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Enlightened: The Tragedy of the Female Anti-Hero

by Aly Semigran September 20, 2013 3:06 pm
<i>Enlightened</i>: The Tragedy of the Female Anti-Hero

For fans of the wrongly cancelled HBO dramedy Enlightened, Laura Dern's Emmy nomination will come as nothing more than a too-little, too-late consolation prize. While Dern's emotionally vulnerable turn as the manic, but determined, corporate whistleblower Amy Jellicoe is absolutely worthy of an Emmy, the actress will likely fall to equally deserving, but decidedly more high-profile, fellow nominees like Tina Fey or Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

But the real tragedy here isn't that Dern, or Mike White's touching, smart, witty, and often heartbreaking series as a whole, will never win any Emmys (the Golden Globes on the other hand, thankfully, had their wits about them and awarded Dern in 2012). No, the real tragedy here is that Enlightened, despite fervent love from critics (many rallied online when the show was on the brink of cancellation) and its small, but dedicated band of viewers, was ignored or pushed aside by so many because the lead character wasn't "likable" enough. I mean, who wants to watch a show with an unlikable, troubled, misguided protagonist with questionable morals as the lead? Other than, you know, Breaking Bad or Mad Men or The Sopranos or any popular drama over the past decade.

Now, don't get me wrong, this is not to take away from the cultural impact or artistic brilliance of these shows. Breaking Bad is, without a doubt, my favorite show on television (maybe of all-time), no matter how much I can't stand that bastard Walter White anymore. But there's something sad and unnerving about the cancellation of Enlightened in the face of the success of shows with male protagonists who do things that are far more annoying, embarrassing and downright despicable than Amy Jellicoe could have ever dreamed of, let alone do.

Sure, you could argue that Amy was no different than these men (the difficult men who are so engrained in our culture that we are writing books about them) in that she was doing something "wrong" (trying to take down a corporation after they wronged her) but with good intentions – or her idea of good intentions. I mean, Walter White has done everything for his family, right? And Don Draper had, like, a really screwed-up childhood, you know? The problem with this argument is that men like Don and Walter keep doing terrible, unforgivable things to good people because they believe their own lies. Amy, on the other hand, really, truly just wanted to make the world a better place and showed remorse when she hurt good people. Hell, she showed it when she hurt bad people, too.

Amy was awkward in social situations, she was a perpetual mess and she did some borderline unwatchable cringe-worthy things (especially to her old assistant Krista), but she also evoked some serious compassion. She had an alcoholic ex-husband (a still-powerful and present force in her life), an emotionally distant mother and an affair with her married boss that not only got her fired from her job in the first place, but led her to a complete mental breakdown. Amy was not a perfect person by any stretch of the imagination, but she was at least striving to be a better person. She was human.

It's a pretty safe bet that Walter White won't walk off into the horizon, contemplative and compassionate. I mean, who the hell would want that anyway? Really, this isn't even about Amy being a "better" person than other television anti-heroes -- it's that she wasn't given a chance to keep continuing on her journey, whatever direction that had been in. I mean, imagine if AMC had pulled the plug when Walter had just started to break bad.

So, what's at the root of why audiences turned on Amy so quickly? Brace yourselves, I'm about to use the dreaded "s" word: sexism. Yes, there's some sexism at the root of this. The same sort of sexism that has made Breaking Bad spew unfathomable vitriol at Skyler White for being a "buzz kill" or a "bitch." No, Skyler is not perfect, nor is she very fun, but who would be in that situation?

I digress, though, because this is about Amy Jellicoe. I don't think Amy was met with the same kind of disdain as Sex and the City's Carrie Bradshaw or Girls' Hannah Horvath, other iconic, but widely disliked female anti-heroes (though, unlike Amy, Carrie and Hannah are arguably have much more selfish goals) but she also never earned the same kind of respect or popularity as, say, Homeland's Carrie Matthison, despite some similarities (struggles with mental illness; an almost crippling drive to get to the truth). Then again, Amy never had a high-stakes, sexy romance (her ongoing relationship struggles with her ex-husband Levi were tragic and depressing, at best) or shoot-outs with terrorists.

Enlightened and Amy was about a person taking a long, hard look in the mirror, and in turn, made the audience do just that for themselves. I can sort of understand wanting to look away from that. I mean, where is the Sunday night escapism there? But even as uncomfortable and sad as Enlightened could be, it was, as the title suggested, pretty damn enlightening, too. At her core, Amy was never as dark or brooding as the Walter Whites or the Don Drapers or the Ray Donovans or the Dexter Morgans (seriously, how the hell did Dexter get to last so long?) still out there dominating the television landscape. She wasn't a perfect anti-hero, but she was the perfect antidote to the barrage of "misunderstood" men and she deserved our attention.

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