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“Dead to Me” and the Representation of Female Rage

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The Simpsons was on our TV a lot when I was kid – as it was in tens of millions of households across America. I remember an episode in which Bart did something cruel to Lisa, and Lisa snapped. She lunged at him with tears in her eyes, at which point Marge caught her and urged her to calm down. Lisa told her mother how angry she was about the incident. “You’re a woman,” Marge replied. “You can hold onto it forever.”

Sex and the City was on my TV a lot when I was a young adult. When a boyfriend of Carrie’s broke up with her by leaving a one-sentence note on a post it, Carrie did her best to contain her anger, determined not to dignify his actions with a response. That backfired on her when she ran into his friends at a nightclub, and when they defended him, explaining that angry women are scary (the exact line was “psycho bitch”), her anger exploded.

Women have a lot to be angry about these days. The #MeToo movement brought the lifelong tensions of being a woman to a boiling point, and the backlash was swift. These days, looking at the news or logging on to social media makes the frustrating reality of being female almost completely inescapable.

Last month, with much of this anxiety on my mind (as it always is), I watched Dead to Me, a new dark comedy on Netflix about a 40-something woman whose husband abruptly dies, leaving her with two kids and a whole lot of anger and resentment. As much as I appreciated the satirical commentary on the repressed anger of women on shows like those mentioned above, the addition of Dead to Me made me wonder: is TV finally willing to actually represent angry women?

Christina Applegate gives a spectacular performance as Jen, a woman deep in the anger phase of her grief cycle after the death of her husband. Her self-described version of meditation involves sitting in her car and blasting death metal music. She repeatedly lashes out her grief counselor and at prospective clients at work. She’s a woman who has internalized her anger so much, it’s part of her personality.

As the season progresses, the viewer – as well as Jen herself – comes to realize, both through reflection of the state of her marriage prior to her husband’s death and her friendship with the sweet, meditative, and good natured Judy (played by Linda Cardellini), that her anger is not just about her newfound state of widowhood. Rather, it’s an anger that has always lingered inside of her, and has always affected her personal and professional relationships; the sudden loss of her husband had not created the anger, but rather, violently shoved it all to the surface.

After watching Dead to Me, I struggled to think of any other examples from TV or film that allowed a female character – and a main character at that – to be angry, unless of course she’s playing the villain. Cruella DeVille was angry. Joan Crawford circa Mommie Dearest was angry. Every mean girl in every 90s teen movie was angry.

Back in the early 2000s, the show Lost featured a female character, Ana Lucia (played by Michelle Rodriguez) who was angry. Flashbacks on her storyline revealed that as a former police officer, she had been shot in the abdomen while pregnant, causing a miscarriage. Uma Thurman’s Beatrix from the Kill Bill movies was certainly angry, and she went on an epic crusade to punish everyone who had similarly caused the loss of her child.

The loss of a pregnancy or child is a damn good reason to be mad. But are women allowed to be angry about anything else? Are women allowed to be angry in general, rather than because of one specific trauma? Are we allowed to gesture vaguely at the entire world when asked why we’re feeling so grumpy? We are on Dead to Me.

We are living in an era where we have an unprecedented number of complicated, vulnerable, and subversive female characters in film and on television: Orange is the New Black, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, The Handmaid’s Tale, Fleabag, I love Dick, Russian Doll, Killing Eve, Insecure, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel – the list goes on and on – and it’s absolutely fantastic. But watching Applegate’s performance on Dead to Me? That was a kind of representation I never knew I needed.

Jessica Hobbs

About Jessica Hobbs

Jessica Hobbs spent the early part of her career working in technical theater, opera, and film festivals while earning her film degree at the University of Colorado. She spent a year touring with a Vaudeville show, which included a 3-week run at the New Victory Theater in New York. After five years working in Reality TV as a writer’s assistant and Associate Producer, she made the move to Los Angeles and took a job with the Sundance Institute, while also working as a freelance writer and producer for film, theatre, and TV.