'Dead to Me' Creator on Why It's Time for TV to Embrace Angry Women (Guest Column)
Liz Feldman explores how she handled her one frustrating (and expected) note from her studio — that Christina Applegate's character was "too angry."
I've never thought of myself as an angry person. I've never been a rager, a yeller or even a big disagree-er. If "Avoiding Confrontation" was an Olympic sport, I could have definitely medaled.
That said, for the past few years, because I'm a woman who lives in this world, I have felt a seething resentment brewing inside me. It's a growing disgust with the patriarchy and accompanying misogyny that seeks to control women, our bodies and our expectations of men. You know, that whole "It's 2019, our president's an admitted sexual assaulter, legal abortion is hanging on by a thread and the ERA still hasn't passed" thing.
But where do you put all that ire? What do you do with your anger when you were raised not to express it? How do you vent that disgust when you've been conditioned that angry women are bossy bitches who nobody wants to work with? Where do you funnel your rage? For me, the answer came subconsciously, when I started writing Dead to Me.
I didn't initially think of the character Jen, played brilliantly by Christina Applegate, as an angry person. But when I dug into her grief and sadness, I hit a big pool of righteous anger. She'd lived through such tragic circumstances that her only authentic response was rage. And yes, it was cathartic, empowering and really fun to write an angry, sometimes violent, always zero-fucks-giving woman. And it scared the shit out of some of our executives.
Now, 99 percent of the time, our studio and Netflix compatriots were incredibly, almost absurdly, supportive. I'm not saying that to kiss ass. It's true and I'm grateful for their support. Really, the only thing we got pushback on was Jen's anger. There was a genuine fear that it made her unlikable.
I, of course, was not surprised by the concern. It echoed my own fears about expressing anger — that people would think I'm a shrill, domineering monster undeserving of love, kindness and employment.
But getting the "Jen's too angry" note did something very surprising, and meta, to me. It pissed me the fuck off. For the first time in my life, I got confrontational. I was angry that there was fear around her anger. In my mind, Jen had every right to be enraged. She lost her husband in an unsolved hit-and-run, leaving her to parent two boys alone, surrounded by people who don't know how to deal with her version of grief. How could she not be irate? And why isn't angry likable? It's a basic human emotion! It's one of our primary colors! It's just not a look we're used to seeing on a woman, which makes it all the more interesting to explore. Those were a few of my more publishable sentiments, peppered with some F-bombs, served with a sharp tone in my voice I didn't even recognize. It turned out writing an angry woman got me in touch with the one I'd been repressing for 40 years.
There were some obvious explanations for my frustration, starting with the clear double standard. If the roles were reversed, and Jen was John, we would have never gotten the note. Angry male characters are seen as lovable curmudgeons. Or tough guys. Or brilliant, misunderstood doctors. Or cops. Or dads. But you write an angry woman and you've created a monster. She's scary, unsettling and upsetting. And you want to know why? An angry woman is powerful. An angry woman rejects the notion that women are the weaker, gentler sex. An angry woman is uncontrollable. And as we know now, she's also very relatable.
I didn't take the note that we should soften Jen and dull her sharp edges. If anything, the writers and I doubled down. We leaned into her anger; we let it drive the character and possibly even ruin her. It never felt like a risk; it felt like a duty. And it seems to have worked. Christina Applegate playing a justifiably angry widow turned out to be pretty fucking likable. Dead to Me was just picked up for a second season. And I promise, Jen's anger is only picking up too.
This story first appeared in the June 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.