There’s no character in the queer TV canon as universally reviled as Jenny Schecter. She holds the distinction of being loathed by lesbian and bisexual fans as much as she is by mainstream critics. Even now, almost a decade after The L Word‘s final season, with LGBTQ+ representation at unprecedented heights, we still hold her up as our ultimate villain. Her name is a curse, a swear, a shortcut for derision. She is a model of bad behavior.
A few years ago, during her run on SYFY’s post-apocalyptic space-western, Defiance, I interviewed Mia Kirshner, and our conversation inevitably turned to Jenny. Kirshner loved Jenny. She was surprised when I said I loved Jenny, too (she laughed), but when I compared Jenny to Don Draper she was stunned into silence. She’d spent years hearing from every person inside and out of the queer women’s community that Jenny Schecter was nothing more than a crazy bitch. “You think Jenny’s like Don Draper?” she asked after a very long pause, and when I listed the reasons why I did, she laughed again and said, “Whoa.”
Jenny and Don were both survivors of abuse and trauma inflicted on them in childhood, adults who’d settled into idyllic lives with adoring partners, and then burned it all down. They were both selfish, petulant, erratic narcissists; both constantly promising themselves and other people they’d get better, do better; and failing in the face of perpetual existential crisis and a self-destructive lack of impulse control. They self-harmed. They were endlessly petty with their critics. They were great observers of the human condition with the ironic inability to parse out their own motivations. They pushed and pushed away the people who saw them for who they really were, the people who really loved them. They demolished their lives, the things they claimed were important to them, systematically, in perpetuity.
The main difference between them, of course, is that Don Draper was endlessly rewarded in his show and in the real world, while Jenny Schecter was mercilessly punished in both.
“I’ve been doing these really terrible things.”
The Golden Age of TV is a playground for the white male anti-hero, and you don’t have to dig very deep into critical or fandom discourse to see the sexism at play in the way we talk these men compared to their women counterparts. Draper, Dexter, Tony Soprano, Nick Brody, Dr. House — they’re fascinating, sly, cheeky, sexy, charming, compelling, riveting. They don’t need to be likable. Men behave badly. Nurse Jackie, though? She’s psychotic. Patty Hewes? Ruthless. Nancy Botwin? Unhinged.
Nowhere is this double standard more apparent than on Breaking Bad. Walter White is a violent, manipulative, pathological narcissist and meth dealer. His main foil — which is to say: the moral compass of the show — is his wife, Skylar. It seems cut and dry that she’s the good guy in their fictional world and he’s the bad guy, but that’s the opposite of internet consensus. In a 2017 New York Times op-ed titled “I Have a Character Issue,” Anna Gunn detailed the bewildering anger and loathing she encountered while playing Skylar.
“A typical online post complained that Skyler was a ‘shrieking, hypocritical harpy’ and didn’t ‘deserve the great life she has,'” Gunn wrote. “[She] was a ball-and-chain, a drag, a shrew, an ‘annoying bitch wife.'” And the vitriol didn’t stop on the “I Hate Skyler White” Facebook pages and message boards; some viewers ultimately turned on Gunn herself. “Could somebody tell me where I can find Anna Gunn so I can kill her?” was a typical comment she encountered.
This TV Golden Age double standard isn’t something that’s been noted only by women. Former A.V. Club TV Editor and current Vox critic at large Todd VanDerWerff made huge waves in 2014 when he wrote about how his fellow critics and the commenters at the A.V. Club held men and women TV characters, and male- and female-fronted TV shows, to completely different standards. He invited readers to scroll down the comments of his article — or, in fact, any TV recap or review — and defy his observation that male TV characters could be lauded for the worst behavior, while women had to be both likable and fuckable to avoid ridicule and scorn. He even called out his own response to early episodes of Laura Dern’s Enlightened. “The show was called everything from annoying to self-involved — just like any number of too-emotional women who are often up in people’s personal space,” he wrote.
“Do you remember the shit that happened to you as a kid that made you not want to trust people as an adult?”
What makes Jenny Schecter and Don Draper’s juxtaposition especially interesting and increasingly relevant is that both of their stories centered on them being tortured artists. They both dissociated when they relived their past traumas; they both suffered breaks from reality because of their childhood abuse; and they both used their anguish to fuel their art.
It’s no surprise that Jenny’s tortured artistry earned her contempt while Don’s earned him respect. Lord Byron laid the groundwork for celebrating male “creative geniuses” behaving badly in both his poetry and his life in the 1800s; and, until very recently, we’ve never questioned the veracity of the trope.
In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, Tara Isabella Burton published a brilliant piece for Vox examining the through line from Byron to Weinstein. “The ‘Byronic anti-hero’ has endured, from the tormented, disaffected Pechorin of Russian Romantic Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time to the Draco in Leather Pants of Harry Potter fanfiction,” she wrote.
Of course, these types of men aren’t just rewarded in fiction. There’s Weinstein, of course. But in the tidal wave of the #MeToo movement, dozens of famous women writers have spoken out about their encounters with men like him. For New York Magazine Emma Cline described powerful men in the publishing industry groping her, following her, making persistent and unwanted drunken advances on her with promises of promoting or ruining her career depending on how she responded. A few years earlier Claire Vaye Watkins’ Tin House essay “On Pandering” described similar harassment by men in the industry, specifically The Rumpus’ Stephen Elliott, who belittled her in his public newsletter when she refused to have sex with him. “I’m not presenting Stephen Elliott as a rogue figure,” she wrote, “but as utterly emblematic.”
In Burton’s Vox piece she details her own harassment at the hands of famous writers and editors, and offers forth similar experiences recounted by dozens of women in other publications at the hands of different men.
For Byronic heroes, their creativity and keen intelligence sets them apart. The rewards for their mental and emotional struggles are popular praise and a ceaseless supply of women willing to fuck them. Women, in fact, exist almost solely to be fucked.
Don Draper knew that, and Jenny Schecter did too. To be a woman, she explained to her predatory roommate Mark, is to “walk out that door and… walk down the street, and anybody that wants to fuck you, say, ‘Sure! Sure! No problem!’ And when they do, you have to say, ‘Thank you very, very much.’ And make sure that you have a smile on your face.”
“I’m not suicidal, I just fucked up my life a little bit.”
You don’t have to watch prestige dramas or premium cable, or read The Romantic poets to engage with this idea. Look no further than Freeform’s Pretty Little Liars, one of the top-rated, most written about, most tweeted about shows of the last decade. Tortured “genius”/high school literature teacher Ezra Fitz seduced one of his 15-year-old students to infiltrate her friend group so he could stalk and surveil their every movement in an attempt to write a true crime novel about their murdered friend. Over the course of the show, he exploited his power at every turn, his nefarious and illegal actions perpetually hand-waved away as him being simply “too romantic for his own good.” Ezra ended the show a fan favorite, a best-selling novelist married to the adult woman he’d seduced when she was too young to drive a car.
Compare him to Alison DiLaurentis, whose crime was being a ninth grade mean girl, and who also happened to be a victim of stalking and sexual assault by her brother and his friends. To atone for her teenage bitchiness, she was married off to a sociopath who drugged her into oblivion, chained her to a bed, and raped her to impregnate her with someone else’s fertilized sperm and ovarian eggs. Thus “redeemed,” she was finally worthy of happiness and the love of a main character.
Pretty Little Liars is unique in the propagation of the Byronic hero in that it was showrun and executive produced by an openly gay woman. Most TV shows that prop up these tropes — like most TV shows, period — are written, produced, directed, and edited by men.
According to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, women comprised 27-28% of all creators, directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and directors of photography in the 2016-2017 TV season.
In her lauded New York Magazine piece, “Why Do We Humanize White Guys Who Kill People,” Rebecca Traister traced statistics like these to their logical end point. “In aggregate, when the statues are of white men,” she wrote, “and the buildings and cities and bridges and schools are named after white men, the companies are run by white men and the movie stars are white men and the television shows are about white men and the celebrated authors are white men, the only humanity that is presented as comprehensible — the kind that succeeds and fails, that comprises strength and weakness, that feels love and anger and alienation and fear, that embodies nuance and contradiction, that can be heroic and villainous, abusive and gentle — is the humanity of white men.”
“I mean, I try really hard.”
I’ve been thinking about that conversation I had with Mia Kirshner a lot lately, about the canonization of the male anti-hero and how our minds have helplessly yielded to the idea that white men, alone, deserve compassion in the grey areas or at the edges of their humanity. I’ve been thinking about women navigating a society defined by the white men who control an industry that shields them from recourse against accusations of abuse, assault, and harassment. I’ve been thinking about how those white men continue to create TV shows and movies that perpetuate the centuries-old belief that they aren’t beholden to society’s rules or standards, stacking impunity and power on top of impunity and power.
Most recently I thought about Don Draper and Jenny Schecter when I watched Donald Trump speak at a political rally the very day his former campaign manager was convicted on eight counts of financial fraud and his former personal lawyer and fixer pleaded guilty to a variety of serious charges, both of which seemed to further implicate Trump in any number of high crimes. He stood on the podium that day, head held high, and led his followers in the blood-thirsty refrain millions of people who voted for him still sing — “Lock her up! Lock her up! Lock her up!”
On the last season of Mad Men, Don Draper blew up his life (again) and set off in his car heading west. Critics and fans speculated that he’d kill himself, or that he’d be murdered, that he’d pay the price, on-screen, for seven seasons of destructive behavior and self-absorption. In the final moments of the show, having thrown off even his protégé Peggy Olson, the one person who’d stood by him through it all, he sat down on the grass in a field overlooking the Pacific Ocean. He closed his eyes. He hummed. A ding! He conceived “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke,” the greatest ad campaign of all time.
Jenny Schecter died face down in a pool, and her friends spent the final season of The L Word explaining why she’d fucking deserved it.
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