Mad Women, Crazy Women: The Subversion of Gender Roles in Netflix’s ‘Dead To Me’

In 1991, Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise proved that there was a space for women in the buddy film and road movie genres that had been largely dominated by male protagonists. Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon’s eponymous characters were well-developed, complex and life-like; their touching and authentic friendship remaining centre stage as they fought back against men who sexually assaulted, harassed, or manipulated them. While Thelma and Louise and its message of gender parity and female empowerment was ahead of its time in many ways, female friendship continues to lie at the heart of some of the most popular (and funny) films and television shows, such as LadyBird, Bridesmaids, Orange is the new Black, and most recently, Booksmart. Netflix’s self-described ‘traumedy’ series Dead to Me, which focuses on the unlikely friendship between Judy (Linda Cardellini) and Jen (Christina Applegate), was created by 2 Broke Girls’ writer Liz Feldman. Though executive producers include the likes of Will Ferrell and Adam McKay (also executive producers on Booksmart), the show features four female writers and six female directors. While Jen and Judy appear to have nothing in common – real-estate agent Jen swears in every other sentence and refuses to admit that she’s not coping, whereas Judy burns incense, makes art, smokes weed and works in an elderly home – their friendship is both refreshing and relatable, with detailed discussions of pubic hair and the word ‘poontang’ used more than once. But it’s not just the core friendship of the narrative that subverts the male buddy concept we’re so used to seeing on screens; mastectomies, miscarriages and a riff on the trope of ‘mad women’ makes Dead to Me one of the most original television shows of recent years.

What brings Jen and Judy together, initially, and also forms the premise of the show, is grief. Representations of grief in film and TV aren’t exactly few and far between, but Jen’s reaction to her trauma is one of anger, an emotion that women rarely show on screen without being dismissed as ‘crazy’ or too emotional. Jen’s preferred therapy method is singing (or shouting) along to heavy metal in her car and sweating out her anger on an exercise bike. She also inspects every car she sees with a ‘person-sized dent’ on its bumper, and in a pivotal scene, smashes a flashy sports car with a golf club after suspecting the speeding driver is the prime suspect for her husband’s hit-and-run. Although she shows vulnerability at times, she is undoubtedly the show’s ‘tough cookie’: when she is the recipient of an unwanted sexual advance from a stranger, she punches him in the face and escapes, telling him ‘no means fucking no’ (chiming with Thelma and Louise’s message of women fighting back against predatory behaviour from men).

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After the submissive, servile women that have frequented our screens for years – in film, take your pick from anything from It’s a Wonderful Life to Goodfellas, whose character simply served to progress the narrative of the male protagonist(s) – complex, fallible and yes, angry women have been having a moment recently. In the era of Trump and MeToo, women on screen have controlled their own narratives, screaming, swearing, and often showing aggression in films such as Widows, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and I, Tonya (two out of three of these narratives are also, as in Dead to Me, centred around female grief). But we only have to look as recently as 2018, when Serena Williams furiously protested a referee’s ostensibly unfair penalty in her match against Naomi Osaka, to see that angry women aren’t often received well. Dead to Me’s Jen follows in the footsteps of Breaking Bad’s Skyler and Mad Men’s Betty, who were not popular with audiences. However, Jen cannot be portrayed as the villain – she’s our protagonist and our way into the narrative. This is not to say that her actions aren’t problematic, because every single character in this show does morally questionable things; James Marsden’s Steve manipulates ex-girlfriend Judy whenever he can, knowing too well her impressionable nature, and Judy twists and hides the truth behind her involvement in the hit-and-run throughout practically the whole season, in order to befriend Jen and subsequently stay in her life.

Steve’s masterful manipulation becomes clearer throughout the series, and the audience’s distaste for him only heightens when he tells Jen that Judy is crazy; an adjective that most women and girls are used to hearing, whether it’s directed at them or someone they know. The trope of the ‘mad woman’, the hysterical, unhinged woman, has been around at least since Sylvia Plath’s iconic novel The Bell Jar, and now encompasses women from Glenn Close’s bunny boiler Alex in Fatal Attraction, to Gone Girl’s Amy (Rosamund Pike), who meticulously frames her cheating husband for her own murder. In Dead to Me, Judy tells Jen that ‘nuts’ was practically Steve’s nickname for her during their tumultuous relationship, but we also see him calling her stupid, convincing her never to tell a soul their dark secret, refusing to be involved when he thinks she is pregnant with his child, and arranging a restraining order against her before violating it himself by visiting her at work. What’s worse is that, after every interaction between Judy and Steve that results in his apologising to her – raising his voice, mocking her, calling her names – she immediately tells him ‘it’s okay’ [GD5] and forgives him. Steve assuages his guilt by finding a way to spin every story of his relationship with Judy to portray her as insane and in the wrong, even telling Jen he’s a ‘good guy’, but that Judy has ruined his life. Though when Jen rants to Judy that “Men call women nuts and crazy way too often just to undermine us”, she is clearly not solely referring to Steve. Jen refuses to be manipulated or threatened by Steve, by her two sons, or, as we see in flashbacks, by her late husband Ted. She refuses to let men belittle her emotions, whether they be anger, sadness or frustration, and her rejection of the ‘crazy woman’ stereotype speaks to every woman and girl whose emotions have been invalidated and passed off as ‘nuts’.

Dead to Me even features an interesting reversal of the sexualisation of female characters we often see on screen. When Jen and Judy go on a retreat to Palm Springs with their grief support group Friends of Heaven, the camera focuses on a shirtless man who Jen later goes home with, before his outpour of grief for his late wife pre-emptively ends their tryst. The close-ups of his body (a-la Bond girl) provide a convincing argument for a post-Mulvey female gaze, where both the camera and the women on screen fetishize the man. Plus, the little screen time or narrative purpose that Jen’s would-be one-night stand is granted is reminiscent of the inconsequential, poorly written women we usually see, whose character development rarely stretches further than as a male protagonist’s love interest (again, see: every Bond girl).

There is also something to be said for the two central female characters of the show being women over forty. Hollywood actresses such as Liv Tyler and Maggie Gyllenhaal have discussed the inevitable decline in film and TV offers after reaching a certain age; Jen and Judy are both in their middle-age but aren’t simply portrayed as wives or mothers. Their relationships were complicated and strained: Jen’s difficult marriage to Ted is shown through flashbacks, with his sudden death being the catalyst for the show, and Judy (who initially pretends to be a fellow widow to befriend Jen), experiences a failed engagement to Steve eight weeks prior to their meeting. Additionally, the exploration of motherhood in the show radically subverts the expectation of women as maternal beings. While Judy longs to be a mother but struggles to get pregnant, Jen is a mum of two boys, constantly battling with feelings of failure as a mother and attempting to balance her demanding career – Ted was a stay at home dad – with her domestic life. Indeed, both women’s stories challenge the idea of what it is to be a woman. Jen’s tearful recollection of the last year of her and Ted’s marriage, in which her husband refused to touch her due to her double mastectomy, becomes more emotional when you discover that Applegate persuaded Feldman to include this storyline mid-filming, as the actress herself had the operation after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. “I don’t think there’s a lot of characters out there with double mastectomies”, Applegate has stated about this decision, and it’s true – watching Dead to Me was definitely the first time I had seen this story represented on screen.

A more common storyline, and one which has been shown time and time again in both TV and film, is that of domestic violence. While abusive relationships are often portrayed as abusive towards the woman – and Steve’s emotionally manipulative and threatening behaviour towards Judy certainly falls into this category – a handful of narratives have shown domestic violence turned the other way. In David E. Kelly’s drama series Big Little Lies, Alexander Skarsgaård’s antagonist Perry regularly hurts wife Celeste (Nicole Kidman) in heated arguments, and she often retaliates by hitting him back. While Perry’s treatment of Celeste (and other women in the series) is inexcusable and incomparable to Celeste’s response, the show breaks the mould by representing a domestic abuse victim as someone who refuses to be a victim. Similarly, in Dead to Me, Jen never alludes to Ted being physically violent towards her, but tearfully admits to Judy in the show’s finale that she hit him – in the last interaction the couple would ever have, before Ted storms out of the house and is later killed. The violence Jen incurs onto Ted isn’t glorified or turned into a gag, but it does contribute to a narrative whereby women aren’t the silent and subservient victims. This is confirmed by the shocking climactic scene of the series, that shows Jen shooting and ostensibly killing Steve, after he attempts to turn her against Judy and refuses to leave her property. Jen consistently defends herself against the hurtful and manipulative men in her life, something she inspires Judy, who is naturally more compliant, to do more of.

The refreshing representation of women in Dead to Me subverts the long-held notions and stereotypes of femininity and gender roles that we still see on screen. While Feldman and co’s script is slightly on the nose at times – multiple, over-the-top opportunities for Judy to tell Jen the truth mean that we can spot the writer’s hand at times – Jen and Judy’s friendship is the most integral, heart-warming and inventive part of the show. It is one that’s summed up early on in the series when Steve asks Judy, “What kind of friendship is based on lies? And manslaughter?”, Judy replies, “A layered one?”