Complex Female Characters Are the New Black

There have always been female characters on TV who weren’t particularly likeable. After all, who can forget the cruel Nellie Oleson from Little House on the Prairie? But, recently it seems like show-writers are getting comfortable with giving main characters more unlikeable traits, if not making them thoroughly unlikeable as seasons wear on.

(This post contains mild spoilers for Hannibal and Orange is the New Black.) 

On Hannibal, the noxious Freddie Lounds is a muck-racking blogger who lies, cheats, and manipulates people to get stories. And she is utterly shameless about her methods and her betrayals. You almost have to admire her moxie when she refers to another character as a psychotic mad-man in one column and then smoothly turns around and asks him for an exclusive interview just days later.

But Netflix’s Orange is the New Black takes this theme to new levels. Each consecutive episode in the series portrays protagonist Piper Chapman as less likable and more manipulative, shallow, and self-absorbed than the last. Particularly as we learn more about her fellow inmates and begin to see them as full-fledged, sensitive, troubled individuals as Piper continues to hold herself above them. Even the glimpses we receive of her former life don’t make her appear particularly likable, as proven when one prison guard who used to work at a grocery store recognizes her as the woman who would always say she forgot her reusable bags and then find them just after her groceries were all packed and force the store clerk to repack everything.

I’m not saying we should be proud that there are women on TV who prove that our gender can be petty, shallow, conniving, egotistical, or cruel while also being fully drawn complex individuals. What I am saying is that I appreciate having women on TV who are complex, realistic people who may or may not be entirely likable. And not all these complex characters are unlikeable. Over on Orphan Black, Tatiana Maslany is currently portraying about seven different women, all with distinct personalities and histories–some of whom are very likable and sympathetic.  Game of Thrones also has a healthy collection of women who are strong individuals with their own ambitions and flaws.

Shirley McClaine once said, “I am an expert in hookers. I’m an expert in doormats. I’m an expert in victims. They were the best parts.” Luckily, it looks like things are turning around for actresses with these kind of thought-provoking roles increasing every year. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that the trend continues.

You can contact Genevieve, the author of this post, at

One thought on “Complex Female Characters Are the New Black

  1. Nellie has waited too long for company! Hands down, the only thing that made Little House watchable was the Olsen clan.

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