Why We Need More Bad Girls on TV

Pop Culture

Why We Need More Bad Girls on TV

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Even eight episodes in, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s delightful Killing Eve remains unclassifiable: It’s at once a workplace comedy, gritty police procedural, sexually charged queer love affair, and an intense portrait of sociopathy. But what makes the show truly stand out is how cleverly it subverts a testosterone-fuelled spy genre and feminises it: an overworked female spy chases a glamorous female assassin in Killing Eve.

Even more refreshing is the fact that the show goes a step further and makes both these women utterly terrifying and impossibly unlikeable. And, by extension, deeply watchable.

At a time when the Hollywood manual of flawed women hardly goes beyond one-dimensional stereotypes – all-out craziness (Amy in Gone Girl), sporadic rebellion (Christine in Ladybird), or alcoholism (Kym in Rachel Getting Married) – the consistent complexity of the two female leads in Killing Eve feels especially resounding. More so, because the show eschews the trope of justifying the actions of “unlikeable leads”, or have them demand affection or sympathy.

It’s a new way to look at flawed women on screen – and we’re watching with a lot of excitement. Especially since this difficult-to-slot show has garnered Sandra Oh an Emmy nomination, making her the first Asian actress to be nominated for Lead Actress (Drama).

Killing Eve

As Killing Eve progresses, it’s evident why despite their cat-and-mouse game, Eve and Villanelle become obsessed with each other. They’re after all, two sides of the same coin.

Image credit: BBC America

In Killing Eve, the titular protagonist (Sandra Oh) is a disgruntled and desk-bound MI5 security officer who gets surreptitiously promoted as an off-the-books MI6 intelligence operative. Her position is triggered by her meticulous deduction at a top-secret meeting, where she claims that the killer – responsible for a trail of high-profile murders, including the recent death of a well-guarded victim – had to be a woman. How else can someone get close to the victim in public without being considered a threat, she argues.

Eve’s nemesis is Villanelle (Jodi Comer), the high-flying and terrifying psychopath who kills her victims like a soulless maniac and whose eyes scream death. The kind of assassin whose gender doesn’t stop her from relishing her inherent brutality. Whether it is casually asking a target the name of the designer who designed his silk bedsheet before gouging his eyes out. Or chillingly threatening another, “I’m going to kill you nicely. But then I’m going to make a mess of your body afterward so it looks worse than it is. Just letting you know, okay?”

As the show progresses, it’s evident why despite their cat-and-mouse game, Eve and Villanelle become obsessed with each other. They’re after all, two sides of the same coin: women whose lonely lives feel reinvigorated when they chase their respective targets. Women who’re hardly bothered about being likeable. Women who wear their vulnerabilities and ruthlessness on their sleeves, refusing to be trapped by their conscience.

Killing Eve, doesn’t just build a world where its female leads call the shots without making a big deal of it, but also wholeheartedly embraces unlikeable women in their flawed glory.

It’s not the first time Waller-Bridge has been credited with reclaiming the “unlikeable female lead”. Back in 2016, she created, wrote, and starred in Fleabag, a show that the The New Yorker labelled an “original bad-girl comedy” and which gave us the most affecting and repulsive female TV lead in recent times. In the show, the unnamed British protagonist (nicknamed Fleabag) is mourning the death of her best friend, even while struggling with urban loneliness, aftermath of trauma, and repressed resentment.

Killing Eve

It’s telling that in the last couple of years, TV has seen a spate of flawed and complex female leads, including the arrogant Ruth in GLOW.

Image credit: Netflix

Fleabag is depicted as a fucked-up person who derives pleasure from making people around her wince in abject pain – one who wears her selfishness with as much as swag as a Gucci overcoat. There’s absolutely nothing about her that is redeemable, and yet, by refusing to manipulate sympathy from the audience, Fleabag argues that female leads don’t need to be likeable to be lovable. Just like Killing Eve, it attempts to ask: Why should women be burdened with upholding every possible virtue on the planet?

Killing Eve’s leads aren’t alone. It’s telling that in the last couple of years, TV has seen a spate of flawed and complex female leads: a cheating June/Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale, an unpleasant Alyssa in The End of The F***ing World, Mickey in Love, who’s a straight-up asshole, the fucked up, angry Jen in Dead to Me, and the arrogant Ruth in GLOW. In fact, even Orange is the New Black’s Piper Chapman has steadily traversed the journey over seven seasons from nice white woman to hateful lead who brings out her worst traits.

What’s striking though, is that none of these leads are painted as either heroes or villains. Instead, their snarky, egotistical, and emotionally detached personalities are portrayed as a vital part of their identities. Just like how TV has been depicting male leads, who’d been afforded the exclusive hall-pass to veer into various shades of assholery and still be heartthrobs for years. Think, Dr House in House, Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock, or Patrick Jane in The Mentalist. If anything, it’s liberating to watch female leads act out without being mandated to apologise for their outburst minutes later.

More importantly, the unanimous critical and public popularity of these shows (including Emmy nominations for Killing Eve, GLOW, and The Handmaid’s Tale) is testament to the fact that there’s nothing more fun than watching women being absolute jerks – and absolutely human – on screen.

If Killing Eve is any indication, we’re thankfully past niceness.