By Ryan McGee
If you believe the economic realities on display in several of ABC’s recent comedic programming, then you think that current vocational trends predominately favor women. In terms of television, however, this “mancession” simply doesn’t exist, especially when it comes to developing strong three-dimensional women that can support a program’s narrative. Characters like Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation and Alicia Florrick on The Good Wife are exceptions that prove the rule, to an extent. But even their arcs are based within an ensemble structure, a structure which has strengthened the shows even while decentralizing their female protagonists.
Should shows be built around a single character pillar, regardless of gender? That’s a perfectly good question to ask. Breaking Bad didn’t really gain power until Walter White stopped overshadowing his onscreen compatriots. And Parks started to flourish only after simultaneously toning Leslie down while expanding the world around her. But it’s infinitely more likely to launch a show based around a chemistry teacher gone to seed than an overly optimistic female government worker seeking to improve her community. We’re somehow more OK with the former than the latter, at least in our entertainments.
The problem isn’t just that there are so few females in the anti-hero position. It’s that the anti-hero position is such a default in television following The Shield that it’s limited the way in which stories can be told on the small screen. Leslie Knope’s optimism is downright revolutionary in comparison to her narcissistic, self-loathing, yet self-justifying counterparts in primetime. It’s not enough to simply be an ordinary person that strives to do good only to face obstacle after obstacle in achieving that goal. We have to watch shows give us walking talking figures that are grotesque, funhouse mirror versions of our own worst impulses in order to either work through our own issues or take heart in knowing our vices pale in comparison to the Tony Sopranos, Vic Mackeys, and Jax Tellers of the world.
When females do end up in this “anti-hero” slot, the shows don’t often know what do with them. A long string of semi-recent Showtime programs have dealt with complicated women, but often in uncomplicated ways. Other than The United States of Tara, which spent three seasons coming to grips with its own conceit, the network’s signature female-led shows demonstrate women behaving badly without true context for their actions. As such, their supposedly outlandish behavior exists in a curious vacuum in which Jackie Peyton, Cathy Jamison, and Nancy Botwin pantomime grief, rage, and illicit behavior in a relatively sterilized environment. They don’t get into the true moral muck of their male counterparts, often because the shows shy away from making these women into the monsters men are so often allowed to become.
All of which makes me wonder why we’ve decided that horrible people need to be at the center of shows, when simply having flawed ones will do. Enter Cordelia Chase, someone not high on the list of even Joss Whedon acolytes as the poster child for basing an ideal television lead upon. I’m not here to start a flame war over whether or not Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Angel was the overall better show. But I am here to say that I tend to prefer Angel by a slim margin, and Cordelia Chase helps tip the balance in that show’s scale. That may make many of you reach for your replica Mr. Stabbys and seek to stake me. But hear me out.
Cordelia Chase appeared in the very first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on March 10, 1997, and made her finale appearance on Angel in its 100th episode nearly seven years later. Like many characters on Buffy, she was initially written as a stereotype only to reveal hidden layers along the way. Big deal, you say: so did everyone else on that show. Which is fair, but what’s intriguing about Cordelia is that her story, like that of Xander’s, was initially one in which she was an ordinary person caught up in extraordinary circumstances. Buffy was the Slayer, Willow eventually turned into the world’s most powerful witch, and Giles was both a Watcher and an excellent performer of Who covers.
But Cordy? She didn’t have anything going for her except the nagging feeling that she should be doing more with her life. Her original status as the Mean Girl stemmed from economic and social superiority, but like many pop culture figures in that position, it was a façade more than a reality, a role that she played because she saw no other way. It’s interesting that what inspires her trip to Los Angeles (and, by extension, over to Angel) after graduation from Sunnydale isn’t anything demonic, but rather mundane: tax fraud. Stripped bare of both economic comfort and psychological comfort post-graduation, she moves to LA to become an actress. Of course, what she finally finds is purpose.