Modern media is finally accepting and embracing feminine rage and moral depravity. This turn’s recent roots lie with Amy Dunne from David Fincher’s Gone Girl and have since evolved into a jaded anthropomorphized red panda from Japanese anime Aggretsuko and Joe Goldberg’s equally violent love interest Love Quinn in Netflix’s popular series You. This shift in media represents a willingness to go against the grain of amenable non-confrontational portrayals of women, and it’s about time.
Sympathetic portrayals of violent males dominate film and television. Dexter, American Psycho, Breaking Bad, Hannibal, and many more feature violent men who often act with minimal consequences and condemnation. Insofar that these characters are often even celebrated and admired.
For women, it’s a different story. There are fewer narratives in popular media that celebrate and foreground female characters of a similar temperament. Still, critics and viewers often place an unfair expectation on female-driven narratives to be accurate representations of all women. As a result, these kinds of nuanced morally complicated portrayals of women are unfairly scrutinized and — until now — largely absent from the media.
In a review of Gone Girl, Eliana Dockterman addresses the criticism of Amy Dunne’s then-novel violent female character.
“Because there are so few strong women in literature (or TV shows or movies) the burden falls on the writers who do write about women to make them represent all of womanhood. And that’s simply not fair,” Dockterman wrote. “We should have all sorts of women in our novels — just as we have all sorts of men. Very few writers are creating complex, evil female characters with interesting motivations… It seems sexist to assert that female characters ought to be, at their core, loving and good.”
This pressure on female characters is absent for men. There’s no expectation for one portrayal of men to accurately portray all men as there is with women because there is already a wealth of male-driven media featuring all kinds of motivations and moralities. But Gone Girl, Aggretsuko, and You all challenge these ideals. Even if a character isn’t morally bad — as is the case with Aggretsuko — there is an increasing embrace of feminine rage and anger in these media that is unprecedented.
Aggretsuko, a Sanrio-produced — yes the company that makes Hello Kitty — Japanese anime, follows an anthropomorphized red panda named Retsuko as she works a crappy office job. As a female worker who refuses to suck up to her misogynistic pig (literally, he’s an anthropomorphized pig) of a boss she expresses her rage against her maltreatment every night when she sings death metal at a karaoke bar. Rather than demonizing her anger, Aggretsuko legitimizes it. Women can often be deemed irrational whenever they exhibit emotion, but this series rejects that notion. In an article for The Verge, Dami Lee speaks to this phenomenon: “[Aggretsuko] is incredibly refreshing, because it validates so much of what goes unspoken — or at least, underexplored in mainstream media — about female anger and when and how it is allowed to be expressed.”
These films and series allow their female characters to subvert and reject typical portrayals of women. Gone Girl and You take these rejections even further by presenting female anger from women and aggression from women who are not fundamentally good at their core.
Gone Girl follows the disappearance of Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike), the wife of teacher Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) after he becomes the foremost suspect in her disappearance. As the narrative progresses, we discover that Amy has orchestrated her disappearance and framed Nick after discovering he was having an affair.
Amy murders, manipulates, takes advantage of, and exploits countless people throughout the narrative. Yet, audiences are still given the means to connect and identify with her as she is given a motivation anyone can understand: love. All that she did — the violence, the lying, and the deceit — was because she felt stiffed and unappreciated after finding out her husband who she has given up everything for is cheating on her. Amy’s violence, which is so unprecedented for female characters, is almost cathartic in the same way a break-up song can be. It’s riveting to see the lengths that Amy is willing to go after her husband has taken her for granted.
You provides us with a character that harbors a similar motivation. The series follows Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley), a book-lover and serial killer who develops obsessions with women that often lead to their deaths. In season one, Joe falls for and eventually murders a young college student named Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail). In season two, he meets his match who is fittingly named Love. In the penultimate episode of the season Love reveals she has racked up a kill count on par with Joe’s in hopes of protecting their relationship.
Love lies, cheats, and has an affair but, like Amy, audiences can still understand her violent outbursts as she is motivated by her namesake: love. In season three, Love begins murdering more and more sporadically, but like Amy her motivation allows a weird kind of catharsis that only fictional media can provide. All of her violence is passionate and instinctive. Each time, she has a motive that is almost understandable in the twisted and vicious world of You. She murders a woman that lives next door because Joe was beginning to fixate on her much like he had fixated on Beck in season one. She murders another neighbor when she finds out that his unvaccinated children gave her child measles. Her love for her child is yet another motivator almost anyone can understand, these morally complex women are written to be identified with and understood in spite of their violence. Love’s violence, especially in conjunction with Joe’s, is incredibly interesting as viewers are forced to confront their gender stereotypes and expectations immediately. Badgley repeatedly has to remind viewers that Joe is an honest-to-God serial killer and not someone to crush on. It particularly highlights this dimension of the series.
Despite the progress both You and Gone Girl made in diversifying portrayals of women, there is still more work to be done. Increased racial diversity and less gendered motivations than love and motherhood will broaden female portrayals to the breadth that men have received over the years. These shows can help open the door for complex, evil, and riveting female counterparts to male characters like Dexter, Patrick Bateman, Norman Bates, and more. Viewers and critics should seek to understand the merits of morally complex and corrupt female characters for there to be more varying narratives about women — especially those as compelling as Amy Dunne and Love Quinn.