Why do we hate morally ambiguous women on television?
The portrayal of morally ambiguous women in television and film has never been particularly well-received by critics and audiences alike. Often, such a portrayal of women evinces misogynistic criticism, without so much as an effort made to analyse characterisation, plot, or themes. However, you can bet that this thoughtful analysis will be reserved for the criticism of morally ambiguous male characters, who are afforded the luxury of being analysed as complex human beings. In contrast, the criticism of morally ambiguous women eschews analysing the technicalities of characterisation altogether.
Instead, this criticism is directed towards her gender and consequently, how she should behave as a woman within a specific cultural context. It appears that implicit in the word complex is the de facto accepted face of the white, heterosexual male whose race, gender, and sexuality no longer matter because they are the norm against which all marginalised groups are measured by. Only when these attributes (i.e. race, gender, sexuality) are backgrounded can the technicalities of his characterisation be foregrounded and fleshed out in the wider context of criticism. Unfortunately, the rest of us are not so lucky. The marginalised are never complex. We are almost always negatively measured in relation to the norm – we are everything they are not, instead of being seen as complex people in our own sovereign right. Complexity denotes denotes possibilities beyond what is universally accepted and as such, complexity horrifies those in power, who have pretty much relied on reducing us to their one-dimensional caricatures in order to see themselves as the universal.
As such, the fact that a woman’s moral ambiguity is an alarming cause of concern for critics demonstrates clear-cut misogyny. Following this, the refusal to acknowledge the moral ambiguity of women translates to the refusal to acknowledge that what women are exceeds fixed patriarchal categorisations. It is the refusal to acknowledge that women are in fact full human beings, and like all human beings, are complex because of their varied experiences in life. While complexity may be a word that seems to mark the pinnacle of excellent screenwriting, our crude reactions towards complex women reveal our acute fear of heterogeneity, and our desperation to preserve homogeneity in the representation of female characters. For this article, I aim to offer an analysis of morally ambiguous women in television, with a particular focus on the British TV series Line of Duty. In doing so, I hope to perform an analysis that does right by these women.
Line of Duty and moral ambiguity
Before I begin my article, it is important to note that the women in Line of Duty are mostly white, heterosexual, and middle-class. As such, there is still so much more that the show can do to improve in terms of diversity. Nevertheless, what attracted me to the series was its astute portrayal of women in all their multitudes. They are never simplified. Most of these women are married or divorced with children, but these relations are never the sole cause in determining the outcome of their lives. Neither do these relations somehow nullify their potential for violence. Women are highlighted to occupy and be everything in between in this series. The perennial issue pervading the representation of women on television is that character interiority is always annihilated in favour of grand patriarchal narratives of womanhood. Women are either this or that, but never everything at once. More often than not, we know that a woman is always defined in relation to a man. She is always absent in that respect. It is never her choice, but his choice. Never her characterisation, but her characterisation in relation to him.
In Line of Duty, not only are the women are highlighted as sovereign in their own right, they are also given the prerogative to make bad, and morally questionable decisions. They frame their husbands for murder, manipulate their naive colleagues, and are viciously ambitious. Yet, it is never quite as clear as simply making a bad decision versus a good one. Rather, the lines between good and bad are blurred because at the end of the day, these women ironically proclaim that their commitment is always to upholding justice. Towards the end of every season, while their actions do seemingly uphold the law, the show casts doubt as to their true motivations: This, in particular, is left open-ended for our interpretation. While this open space may leave leeway for sexist criticism, I argue that it is an act of resistance towards determinate categorisations of womanhood, and a staunch refusal to submit to another totalising patriarchal narrative altogether.
Nevertheless, such narratives surrounding moral ambiguity and the cost of justice are not new. In fact, they have been existing in television since time immemorial. But the application of these narratives to women is still a work in progress. As aforementioned, women are not afforded the space to go beyond rigidity. Ambiguity terrifies fixed systems of gender essentialism by disrupting the essentially fabricated dichotomies that women have always been imprisoned in. Ambiguity and complexity are the two things we have never been allowed to be, because we have never been allowed to simply exist as we are. As such, the portrayal of morally ambiguous women on television is crucial. They pave the way for more heterogeneous representations of women, and pave the way for us to exceed our his/torically determined condition. However, astute representation cannot occur through television shows alone. Criticism of morally ambiguous women in media must avoid lapsing into essentialist conceptions of womanhood, and also rigorously interrogate the masculine standards by which we measure art.