ACMI speech: Enlightened and the need for unlikable women

15 Oct

Delivered at ACMI’s “End of Englightenment” on Aug, 29, 2013.

I would like to open by bitching about a New Age person I did some work for who would occasionally offer me free psychic services which I would accept solely for their potential as anecdotes because I am a horrible, horrible person.

She was serene as she was self-congratulating. She credited my pained visit to the emergency department where I spent a few hours on a drip as a testimony to the amazing cleansing powers of her feng shui. When she told me this, I was still doubled over in pain in an apartment in which I had made no changes.

Another time, she performed a psychic healing on me which basically consisted of her wrapping up every thing she disliked about me (and she disliked a lot about me) as psychic advice. My many past lives of being a warrior has made me an aggressive drama queen always looking to fight, my secret past as a French Cathar made me suspicious of all religion and new age therapies and my haughty arrogance is due to another past life as a Japanese princess.

For those of you in the audience who identify as new age practitioners, I apologise for any offence those remarks may have caused. I didn’t want to insult you, my past lives did.

This women – who I can only imagine tries her hardest to quell every mortal foible and behave in an enlightened manner – superficially reminds me of Amy Jellicoe.  Both despite the very best of intentions embody the worst of New Age self-help culture, which is often just a form of selfishness adorned with crystals and cut-price incense sticks.

Both are just people trying to find meaning in their lives and create change but with humans being what they are it can be hard. The perfection of serenity and enlightenment can be hard to maintain in the imperfection of daily life and personality.

But here is where the tv series Enlightened shines – it humourously takes apart the artifice and hypocrisy of consumer-based enlightenment while slowly revealing the true path of enlightenment for a small group of characters who end up affecting huge change.

And central to its success is the lead character Amy Jellicoe.

Look, Amy Jellicoe is a pain in the arse. I wouldn’t go near her, every drawn out “hiiiiiiiiii” scratches at what I presume is either my soul or at least the remains of my lungs.

But here I am – here to tell you why Amy Jellicoe was one of the best characters ever and is so desperately missed on tv.

The pilot episode of Enlightened opens up with some truly ugly tears on the toilet and within two minutes Amy calls a coworker a cunt and walks through the office screaming with drama, persistence and running eye make up.

And it continues throughout two seasons – Amy disturbing the peace wherever she goes. Baby showers, catch up dinners, canoeing weekends, lining up for coffee, job interviews, meetings – all situations ripe for a Jellicoe etiquette grenade.

Why we dislike Amy Jellicoe

This insincerity and self-interest can be seen in her interactions with others. Her relationships are almost all presented in what she can get from them.

This can be construed one of two ways: either as a normal convention of script writing (shouldn’t all dialogue on tv shows relate to the main character or plot?) or as a deliberate characterization device.

Not only does Amy completely screw up an overture of friendship and solidarity – from a character Amy barely acknowledges to be able to provide any influential support, she actually emphasizes her selfishness by getting Connie to go fetch her lunch so she can rise above it all (and by extension Connie) sit outside and read a book about how she can be a more enlightened person.

Amy Jellicoe treats people – no matter who they are – based on what they can do for her. Even when at the book launch party of a another whistleblower, Amy revels and shocks at being in this new world and how this apparent elevation is a reward she created with the power of her new age mind, awkwardly rejecting the friendly banter of a waiter who knows her.

Here she is trying to be nice and – in turn – ruining a baby shower. Watch how everyone responds to her.

It’s all in the eyes. For someone seeking an enlightened life, Amy Jellicoe is utterly blind about how people see her and her behaviour.

That’s why Amy Jellicoe is a fascinating character – there’s no stoicism to her. She will sit on the crapper and have an ugly cry about being shifted to cleaning products after a bad affair. She’ll yell nonsensical abuse at someone wanting her car park after she was dumped by the hot politically correct investigative journalist with a cheap leather necklace who Amy thought was her reward for becoming enlightened.

Amy Jellicoe will not go quietly, she will not go politely – she will do the worst thing society thinks women can do: make a scene and then she will continue to work her mission, a mission not in service to the community  or the status quo (like Sherlock), but a mission she has created for herself for her own needs thinking her needs will eventually intersect with the community no matter what disruption it causes.

Amy Jellicoe completely rejects the social burden for women to be unlikable.

Social demand on women to be likable

There is something to say about gender when it comes to unlikable tv characters and why they’re so compelling. We have a multitude of unlikable male characters – Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Walter White, House of Card’s Frank Underwood, Boss’ Tom Kane or even Louis CK. We’re ok with this and we celebrate their complexity.

But when it comes to women being unlikable or showing complexity it can be challenging for viewers. It goes against our programming – women are above all expected to be likable, predictable and to not make a scene, something Amy Jellicoe excels at.

So often when presented with leading heroines, they have the burden of being perfect to the point of being flat. Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones is dully predictable in her success of every trial before literally crowd surfing over a sea of serfs calling her mother. And, as much as I love her, if I have to see Alicia Florrick numbly watch another humiliating betrayal or clusterfuck in her personal and professional life before calmly standing by in martyrdom or positive work ethic, I may scream.

We may support these characters, we may want them to win and we may even adore them but they’re as predictable as the passing seasons. The reason for the boredom appears to be the reliance upon martyred stoicism.

So why are angry or just plain unlikable female characters so compelling? And why do we end up supporting them?

It may be because we’re sick of strong and likable female characters that I’ve just mentioned, a point recently picked up by Sophia McDougall over at the New Statesmen in an article with the very to-the-point headline “Why I hate strong female characters”.

With blunt force McDougall shows that so often we have lead male characters with blinding faults and frailties but are still the hero – James Bond is a psychopath, Doctor Who can often leave his companions to unendingly cruel fates in compensation for their loyalty and sometimes love (and who, as Davros notes, for a Timelord who despises the use of weapons, uses his companions as weapons), Walt manipulates one of his few friends for power and profit, Tony Stark uses libterarian douchebaggery as personal branding and for god’s sake – we have TWO tv series built around fucking serial killers. Right now these characters are OVER-played.

In fact, just a few months ago I was watching Hannibal Lector betray Will Graham and thought “No! Why, Hannibal! You let me down!”, forgetting momentarily that the titular character has never been presented as anything but a psychopathic serial killer with a taste for cannibalism, classicism and haute cuisine who just recently killed a teen using only stag horns for manipulative expediency and here I am thinking “come on, don’t let me down with this bad behaviour! That’s just not sporting, Hannibal. P.S. I would come to a dinner party at your place and I don’t rightly understand why.”

So why don’t we have as many female characters drawn that way?

It could be that we have restrictive views on women. There’s a school of thought that some religions (and by extension cultures) only view women as virgins or whores. Women can either be all good or all bad and it’s generally men who get to decide which women is defined as what.

The virgins are virtuous and uphold what is expected is good about women – which is normally a restriction of action and reaction. The whores by extension are without virtue and therefore conform to what is thought to be bad about women. Both are victims.

But such labeling restricts female characters truly adding to popular culture because they are left in tiny paddocks of irrelevance and unable to develop. It’s either / or but rarely both which is boring.

But, as we’ve discussed, men get to be both.

So what about those rare female exceptions like Amy Jellicoe?

Rising in popularity

Thankfully, tv is giving us more unlikable characters who we somehow end up supporting. Hannah Horvath is an unfriend-click just waiting to happen, a confounding and challenging hot mess who we just want to get her shit together and get better.

Leslie Knope from Parks and Rec is an overbearing control freak but hot damn if I don’t cry and get the giggles when things go her way. Ultimately – Leslie’s goodness and unstinting, altruistic compassion and dedication has us supporting her but she still has incredibly visible and unlikable flaws which are played for humour.

Carrie Mathison from Homeland puts in more mileage points on the angry tears front, battles incalculable odds and still unpicks knotty conspiracies and intimidating organisations and we’re behind her every step of the way knowing her intelligence will pull her through….even while she’s shagging the presumed bad guy. As Saul says “you are the smartest and the dumbest fucking person”.

The angry, unaware woman

It’s one of the delightful contrasts of perception versus reality that when Amy is at her most unhinged, free from the burdens of trying to act enlightened that she truly becomes enlightened. Her presence scares others – former assistant Krista in particular often watches Amy in wide-eyed terror, like a survivor waiting for the inevitable.

We love Amy when she’s angry because she finally becomes real and taps into that terrifying well of the often unused angry woman archetype. Whereas an angry man could be considered predictable – an angry woman is unpredictable They’re terrifying.

It’s because when Amy tries to be perfect, tries to be enlightened she’s a shallow, cloying pain in the arse. Her voice reaches a bizarre note that just rankles and makes your shoulders curl with its insincerity. Her very attempt to be serene and enlightened feels like a manipulative deception where she gets to play dress up.

Amy trying to be likable is when she is at her most unlikable.

This insincerity is particularly amplified when we see Amy reunited with therapy buddy Sandy.

It’s the gelato scene that gets me the most. The thank you that says “you were the most meaningful interaction I had today” insincerity. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thankful for gelato – I’m just never that thankful.

With Sandy, we learn to feel a smidge of gratitude for Amy as a character because Amy shows her depths – those depths are angry and raw, they’re imperfect, unpredictable and unlikable but they are there, they are committed and they will not give up.

It’s the lack of perfection, the abundance of flaws without the need for perfect one liners or polite stoicism that’s so entertaining. It’s the hypocrisy of wanting to create peace and truth with change which is actually borne from Amy Jellicoe’s angry frustration at being helpless & without power, which is just as raw as her need for acceptance and vanity.

And yet despite her insincerity, despite her lack of external awareness – Amy Jellicoe still affects change. Amy Jellicoe – unlikable as she is – becomes a heroine.

Why we support unlikable characters

So why do we want Amy Jellicoe to succeed despite disliking her?

Because if drama is all about conflict, we want someone who is naturally able to create it wherever they go. That’s Amy Jellicoe. She’s unlikable. The very act of her trying to be nice is horrifically, cringingly unlikable. No really, she’s a terrible person. Don’t listen to Ronnie. She’s the worst.

But when we’re supporting unlikable characters, we’re supporting actually supporting the anti-hero.

Essentially, anti-heroes defy our archetype of heroes in that they can become that agent of change Amy Jellicoe so desperately wishes to be and yet the anti-hero rarely contains any heroic or good qualities themselves.

That’s Amy – she’s unlikable, she’s vain, she’s horrible and manipulative and uncaring and self-absorbed but she is an agent of change that creates goodness.

We need these anti-heroes in our popular culture because we live in a society where gods fall, angels have singed wings and heroes are just mortal men and women make as many errors as they do achievement. Boring tales about perfect heroes won’t cut it. Wars have taught us there is no victory without casualty and popular culture followed suit.

To see a perfect hero or heroine battle the odds and emerge victorious with no personal revelation or struggle is boring. It’s so boring, it’s by the numbers empty entertainment. It’s the well-worn tracks of Criminal Minds, the cartoon japery of Scooby Doo or whatever “must see” life drama about confused 20-30 somethings channel 10 is currently offering up that it cloned from fossilized amber extracted from the corpse of “the Secret Life of Us”. It’s boring.

And then we have Amy Jellicoe who has somehow hitched the idea of her personal happiness to the epic goal of enlightenment and community service. That it is entwined with her inability to go through a day without offending  someone who means well just adds to the entertainment.

Part of it is perhaps an embrace of traits we often reject in ourselves. Sometimes we cry in toilets, sometimes we have friendships with people who don’t really like us, sometimes we’re so desperate to feel some semblance of control and power in our life we get frustrated and flail like screeching babies, sometimes the life we thought we were going to have never arrives and sometimes (and hey, I may be projecting here) but sometimes we just manage to fuck really good things up with our feelings and the unrestrained chaos of our personalities.

So to see someone achieve and affect change despite being an unlikable and monumental screw up? Well, it’s pretty good. Ultimately, it gives us hope.

Thank you

One Response to “ACMI speech: Enlightened and the need for unlikable women”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Bad and unlikable girls [Audio of me & others blabbering on] | Amy Gray | Pesky Feminist - January 28, 2014

    […] are some recordings taken from ACMI, discussing both the need for unlikable women re Enlightenment (transcript) and cultural appropriation in music video. I heartily recommend attending one of ACMI’s […]

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