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Emmys: How Leading Ladies Profit From Playing in the Morally Gray

From lovable mob boss Tony Soprano to money-laundering family man Marty Byrde, the golden age of television has had no shortage of antiheroes. But while there has been an abundance of men that are behaving badly while we root for their success, their female counterparts have historically been fewer and farther between — until now.

This year’s lead drama actress Emmy nominees celebrate everyone from a conniving Commander-in-Chief (“House of Cards’” Claire Underwood, played by Robin Wright) to a university professor with questionable teaching methods (“How to Get Away With Murder’s” Annalise Keating, played by Viola Davis), to an assassin (“Killing Eve’s” Villanelle, played by Jodie Comer), and a former accidental passenger-turned-mastermind of an illegal family operation (“Ozark’s” Wendy Byrde, played by Laura Linney).

But this is not a phenomenon reserved for the dramatic side of the ballot: Comedy certainly has no shortage of characters whose destructive behavior we encourage, including political disaster Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), who ascended all the way to the Oval Office on “Veep”; the narcissistic Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) from “Russian Doll”; and Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s titular “Fleabag,” who takes self-sabotage to epic levels.

Robert Thompson, professor of television and pop culture at Syracuse University, credits the increase and evolution of female antiheroes on the influx of new voices in television.

“We had an entire history of television with male heroes, these long traditions that you could build on to make the antihero thing work,” he says. “Today some of the best female characters are antiheroes, because It is very hard to pull off a show with someone being a traditional hero. It looks so old-fashioned.”

“It is very hard to pull off a show with someone being a traditional hero. it looks so old-fashioned.”
Robert Thompson

Lyonne, an actor with credits dating back to “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” not only stars, but also co-created, writes, executive produces and directs “Russian Doll,” a semi-autobiographical comedy that debuted on Netflix in February. Lyonne says she has enjoyed subverting stereotypes and creating a character that isn’t a caricature for this series, which has been renewed for another season.

“I’m playing this, on the most basic level, trope of a tough guy, but it’s backed by the very specific details of how a person gets to behave that way in the first place,” she says.

As female characters become more full-fledged, even the term antihero can seem simplistic.

“It’s not that I think that the tropes are dead so much as I think that they are being pulled in new directions,” says Lyonne. Her character Nadia explores how far a person can take self-destruction when, for reasons unknown, the same day occurs on a loop. “She’s clearly not an antihero in the sense of a lovable mob boss or meth dealer. She’s her own worst enemy in that she starts as a nihilist and moves past it, realizing that her behavior does have an impact on the world around her. She’s an internal antihero.”

One of the reasons Emmy voters seem to love characters whose behavior, according to standard definitions, are categorized as bad is because they come with a bit of wish fulfillment, says Thompson. “We’re constantly under the thumb of people that our lives depend upon. Antiheroes seem to throw that all away. They’re the boss.”

“Ozark’s” Wendy captures that sentiment perfectly. As someone who started off conflicted about her husband’s dealings with the mob, but in time transformed into the darkest character of all, Linney has delighted in her character’s ruthless ambition.

“Wendy is a deeply flawed, reactive, shrewd, impulsive character whose morality is completely subjugated by her survival instinct,” says Linney, who means that in a good way. “The greater the need a character has to pursue something, generally the easier they are to play. A great character is a great character, regardless of their moral compass.”

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