Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

The double standard of women in comedy television

Female characters often suffer at the hands of writers and audiences
Photo Courtesy of the official Succession Facebook page.

The role of women characters in comedy television shows has evolved and taken on many forms throughout the decades. From “I Love Lucy” to “Abbot Elementary,” how women are portrayed and perceived has changed throughout the history of sitcoms.

Women in television, and in life, are often held to a much higher standard than the men around them, and modern TV comedies are no exception. Through the actions of both those behind the screen and in front of it, female characters are placed on a moral pedestal and violently pushed from it at the slightest misstep.

I want to explore two specific cases: Siobhan Roy (Sarah Snook) from the acclaimed HBO comedy drama “Succession” and Nadja of Antipaxos (Natasia Demetriou) from FX’s “What We Do in the Shadows.” These two characters share much in common, as they are the only female leads in the majority male casts of their shows, they’re written in a similar style and they received similar audience receptions.

Shiv Roy, the politically-minded, sole female member of the Roy family, has had an interesting and complex arc throughout the first 3 seasons of “Succession.” She begins as a flowy-haired, oversized sweater-wearing political consultant working for liberal candidates, much to the chagrin of her conservative family. Shiv is snarky and determined, more self-assured than her brother Kendall (Jeremy Strong) and more competent than her brother Roman (Kieran Culkin). She seems uninterested in competing in the race for their father Logan’s (Brain Cox) crown, yet by season 2 she did a complete 180 degree turn.

Now dressed in pantsuits and sporting a sleek new bob, she is vying for the top job along with her brothers. Shiv becomes less of an outsider to her family, suddenly as deeply invested in Waystar-Royco as the rest of them. While her change of heart (and wardrobe) are understandable developments in the plot of the show, her personal rationale and the emotions that go along with it are never given the same attention as any of the male characters. After barely acknowledging these drastic changes in aesthetics and goals, the show moves along as Shiv becomes increasingly embroiled in the family business and accompanying drama.

Shiv’s psychology and motives are rarely broached to the extent that the other Roy children’s are. We primarily see her as conniving and ruthless throughout the show, but she is occasionally tender and caring with her husband, Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen). Apart from those moments with her romantic interest, we are rarely invited into the emotional world of Shiv Roy. This oversight proves detrimental when it comes to audience reception of her character. While the men around her are equally, if not more, morally egregious, the blow of their terrible actions is softened by the human light cast upon them. Shiv is given no such graces. Fans of the show adore and fawn over the men despite — and sometimes because of — their shortcomings, but many will disparage Shiv in the same breath. The double standard created here by the showrunners is blindly maintained by the audience.

Nadja of Antipaxos of “What We Do in the Shadows” is a five century old vampire who lives with her husband Laszlo Cravensworth (Matt Berry), who she herself turned into a vampire. She also lived with Nandor the Relentless (Kavyan Novak), another vampire and former esteemed general of fictional country Al Qolnidar, his familiar Guillermo de la Cruz (Harvey Guillen) and energy vampire Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch). Nadja is from the Greek island of Antipaxos and comes from mixed Greek and Romani heritage. Nadja is quick-witted, easy to anger and ruthless. Throughout the show Nadja becomes more ambitious and learns to go after the things she wants, from earning a seat on the International Vampiric Council to starting her own nightclub. Her character development is mostly subtle and goes unrecognized by the others, but there are still notable differences between season 1 and season 4.

Nadja encounters a similar issue to Shiv, in which her character is not awarded the same level of respect and moral leniency as the men around her. While the male vampires she lives with are consistently able to get away with actions that are objectively reprehensible, she is held to her misdeeds by the writers and the fans alike. Not only is she not provided a proper understanding of her character and the show as a whole, she is also given the least amount of development and backstory out of the main characters. We know little about her origins and psychology compared to the other vampires in the house (Laszlo and Nandor), and even human familiar Guillermo, who is treated by the vampires as inconsequential and pesky. When we are given glimpses into Nadja’s past and inner workings, they are often treated as silly jokes, somehow coming across as more meaningless and lighthearted than other bits even for a show notorious for its ridiculous humor.

By fans, Nadja is often reduced to an ironic “girl boss” label, in reference to her bloodlust and political and entrepreneurial endeavors throughout the show. She alone is seen as dramatic and hysterical, even when the male vampires are equally as reactive and impulsive as she is. This view of her, even if intended in jest, detracts from a nuanced understanding of her character and the issues she faces as the sole woman in the house.

These characters are perfect examples of how TV writers and audiences are still misusing and misunderstanding women characters. The lack of depth and care afforded to telling their stories on the part of the writers, and the way fans tend to reinforce the lackluster writing instead of questioning it, are symptoms of a larger problem that the film and TV industry has always perpetuated. Women on screen have long been mirrors to every facet of misogyny, and even those classified under feminist buzzwords like “strong female lead” and “girl boss” are not immune to the pervasive culture of sexism that exists, though sometimes covertly, in every corner of society.

Jamie Long can be reached at [email protected].

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