James Gandolfini passed away last week, leaving behind a grieving family and an iconic role that redefined the television landscape. Gandolfini’s portrayal of Tony Soprano is heralded as one of the finest, most deeply nuanced and conflicted characters ever to grace the big-screen TV.
Tony Soprano was the quintessential anti-hero. He is immoral, violent, sociopathic, completely dedicated to his family, and utterly ruthless in carrying out his business, which happens to be criminal. And rather than see him as a bad guy, we love him.
That’s how the anti-hero works. He’s basically a bastard, but we can’t help love him. Mad Max. Dirty Harry. Tyler Durden. Travis Bickle. All classic anti-heroes.
And Gandolofini was on par with DeNiro and Eastwood in his portrayal of a very bad man who is still so very good at the same time.
The actor’s transfixing blend of gruffness and vulnerability breathed life into most memorable TV protagonist ever.
The majority of commentary on Gandolfini’s passing was respectful and appropriately elegiac, as common courtesy dictates that it should be. But give the world ten days, and sure enough, the Atlantic has an article up about how, yeah sure, Tony Soprano was a great character, but let’s not forget that characters like Tony Soprano are only ever written for men, and waaaaaaaaaah – where are all the lady anti-heroes?
None of this is a knock on James Gandolfini, a phenomenal actor who will be missed. Nor is it a knock on his legacy of extraordinary roles currently being written for other actors. But when people talk about antiheroes, the rise of character actors, and a new age of dramatic television, it is important to note that these changes do not yet fully include women.
Akash Nikolas, the man who wrote the piece at the Atlantic apparently spends a lot of time watching television, and he keeps a sharp eye on the ladies, and valiantly raises the flag that there just aren’t any lady heroes quite like Tony Soprano.
Most of those characters appear on cable, which is still friendlier territory for the antihero, but more importantly, all of those characters are men. In contextualizing the sea change of antiheroes in TV dramas, we must remember that it is still limited to male characters and male actors. There are very few leading antiheroines on television, and virtually none of them have a drama series built around them.
Yoo-hoo, Akash, you seem to have missed two of the best shows on TV, both of which feature amazing anti-heroes who also happen to be ….. WOMEN!
Let me introduce you to Cersei Lannister, Game of Thrones.
And the Dowager Countess Grantham, Downton Abbey.
How did Akash miss Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey? How do you miss two of the most talked about, most watched, most awarded shows on television? It’s hard to fathom, other than to guess that he came up with his premise first, and then went hunting for his evidence, discarding whatever didn’t fit his preconceived ideas, and in the process ignored the TWO BEST SHOWS ON TELEVISION.
That’s quite a feat. Rather like looking for the best American car and discarding Ford and GM off the bat. What does that leave? Tesla?
Actually, Tesla is pretty cool, but it’s market share is tiny compared to Ford and GM.
Cersei Lannister. What an evil witch. She marries Robert Baratheon at her father’s urging, but has sex with her twin brother to produce the heirs to the Iron Throne. When little Bran Stark catches the incestuous pair, she watches Jamie Lannister throw him to his death without flinching. When Bran survives his fall, paralyzed, but very much alive, she conspires to have his throat cut in his bed.
She is nasty, vindictive, scheming, brutal, sarcastic, cruel and utterly dedicated to her children and the throne. When Littlefinger tells Cersei that “knowledge is power”, Cersei turns to her guards and says this:
Seize him. Cut his throat. Wait! I’ve changed my mind. Let him go.
Power is power!
When she sees Sansa Stark, only 12 years old talking to Sir Loras, her first thoughts are to violent retribution.
Tyrion Lannister: I don’t suppose there is anything we can do about this?
Cersei Lannister: We can have them both killed.
When Ned Stark explains his modus operandi to Cersei, she responds in kind.
Eddard Stark: I was trained to kill my enemies, Your Grace.
Cersei Lannister: As was I.
Cersei is ruthless and merciless and has approximately zero concern or sympathy for anyone outside her blood family. And she is magnificent!
It’s hard to imagine her as anything other than an anti-hero. She is just a terrible, awful person, and her flaw is that she is incredibly intelligent and conniving, but she cannot see that others are just as intelligent as she is. Cersei is compelling, we watch her with spellbound fascination, but she is a not a woman any of us (one hopes) would like to be.
Cersei is not “on the fence” in terms of her anti-hero qualities. It boggles the mind that Akash sat down and wrote a mewling piece of feminist boot-licking all the while ignoring someone as powerful and captivating as Cersei Lannister.
I call bullshit. It’s a deliberate attempt to create a complaint, and a suggestion of unfairness and misogyny where NONE EXISTS.
Cersei is not alone in her anti-heroism. Here is the Dowager Countess of Grantham, played by the incomparable Dame Maggie Smith.
Bitchy, snotty, self-absorbed, insulting, classist, racist, and utterly dedicated to her family and ancestral seat, the Dowager Countess is an anti-hero of epic proportions. She has zero concerns for anyone around her other than her family, and she does not want any part of her life polluted with those she considers “beneath her”, and that is almost everyone.
She is offended when her son only wears black tie to dinner (he ought to have been in tails).
Violet: “Do you think I might have a drink? Oh, I’m so sorry – I thought you were a waiter.”
She disapproves of Mrs. Crawley’s philanthropic enthusiasm:
Countess Violet: “You are quite wonderful the way you see room for improvement wherever you look. I never knew such reforming zeal.”
Mrs. Crawley: “I take that as a compliment.”
Countess Violet: “I must’ve said it wrong.”
She is unapologetic about leaving her children to be raised by the help:
Isobel: “Were you a very involved mother with Robert and Rosamund?”
Violet: “Does it surprise you?”
Isobel: “A bit. I’d imagined them surrounded by nannies and governesses, being starched and ironed to spend an hour with you after tea.”
Violet: “Yes, but it was an hour every day.”
She is offended by Edith’s ambitions to write.
Matthew: “Edith has had an invitation to write a newspaper column.”
Violet: “When may she expect an offer to appear on the London stage?”
She doesn’t think the death of the Turkish Ambassador in her home is that big of a deal, because he wasn’t English, after all.
Violet: “One can’t go to pieces at the death of every foreigner. We’d all be in a constant state of collapse whenever we opened a newspaper.”
She dislikes any attention paid to the “little people”. They are servants and that is all.
Violet: “It always happens when you give these little people power, it goes to their heads like strong drink.”
Even when you make the cut, socially, Violet is still ruthless. At her grand-daughter’s wedding, she has this to say about the groom:
Violet: “He looks as if he’s waiting for a beating from the headmaster.”
In short, she is insufferable. There is really nothing to like about the Dowager, and yet she is the highlight of every episode. Beloved for being a crotchety, curmudgeonly snob with hopelessly antiquated views on pretty much everything. Within the context of period drama, which tends not to feature a whole lot of violent bloodshed, she is an anti-hero.
The one thing both Cersei and the Dowager have in common is that their unpleasantness is dedicated to preserve one thing, and one thing only: their families. Cersei doesn’t lust for power for herself, although she does rather enjoy it. She is loyal to the idea that her son shall win the game of thrones, and all her sons into the future will be kings. Violet isn’t a snobby cunt for fun, although she does enjoy it. She is protecting a class system that has privileged her son and she wants to see those privileges continued and damn everybody else.
When Tony Soprano is fiercely, psychotically protective of his family, that’s admirable. It’s what men are supposed to do. Provide, be loyal, be useful, be devoted. A man whose world centers on his wife and children is a man doing what he ought to be doing, and no matter how unpleasant and ugly his methods, we can respect and admire him for at least getting the point of his existence.
But when a woman’s life centers on her family, and her SONS in particular, that triggers a bit of anxiety. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both Cersei and Violet’s husbands are dead, and the majority of their effort goes towards promoting the interests of their sons.
Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey are stories about legacy. What you leave behind you. For most of us, that will be children. And there we have the sticking point. Children are your most important accomplishment. Anti-hero women turn the relationship between mother and son into a dysfunctional web of lies and deceit and pretensions and conspiracy and generally make a giant mess out of what should be their greatest achievement, but there is absolutely no question that their children are the only things that matter.
And that is just the story feminists try to squash.
Children do not matter. Children should NOT matter. Children are a burden. They are a trap designed to subjugate you to a man. They are expensive, time-consuming afflictions that will bring you not pleasure and fulfillment, but regrets and frustrated ambitions. You’ll wish you never had them.
So don’t have them. Very clever. Good plan.
Akash is dead wrong that there are no female anti-heroes on television. I wonder if he realizes exactly what narrative he is promoting when he ignores two of the biggest shows on TV? And what does he get out of kow-towing to an ideology that comes down to nihilism?
Without children, we all lose. There is no society. When you play the Game of Thrones, you win, or you die. There is no middle ground. In the Game of Declining to Reproduce, you can’t win, but you will die, and leave nothing behind you.
And if everyone plays, we all die.
There’s nothing heroic about that.
Lots of love,