Undergrad Researcher Asks: Why Are TV Audiences Anti-Antiheroine?
There’s something about suave antiheroes, like Dexter’s Dexter Morgan and The Sopranos’ Tony Soprano, that compel television audiences to tune in week after week. Despite their obvious flaws—or perhaps because of them—these “bad guys with hearts of gold” invite viewer sympathy.
But what about antiheroines?
As a media studies major in the School of Journalism and Communication, Meg Rodgers decided to find out why TV audiences seem to have less respect for “bad girls” than their male counterparts. The question formed the foundation for her Clark Honors College undergraduate thesis.
From Fangirl to Researcher
Growing up, Rodgers was an avid movie and TV viewer. As she got older, questions about show creation began piling up in her head: What’s the process writers use to develop characters? And what makes viewers respond to them?
One show that made an impact on Rodgers was Freaks and Geeks, a 1990s TV series that questioned high school norms. Rodgers was drawn to the young actors’ effective portrayals of “teen angst.”
“Freaks and Geeks was probably the first show where I thought, ‘I want to think about this!’ because it was doing something very important and fascinating,” Rodgers says. “Before, I thought about TV watching more as a hobby. Then it turned into something I can think about and interrogate critically. And that really changed my daily life because I feel like I’m now a more responsible viewer.”
To find answers to her questions, Rodgers took the journalism class How to Watch Television. It was the first time she considered making TV her formal area of study.
“I was around a lot of people doing very serious and fascinating research,” Rodgers says. “A field like television isn’t something people think about academically. But I would argue that it is so important to think about critically, because everyone is watching it.”
After taking Introduction to Media Studies, Rodgers fell in love with the field because it gave her the opportunity to closely analyze why and how TV shows are made and how they affect viewers. While her peers studying journalism, advertising, and public relations were busy creating original content, Rodgers preferred the research she was doing in her media studies classes.
“I realized I was more interested in interrogating content than I was in creating it,” Rodgers says.
How Antiheroines Are Born
Rodgers has always gravitated toward storylines with strong female characters. When she discovered a couple years ago that Netflix has a category called “Strong Female Leads,” she began binge-watching and analyzing the traits that strong female characters have in common.
She was interested in what it means to be a strong female character, and why they aren’t as readily embraced as male heroes. She was captivated by antiheroines—leading female characters who buck stereotypically positive female traits, such as humility, patience, and ethical clarity.
For her thesis, she examined the characters Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and the City and Hannah Horvath from Girls.
“I find both shows to be complicated, frustrating, innovative, revolutionary pieces that are cultural touchstones for really different reasons,” Rodgers says.
Despite the popularity of the two series, she found the subject of antiheroines in TV wasn’t heavily researched. It was the perfect opportunity to contribute to an underdeveloped research niche.
After many long meetings with her thesis advisor, Assistant Professor Erin Hanna, and hours of caffeinated work at the Knight Library, Rodgers determined that the antiheroine characteristics Carrie Bradshaw and Hannah Horvath display are mainly accidental. This phenomenon, she discovered, is a pattern in TV shows with strong female characters: Rather than writing antiheroine traits into the original concept of the character—like they do for most antiheroes—writers often seem to unknowingly form antiheroine traits in response to viewers’ reactions.
After hearing critiques about the first seasons of Sex and the City and Girls, the writers adapted Carrie’s and Hannah’s characters to be edgier and changed the shows’ plots so the characters’ destinies didn’t depend on their relationship to a male lead. However, Rodgers noticed they also held onto some stereotypical female traits.
Rodgers found that critics of Girls faulted the series for claiming to be an “everywoman” show while featuring a rich, all-white group of girls.
Sex and the City’s viewer response was more complex. The show received starkly different reactions from men and women viewers, with men giving the show a 5.8 out of 10 and women giving it an 8.1 out of 10. Males complained that male characters in the show were underdeveloped. But Rodgers noted in her paper that many shows featuring antiheroes had underdeveloped female characters—a fact that female audiences did not criticize as harshly.
“[Sex and the City] does not feature very dynamic male characters, but why should it?” Rodgers wrote. “There are numerous television shows dedicated to masculine interests, and this single franchise should not be villainized because it refuses to pander to the male demographic. If Carrie must be villainized, let it be because she and her friends reap the benefits of a feminist movement they refuse to acknowledge.”
Rodgers hopes one result of the #MeToo movement will be stronger and more realistic female television characters.
“I hope we see more people with marginalized voices become writers and directors,” Rodgers said. “To get these good representations on television, we need good people writing their stories and writing their voices.”
Rodgers, who graduated in spring 2018, is exploring publishing her thesis in a research journal. Before submitting an article, however, she wants to gather more data about the shows’ audiences and the demographics of the writers, directors, and crew who work on HBO shows.
“I think that who’s behind the camera is so indicative of what is on screen,” she says.
Regarding her own character arc, Rodgers says her dream is to attend graduate school, then become a television producer. Her media studies research background has prepared her well for today’s media landscape.
“Especially in this era, with distrust in the media, I think media studies is important for producing responsible work that speaks to people,” she says. “You want to understand the ideological principles of the story you’re telling.”
—By Becky Hoag
Becky Hoag, class of 2019, is a double major in journalism and environmental science. Illustrations by Becky Hoag.