Just Because There’s No Female Tony Soprano Doesn’t Mean TV Can’t Have Great Female Antiheroes

Along with expressions of grief and shock, James Gandolfini’s untimely death prompted many critics to reflect on Tony Soprano, the actor’s defining role. And to the blogosphere’s credit, a solid chunk of that debate has centered not just on what Tony’s influence has changed in the world of television, but also what it hasn’t: since The Sopranos went off the air, audiences have seen a physician Tony (Greg House), a 1960s Tony (Donald Draper, of course), and a politician Tony (Francis Underwood), but we’ve yet to meet a female Tony. The absence of women from television’s current crop of antiheroes has been well noted by everyone from Flavorwire’s own Jason Bailey to The Atlantic’s Akash Nikolas, who offer a host of explanations for why women have yet to receive the Soprano treatment. But the reason there hasn’t been a female Tony Soprano may be that Tony isn’t a fitting template for women antiheroes — and creating convincing ones may require moving beyond The Sopranos, not following in its footsteps.

Of course, part of the reason there aren’t many female antiheroes in TV and film is that there are so many fewer women than men in TV shows and movies, period. With “At the Movies, Women Are Gone,” NPR’s Linda Holmes became the latest in a string of critics to bemoan women’s chronic underrepresentation among all protagonists, not just the conflicted ones. Holmes echoes the frustrations of female audiences everywhere, writing: “In many, many parts of the country right now, if you want to go to see a movie in the theater and see a current movie about a woman — any story about any woman that isn’t a documentary or a cartoon — you can’t. You cannot. There are not any.” Although Holmes is talking about the world of film, television doesn’t fare much better; as of December 2012, just 39 percent of primetime TV characters were women. And when women are fighting for any role they can get in an industry dominated by male directors and screenwriters, it’s hard to picture heroines becoming the norm anytime soon, let alone nuanced, complicated antiheroines.

But Nikolas’s Atlantic piece reveals another reason why we don’t find many female antiheroes: our current definition of the antihero constitutes an extremely narrow archetype, one that it’s difficult for any female character to fit. Nikolas spends the majority of his analysis running through the female leads that are increasingly prevalent in primetime television (there still aren’t nearly enough, of course, but Nikolas certainly has more material than he would have five years ago). Characters like Homeland’s Carrie Mathison, Nurse Jackie’s Jackie Peyton, and House of Cards’s Claire Underwood are proposed as possible successors to Tony Soprano, but dismissed for a number of increasingly nitpicky reasons: Carrie is too moral; Jackie is too funny; Claire is largely overshadowed by her husband.

WEEDS (Season 6)

If you’re using Tony as the gold standard, then it’s no wonder Carrie and company don’t measure up. With his debut in 1999, Tony defined the antihero according to a very limited set of criteria: violent, amoral, typically middle-aged, and humorless, or at least much more dramatic than comedic. And as Slate’s Alyssa Rosenberg points out when she argues “Why We’ll Never Have a Female Tony Soprano,” those criteria are heavily gendered: “The tension of an anti-hero comes from an audience rooting for a character against our better judgment, and again and again, the things that have lured us in have been masculine-coded traits.” Rosenberg cites Tony and Walter White’s suburban fatherhood and Don Draper’s dashing chauvinism as examples, concluding, “antiheroism is a specific way of exploring hypermasculinity and masculinity gone toxic.” Women, Rosenberg argues, are better off giving up on the hope of a female antihero altogether.

But are any of these qualities really intrinsic to the antihero? Or, by being the first character of his kind on primetime television, has Tony Soprano defined — and thus limited — our idea of what the antihero is? Take Nancy Botwin of Weeds, one of the many heroines Nikolas writes off as too comic to be a part of “the sea change of antiheroes” that followed The Sopranos. Nancy is selfish, impulsive, and irresponsible, and those qualities lead her to both her decidedly extralegal career as a pot dealer and repeatedly endanger her family. The comedy of Weeds doesn’t lessen the significance of Nancy’s flaws, or our ability to reconcile them with her role as the series’ protagonist, both crucial components of any antihero. Or, at least, it doesn’t unless viewers and critics expect Nancy to succeed on Tony’s terms rather than her own.

The same logic applies to Carrie Mathison, whose character is sketched entirely in shades of gray but still falls short of the moral depravity required of a Tony 2.0. Carrie hides vital information about her mental health from her CIA employers to keep her job and helps a terrorist escape law enforcement because of her feelings for him. These aren’t the actions of the selfless, level-headed lead of the typical anti-terrorism drama, yet Nikolas notes that Carrie’s just not bad enough to cross over into antiheroism — and she isn’t, compared to characters who run meth empires (Walter White) or kill people for political gain (Francis Underwood). Yet absolute evil isn’t a requirement for an antihero; it’s a requirement for being like Tony Soprano.

Limiting our understanding of the antihero to Tony Soprano and slight variations on him doesn’t just provide a needlessly limited definition of a trope that has much broader potential; it also denies female characters recognition as worthy dramatic protagonists. And there are plenty of worthy female antiheroes out there: Game of Thrones’s Cersei Lannister, American Horror Story’s Sister Jude, and even Elementary’s brilliant twist on Moriarty may not be drug kingpins or high-powered executives, but they deserve praise for pushing the boundaries of what a lead character can be. There won’t be a female Tony Soprano anytime soon, but it’s time to expand our view of the antihero beyond the heavyset mob boss. And female leads, whether they’re funny, moralistic, or just plain unconventional, are just the women for the job.