Until recently, many female characters on television relied on archetypes as old as society itself. Women were either the whore or the Madonna and not much left for nuance in between. As we have progressed, more tropes have been added to the rotation and have now been recycled over and over again. As women are standing up for themselves and making their voice heard in television – do it up Shonda – we are rewarded with more complex and interesting portrayals of women.
However, along with the Olivia Popes and Claire Underwood’s of the world, we still have female characters that are not thought out on the page and by the time they get to the screen, there is not much for them to work with. These women are often a part of the main cast, but pale in comparison to other well defined characters. They either lack agency or personality, or their storylines don’t mesh well with the main arch and they seem to clash with the other main characters.
The writers often deal with these frustrating characters in a specific way: they turn them evil. There are negatives and positives with this trend. Frequently, the women become far more interesting and their clash with the other storylines starts to make sense. They finally have agency and a purpose for being on the show, even just as an antagonist. Sometimes they are turned evil solely for a plot devised to eradicate them from the show altogether. Oftentimes, their evil streak cannot last and they almost always end up dead or comatose.
Recently, I noticed this trend on series like Grimm and Sleepy Hollow, but this goes back even further with series like Angel and True Blood. Most notable is Juliette Silverton on Grimm. After four seasons, it became increasingly clear that her creators did not know what to do with Juliette. The few times they attempted to work her into the main plot – i.e. Adalind’s cat scratch fever – she not only lost more agency, but her character became a glaring dull spot in Nick’s universe.
Season 4 flipped all that on its head. After Juliette became aware of the repercussions of the ritual they performed to restore Nick’s Grimm abilities, she began to distance herself and found something she had been sorely lacking for so long: agency and a sense of purpose. She had powers now that made her finally feel a part of the constructed universe and she had a reason to push away from the group with her newfound identity. The show became much better on a whole because of the changing dynamics between Juliette and the rest of the gang. Adalind, having spent almost two seasons on the sidelines, also finally began to interact with our main group in Portland and found herself playing for the opposite team, which saved another problem character from becoming wasteful cannon fodder.
Juliette’s swift turn to the dark side was met with enthusiasm, because this once mousy character who had no real connection to the world her fiancé inhabited, was finally in the game – and she was more than willing to take up the villainous mantle. I found myself more interested in her character and actually excited to see her progression into badass female villain. Alas, it all came to a close in the finale when she returned one final time to kill Nick and instead, Trubel swooped in and got her with an arrow to the heart. It was immensely satisfying to not only see her character find a sense of purpose, but go out with a bang that she had rightly earned.
Another show that went the same route with a boring character was Sleepy Hollow’s treatment of Ichabod’s wife Katrina Crane. Katrina, along with her character development, spent most of season one trapped in purgatory, while Ichabod’s friendship with Abby took front and center. After being released from Purgatory in season 2, Katrina was now placed in the real world alongside our heroes, but without a compelling reason as to why. She lacked chemistry with our main characters, specifically Ichabod, who was supposed to be her loving husband.
The writers finally realized how useless she was as a character, but ridding her from the show by turning her evil didn’t add anything new to the plot or make her character more interesting in any way. The main difference was that now she had a ticking clock and it was only a matter of time before they got rid of her permanently. After a poor attempt to go back in time and change the future, she returns to the present only to be stabbed by Ichabod, accidentally. She does not die with any sort of dignity and the moment itself was not effective; having lacked a substantial buildup, all I could feel was relief.
This trope has been used many times over the years, and sometimes comes as a last resort. On Buffy the Vampire slayer, Cordelia Chase was in control of her life as the most popular bitch in town – or so she thought. When she moved to LA to become a part of Angel Investigations, the transition from popular cheerleader to an agent against evil was compelling, one that made a one-note comic character into one full of substance.
However, as the seasons went on they started to twist Cordelia in more troubling ways than one – not many characters have been accidentally impregnated with an evil spawn, TWICE – and it seemed they had reached the limit of what they could come up with to do with her. So of course, she became evil – as well as becoming pregnant from an illicit tryst with Angel’s son Connor. This pregnancy leads to her birthing a demon of sorts who goes on to wreak havoc in easily the least interesting season of Angel. Cordelia falls into a coma and that is where we leave her until the final season, when she ultimately dies.
Even on a show like True Blood, where the characters began as reincarnations of the ones in the book, things always get lost in the translation. Tara Thornton was changed from an unimportant character in the books to one of the main cast in the show. Unfortunately, the writers never did much with Tara that made her character compelling. She was always on the sidelines and when she did show up, she was often bitchy and whiny and uninteresting.
After continuously throwing plot ideas and new character traits, finally one stuck the landing – Tara becomes a vampire. Her righteous anger and indignation at the world around her finally had some substance. While she was a pitiful character before, largely to do with her alcoholic mother, she finally had the power to back up that rage, and more importantly a reason to hate the world and all the people in it. Her new vampire persona fit in with the main story arch much better than anything they had tried before.
This trope is interesting in that it does not work for every show and every character, but when it does, it is often far more interesting. Maybe heightening the stakes plays a role, or it’s just that audiences love an evil lady kicking ass and taking names. There really is no formula for its success, but that is part of why it interests me so much. I’ve seen it done in a way that is masterful and interesting as well as boring and trite, but the fact that many shows have tried it says it is definitely a trend. Perhaps soon writers will realize that if you introduce a female character with the agency of a table lamp – you might want to try writing a real character to begin with.