The Emmys Are Finally Acknowledging the Power of Unlikable Women
The Emmy nominations have arrived, and there’s not a nice girl among them.
This year, the list is dominated by women who portray characters that are deeply flawed, self-serving, and downright unlikable. And it’s thrilling. The nominees reflect a shifting TV landscape, one that's become more three-dimensional. Some of their characters even possess a quality that’s directly at odds with Hollywood’s concept of womanhood: they’re cold.
Take Keri Russell, nominated for Lead Actress in a Drama Series for her performance as Russian spy Elizabeth Jennings on The Americans, a role that’s remarkably complex and nuanced, much like women in the real world. On the final season of The Americans, which concluded earlier this summer, Russell’s character holds a hard line as a Cold War KGB operative who kills without second thought and is willing to lie repeatedly—to her own daughter—to save face. She was one of the least maternal mothers on TV this year, and yet viewers were left with a tangible sense of empathy for her.
Westworld has done the same with Evan Rachel Wood, who plays a humanoid robot on a ruthless murder streak, and is nominated alongside Russell. In the show’s second season, which recently aired its mind-bending finale, Dolores becomes the fulcrum of the narrative—but only once it’s revealed that the charming leading lady’s blonde hair, sweet smile, and baby blue dress concealed much darker motivations. Thandie Newton, nominated for her role as Maeve on the series, presents us with an even more complex profile; Maeve is only partially driven by human emotions, and is willing to do anything necessary in the name of revenge.
These women stand in stark contrast to the kind-hearted heroines that have dominated Emmy nominations in recent history. In the 2000s, Sarah Jessica Parker was nominated six times for Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw. So was Allison Janney, for The West Wing’s C.J. Cregg. Many characters that earned trophies were complex, well-rounded portrayals of women but even at their most flawed and unsympathetic, they were still, above all, motivated by love and fiercely protective of their inner circles. But yesterday’s nominees were celebrated for their dynamic representations of women who are selfish, cruel, and deeply imperfect—qualities that, by Hollywood tradition, are considered paradoxical with femaleness. They reminded us that woman can be many things, good and bad.
Certainly, the Emmys still award statues to actresses who play more lovably complex heroines. Elizabeth Moss won last year for The Handmaid’s Tale. But this year, the show also saw Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Series nominations go to Ann Dowd for her portrayal of the cruel, punishing Aunt Lydia and to Yvonne Strahovski, who plays Serena Joy, a wife and mother reaping the benefits of power in a dystopic future that punished other women. Strahovski’s Serena pulled back the character’s icy façade to reveal the conflicts and confusion we all contain, and her was widely celebrating as one of the season’s most compelling. Strahovski and Dowd are up against Lena Headey, who plays Game of Thrones’s Cersei Lannister, known—and beloved—for her cruelty and ruthless pursuit of power. She’s a villain we root for, even if we aren’t always sure why.
In recent years, television has become populated by characters like her who challenge the perimeters of womanhood as it’s portrayed by Hollywood. Those celebrated by the Emmys, though, are notably almost all white.
The nominees for Lead Actress in a Limited Series or a Television Movie are confirmation of both of truths. Jessica Biel, who for so long was the screen’s all-American good girl, is up for her first Emmy for her dark role on Sinner, a show about a mother who kills a man in public, and Michelle Dockery is nominated for her role in Godless, a Western series that centers on tough-as-nails women who shoot first and ask questions later. Neither character is particularly sympathetic, but both are interesting examinations of how people react in extreme circumstances.
In a reaction to her nomination, Biel told Deadline, “What we had to really create was this multilayered, multifaceted, psychologically complex person who the audience couldn’t trust, and who she even herself couldn’t trust, which is such a mind explosion as you’re trying to guide this performance and create the thread of this show.”
It’s not all Rachel from Friends or Carrie Bradshaw anymore. Among the fictional women who compel us are killers and liars. They’re complicit in violent acts, including rape and murder, and they are imperfect mothers and wives and daughters. They make us uncomfortable, and they’re far from role models. But putting these sorts of characters in the spotlight with awards nominations suggests that we’re ready to expand the idea of what a woman can be, both onscreen and in the world around us. It means that we can be imperfect or flawed as women, rather than simply being one thing.
These nominations acknowledge that the world may contain Bradshaws and Doloreses both.