)
“Do you have to find the evil in yourself in order to truly recognise it in the world?” muses Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), one of the lead characters on Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. On the surface, Piper is a smart, confident and level-headed entrepreneur, with a steady relationship and a suburban house — all the things that would have made her a positive role model for young girls everywhere. Except this show starts where that life ends, and one sees her giving in to her baser instincts as the show progresses.
OITNB is just one of the shows that, over the past decade, has presented women through a filterless lens, one that’s earthy and real.
Films and television shows have historically featured near ‘perfect’ leading ladies, the standards of which have been set by societal stereotypes of what constitutes good, moral behaviour. Over the decades, the scores of dutiful wives, sacrificing mothers and supportive girlfriends might have made some way for the independent and liberated woman, but it’s always been within the boundaries of what (mostly male) executives believed makes a character likeable. This manufactured portrait of a liberated woman is in itself problematic, because it’s thrown up a whole new set of clichés for our content creators.
In India, the cinematic shorthand for a liberated woman has been to make the character overtly aggressive, show her having sex outside of marriage and stick a cigarette in her hand — apparently, that’s all it takes. Vices, however, don’t even begin to describe a character, not even close. You could have a pot-smoking gambling addict with a heart of gold, right? Right. If it’s a man, that is. Our female characters do tend to get judged a tad more harshly.
Really getting under the skin of a female character, one that’s fully realised, warts and all, has been a challenge for our writers. Except it was successfully done earlier this year, with Tara Khanna (Sobhita Dhulipala) on Amazon Prime Video’s Made in Heaven. What made Tara’s character so interesting and so different from what we’re used to seeing on Indian television, is that the creators of this show don’t seemingly care whether you like her character or not.
Tara has her little vulnerabilities but they’re not endearing in the least, because the only thing that matters to her is furthering her own interests. She’s writing her own little masterpiece with deceit and manipulation being the core ingredients, and she’s the heroine of this story. Or an anti-heroine for those who need simpler explanations. It’s really for the viewer to decide — she just is who she is.
It’s a little, just a little, like watching Cersei Lannister (Lena Headley) on Game of Thrones. There are those who hated her on the show, but she’s got her legion of fans as well. Yes, she was in an incestuous relationship with her brother, killed her husband amongst countless others and ranks up there with the most scheming villains ever to have graced the small screen. But she had fans too — millions of them.
Indian writers might have arrived late to this party, but the 2010s have consistently thrown up characters that challenge the notion of ‘misbehaved’ women being vamps.
Shades of grey are all over leading characters like Claire Underwood (House of Cards), Daenerys Targaryen (Game of Thrones), Annalise Keating (How to Get Away With Murder), Emily Thorne (Revenge), Selina Meyer (Veep), Elizabeth Jennings (The Americans) and Cookie Lyon (Empire). Each one of these characters is central to their respective stories, and one could argue that they needed to be written the way they have been for these shows to work. It’s not really that different from the emergence of anti-hero led stories in the previous decade. The success of characters like Don Draper (Mad Men), Dexter and forever-gems like Walter White (Breaking Bad) is proof.
The one big emergence this decade, though, has been the rise of the unapologetic, take-me-as-I-am, flawed heroine whose life doesn’t necessarily need to be going anywhere. It’s the Fleabags, Hannah Horvaths (Girls), Nadia Vulvokovs (Russian Doll) and Piper Chapmans (Orange is the New Black) of the fictional world that are really rewriting the rules of television writing.
The often-used term, ‘anti-heroine’ doesn’t really do these female characters justice, because it sounds like something coined by a committee of old men in long, flowing beards — it stinks of rules. It implies there is a set of guidelines for what makes someone a heroine and what doesn’t. This isn’t the case, however, with ‘messy’ heroines, a term that comes with neither positive nor negative connotations to our post-millennial generations. This is an audience that’s more accepting of things that can’t be labelled, a concept that’s inherently ‘messy’ to everyone else.
If the success of these shows are anything to go by, they’ve found their takers, regardless of age, gender or geography. The only explicable reason for this huge shift is an audience that’s begun embracing ‘real’ characters over role models. In an age when global cinema is dominated by stories of superheroes saving the world, it’s a welcome change to settle down on one’s couch to watch people with ‘my kind of issues.’ Hell, you might even want to be BFFs with some of these women, because deep down, they all have bits that are just like you and I.
Fleabag is that show, the one that takes all that’s seen by society as ‘messy’ and pumps it into one central character. She’s self-centred, apathetic and hopelessly cynical. She’s strong, but only because she’s driven by self-preservation. She’s weak because she’s more often than not, a slave to her base desires. In other words, she’s not role model material and one isn’t supposed to like her. Yet, if the accolades and buzz about Fleabag is anything to go by, millions around the world did. When Phoebe Waller Bridge’s Fleabag says, “You know… either everyone feels like this a little bit, and they're just not talking about it, or I’m completely f**king alone,” you can’t help digging around the recesses of your mind to look for the countless times you felt the same way.
So, here’s to the Fleabags of the next ten years, and to us creating more Tara Khannas.
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