Why we need to see more good and bad female characters

After years of one-dimensional characters, it’s about time we started seeing the complexities of the female psyche on our screens. Here’s why it’s so important…

Complex, manipulative, dangerous… Words that, until a few years ago, you may not have associated with many female television characters.

Often one-dimensional and nearly always in secondary roles to their male counterparts, it’s only relatively recently that television has begun to truly satiate the demand for female-led drama – and it’s about time. 

After enjoying female-centric productions such as Broadchurch, Victoria, Vanity Fair and Unforgotten, picking up the baton this spring is a new four-part ITV drama, Cheat – a twist-packed psychological thriller starring former Coronation Street star Katherine Kelly and the BATFA award-winning Molly Windsor.

The drama hones in on the dangerous relationship between university professor Leah (Kelly) and her student Rose (Windsor). What seems to be a simple case of a student plagiarising an essay snowballs into a devastating chain of events. Writer Gaby Hull told Deadline that Cheat will “explore our closest relationships and how they construct and deconstruct our characters in the most fundamental, exciting, and in this case, extreme ways”.

Cheat is the latest example of a show that features multidimensional female characters and continues to raise the issue of why it’s so important, especially in 2019, to see both good and bad female roles portrayed on our screens.

Only 17% of people we asked could strongly recall a show in the last two years that had a female protagonist and 51% of people don’t expect women on TV to be villains.

But while viewer insights provide some interesting statistics, Toby Earle, the TV critic for London Live, provides an industry insider’s take on the issue. 

“They help to break down the female stereotypes that have long existed in the TV world – something writers have been working hard on over the last few years.

“Successful new shows have featured female protagonists (and antagonists) that have been complicated, flawed and perhaps not even likeable – traits that male leads have been allowed for yonks.” 

When it comes female directors, producer Lydia Hampson explained to Deadline that it was key in portraying Leah and Rose’s characters in Cheat.

“This show has two female leads, Katherine Kelly and Molly Windsor, playing two incredibly intelligent minds,” says Hampson. “It was important to me that these two women who outsmart each other at every move were guided by a woman reflecting their story, on the other side of the camera.”

Earle also explains that shows like Cheat are important, as they allow us to embrace unconventional roles for women.

“They defy the standard tropes such as ‘Concerned partner,’ ‘Nagger,’ or ‘Human narrative device’, which have been – and often still are – prevalent in television,” says Earle. 

And really when we ask ourselves, ‘How many times have you seen a female character limited to the girlfriend, or the bitch, undeniably catty, but undeniably lacking in depth?’, it’s a staggeringly high number, despite 92% of viewers preferring to watch shows that have both good and bad female characters. 

Seeing these types of characters helps us to break down these stereotypes in real life – to focus on women and their relationships with one another, not just in relation to their partnerships with men.

Despite progress, particularly for a younger audience who expect the content from channels and streaming services to reflect their own experiences and expectations from life, it’s still rare for a TV show to have not one but two lead female characters.

It’s well-documented that women consistently receive less screen time in film and television than men, let alone characters that are as complex as Rose and Leah, with their relationship characterised at times by desperation, manipulation and jealousy.

These are women who have multi-faceted personalities - they are complicated but kind, manipulative but damaged, loving but selfish – and these multi-faceted personalities reflect the actuality of women’s existence in 2019. Rose, for instance, is unashamed of her darkness, and that’s something we’re not used to seeing in female protagonists on television.

They also challenge our notions about what it means to be a woman and whether women should always be ‘likeable’.

This is something that psychologist Arthur Cassidy says TV producers have a duty to represent, in a world where women’s attitudes and behaviours are changing. 

“Objectively, TV producers have a responsibility to present characters that represent current male and female identities,” notes Cassidy.

“Women’s social psychological behaviours are changing in response to environmental pressures and occupational stressors. The personality traits of women on TV have to be accurately portrayed on balance without it being subservient to male roles.”

So, while Cassidy is in no way suggesting women are all turning to the dark side and this needs to be reflected on our screens, it’s important to understand that women can be complex characters.

“Previously, psychological thrillers have often failed to present a balanced portrayal of female identities showing their strength of character and emotional intelligence,” he adds.

Whether good, bad, dark, or light, we need to continue diversifying the range of female characters we’re seeing if we’re to achieve accurate representation of the complexities of the female psyche in all its glory.

Immerse yourself in the fascinating characters of psychological thriller Cheat, across four nights, starting Monday 11 March on ITV.