“Crazy” women have been dominating our screens lately. On Game of Thrones — the biggest show on television in both scope and viewership — Lena Headey’s Cersei Lannister smiled as she watched the world burn. Meanwhile, in movie theaters, Margot Robbie’s manic Harley Quinn is at the center of Suicide Squad, which is currently dominating the box office. Unhinged and unbalanced female characters are having their moment in the sun, and it’s about damn time.
Consider their male counterparts: The entertainment world realized that stalwart, square male leads were boring years ago. It’s why Peak TV has been overwhelmed by male antiheroes: Tony Soprano, Walter White, Vic Mackey, Don Draper, Jax Teller, Rust Cohle, Jaime Lannister. Movies have been slower to catch on, as Hollywood generally is. But if you think of the most iconic movie characters of the last decade, it’s far more riddled with unbalanced men: Donnie Darko, Heath Ledger’s Joker, Loki, Captain Jack Sparrow. Even Seth Rogen’s perpetually affable man-child type always comes with layers of subtle chaotic urges.
Women have been making strides with Melissa McCarthy’s aggressive scene-stealing in Bridesmaids, Kate McKinnon’s Holtzmann in Ghostbusters, and with Jessica Jones and Kimmy Schmidt on the small screen. But Cersei and Harley Quinn are a different kind of crazy. They aren’t endearingly weird or charmingly quirky: they are wild to the point of being murderously batshit sociopaths. And that’s interesting.
Cersei’s scene in the Game of Thrones finale lit us all up more than her fellow female character Daenerys ever did, because Daenerys belongs to the old model of Strong Female Character. She’s a straightforward “hero” whose every repetitive speech is a big yawn. Similarly, though Suicide Squad somehow couldn’t scrape together much of a coherent story, Harley Quinn’s erratic emoting still left audiences wanting more from her.
For too long, female characters have been relegated to playing the Bland Leading Woman or the Shrill Harpy. Cersei and Harley mark the dawn of the era for a different kind of female character, One for whom “likability” is not a factor, because she’s compelling enough without it. This mode of women is unapologetically unbalanced without being one-dimensional. She has no regard to what the audience thinks of her, and ironically, it makes us like her more.
Male antiheroes have had their moment in the sun for years, and between Cersei, Harley Quinn, and Cate Blanchett scheduled to appear as the first primary female villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, morally grey women are lighting the world on fire more than ever. And it’s burning bright.