Why Do We Hate Morally Ambiguous Women On TV?
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 much consideration for actually analysing characterisation, plot or themes. This special consideration seems to be solely reserved for the criticism of morally ambiguous male characters, who are afforded the luxury of being analysed as complex. In contrast, the criticism of morally ambiguous women eschews analysing the technicalities of characterisation altogether. Instead, this criticism is usually directed towards her gender and consequently, how she should behave as a woman within a specific cultural context. It seems 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 aren’t so lucky. The marginalised are never complex. We are almost always negatively defined in relation to the norm, and that is a definition which lapses back into homogeneity and sameness. Complex is a word which denotes possibilities beyond what is universally accepted, and the idea of the beyond horrifies those in power who rely on the fixity and determinacy of essentialised categories like race, gender and sexuality.
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 and stereotypes. 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 women characters. For this article, I aim to offer an analysis of morally ambiguous women in television, with a particular focus on 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 analysis, I must declare 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, and immoral decisions. 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 always this or that, but never everything at once. Patriarchal representation of women reduces her heterogeneity to the logic of the same. 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 whole in their own right, they are also given the pregorative to make bad, and morally questionable decisions. They frame their husbands for murder, and manipulate their naive colleagues. 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 interpretation. While this open space may leave a leeway for harsh, sexist criticism, I argue that it is also an act of resistance towards determinate categorisations of womanhood, and a staunch refusal to submit to another totalising patriarchal narrative altogether.
Yet, 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 new, and a work in progress. As aforementioned, women are not afforded the space to go beyond rigidity. Ambiguity terrifies fixed systems of gender essentialism, and ambiguity disrupts the essentially fabricated dichotomies that women have always been boxed in. Ambiguity and complexity are the two things we have never been allowed to be: We are always the known, but never the knower. Always the object, but never the subject. That is why I think that portrayals of morally ambiguous women on television are so important. 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 must avoid lapsing into essentialist conceptions of womanhood, and must rigorously interrogate the masculine standards by which we measure art.