What Would Nancy Do? Jenji Kohan’s Female Anti-Hero

Curator's Note

In TV’s last decade, there has been much talk about the female anti-hero. Tony Soprano and Walter White’s bad behavior is beyond reproach, but would a woman character be afforded the same indulgences? Many have said it’s impossible. That she inevitably will be saddled with too much female baggage to enjoy the perks of anti-heroism—to be nasty and revered. For her it would be only: Bad mother. Bad wife. Bad girl. However, it is the way the female anti-heroine’s badness is defined by and collides with her femaleness that makes her so compelling. Agent Carrie Mathison’s psychosis. Nurse Jackie Peyton’s pills. Doctor Mindy Lahiri and Hannah Horvath’s narcissism. Even gladiator Olivia Pope is throwing her white hat into the ring with some questionable behavior.

In 2005, Jenji Kohan’s Showtime series "Weeds" (2005-2012) introduced anti-hero Nancy Botwin (Mary Louise Parker), an upper middle class suburban housewife turned international drug dealer; accomplice to murder; sexy and slutty, on her own terms, which were often questionable ones; and the nucleus of a tight-knit family who was as loyal as they were dysfunctional. She even did time in prison (between season 6 and 7).

On OITNB, Kohan introduces an entire prison full of questionable characters to root for. Jail is the perfect setting for the anti-hero. Everyone has done something bad to get there, but the details of their crime may not be as cut and dry as the legal system believes or the television audience expects. Similar to Nancy, Piper compensates for her ability to offend others with a tenacity that is inspiring. Also like her predecessor, Piper is a privileged gal making due under unforeseen circumstances and while we feel sorry for her (the shower, the toilet, the tampon sandwich), we were slightly annoyed with her to begin with. Piper is more sensitive to others than Nancy: she wants to make alliances to survive prison, and she also needs human contact to live. However, the end of season 1 suggests that Piper has a dark side that would rival even Nancy Botwin’s worst moments in her short shorts and high-heeled sandals.


Great insights about Kohan's "anti-heroine" as a key component of her auteur signature, Maya. The NYT article you linked to points at something I find, in a word, maddening: That TV’s strong female protagonists need to be narratively reined in by diagnosing them as “crazy” – whether those diagnoses come from the show’s writers or viewers, or both. “Crazy,” of course, having long been the term of derision for women on and off screen who dare to insist, resist, or persist. “Crazy” also is used to corral some women in opposition to those crowned with the ultimate title: “Cool.” As BuzzFeed’s recent account of the history of the cool girl chronicles, the badassness of Jennifer Lawrence and her cool girl progenitors is tempered by their conformity to normative beauty ideals and gender roles: http://www.buzzfeed.com/annehelenpetersen/jennifer-lawrence-and-the-hist... But if there’s anything that’s crazy-making, it’s prison – even OITNB’s relatively plush representation of prison that Daisy Ball will scrutinize in Friday’s post. Which is what makes these female prisoners so rich as anti-heroines. Calling them out for being “crazy” isn’t an effectual mode of shaming when watching these women’s attempts to stay sane in such a dehumanizing system. When OITNB characters get tagged with the “crazy” label, it ultimately serves to provoke us into a more empathetic recognition of them: “Crazy Eyes” sheds her “prison wife” persona to reveal Suzanne, and Pennsatucky’s stay in solitary endears Tiffany to us. Let’s hope the NYT article’s author is right in suggesting that “Maybe this era of 'crazy' women on TV is an unfortunate way-station on the road from placid compliance to something more complex — something more like real life.”

To highlight the racial component of the conversation, consider Kohan's depiction of Piper as "Trojan Horse" in an interview with Fresh Air's Terry Gross: "In a lot of ways Piper was my Trojan Horse. You're not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women, and Latina women, and old women and criminals. But if you take this white girl, this sort of fish out of water, and you follow her in, you can then expand your world and tell all of those other stories. But it's a hard sell to just go in and try to sell those stories initially. The girl next door, the cool blonde, is a very easy access point, and it's relatable for a lot of audiences and a lot of networks looking for a certain demographic. It's useful." [listen to the interview here: http://www.npr.org/2013/08/13/211639989/orange-creator-jenji-kohan-piper... Are audiences really not interested in the "fascinating tales" of women of color unless they're accompanied by the story of a white, upper-class woman? Trojan Horse, or crutch, or...?

Thank you for these reflections on Kohan’s female anti-heroes; certainly she has produced a new realm of leading women that promise more diverse personalities (even when-if reductively witnessed as just 'crazy'). I do wonder, though, how much 'crazy' gets weighted as real or not real within the realm of location, sex appeal, and performative sexuality. Nancy strides confidently towards her viewers like a smoking gun, backed by a new twist on a Nancy Sinatra soundtrack and very clearly making "direct" eye contact; she may be trespassing in danger, but clearly she appears able to navigate the terrain. Alternately, we meet Piper with a kind of confidence that is quickly proved to be false--or if not false, fragile; only relevant outside of prison in her very white and very comfortable life--and Piper's transition to "prison-ready" clearly moves her to an increasingly empowered (and powerful?) state. At least in light of the show, this transition is only possible when in an exiled site of crime and punishment, and not at home. Is the craziness that gets inscribed on each of these characters of equal import, or do the confident Nancy (and Alex) of the shows get a pass on crazy, because of the crazy/sexy/cool appeal? Tropes like "crazy girls are good in bed" of course reverberate; as does the notion that some of the women (Lorna) are just practicing lesbianism until they are released; perhaps instead of "lesbian until graduation" there is "crazy" (both in denial of what 'counts' sexually, and in performing prison norms) until released?

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