If you’re using Tony as the gold standard, then it’s no wonder Carrie and company don’t measure up. With his debut in 1999, Tony defined the antihero according to a very limited set of criteria: violent, amoral, typically middle-aged, and humorless, or at least much more dramatic than comedic. And as Slate’s Alyssa Rosenberg points out when she argues “Why We’ll Never Have a Female Tony Soprano,” those criteria are heavily gendered: “The tension of an anti-hero comes from an audience rooting for a character against our better judgment, and again and again, the things that have lured us in have been masculine-coded traits.” Rosenberg cites Tony and Walter White’s suburban fatherhood and Don Draper’s dashing chauvinism as examples, concluding, “antiheroism is a specific way of exploring hypermasculinity and masculinity gone toxic.” Women, Rosenberg argues, are better off giving up on the hope of a female antihero altogether.
But are any of these qualities really intrinsic to the antihero? Or, by being the first character of his kind on primetime television, has Tony Soprano defined — and thus limited — our idea of what the antihero is? Take Nancy Botwin of Weeds, one of the many heroines Nikolas writes off as too comic to be a part of “the sea change of antiheroes” that followed The Sopranos. Nancy is selfish, impulsive, and irresponsible, and those qualities lead her to both her decidedly extralegal career as a pot dealer and repeatedly endanger her family. The comedy of Weeds doesn’t lessen the significance of Nancy’s flaws, or our ability to reconcile them with her role as the series’ protagonist, both crucial components of any antihero. Or, at least, it doesn’t unless viewers and critics expect Nancy to succeed on Tony’s terms rather than her own.
The same logic applies to Carrie Mathison, whose character is sketched entirely in shades of gray but still falls short of the moral depravity required of a Tony 2.0. Carrie hides vital information about her mental health from her CIA employers to keep her job and helps a terrorist escape law enforcement because of her feelings for him. These aren’t the actions of the selfless, level-headed lead of the typical anti-terrorism drama, yet Nikolas notes that Carrie’s just not bad enough to cross over into antiheroism — and she isn’t, compared to characters who run meth empires (Walter White) or kill people for political gain (Francis Underwood). Yet absolute evil isn’t a requirement for an antihero; it’s a requirement for being like Tony Soprano.
Limiting our understanding of the antihero to Tony Soprano and slight variations on him doesn’t just provide a needlessly limited definition of a trope that has much broader potential; it also denies female characters recognition as worthy dramatic protagonists. And there are plenty of worthy female antiheroes out there: Game of Thrones’s Cersei Lannister, American Horror Story’s Sister Jude, and even Elementary’s brilliant twist on Moriarty may not be drug kingpins or high-powered executives, but they deserve praise for pushing the boundaries of what a lead character can be. There won’t be a female Tony Soprano anytime soon, but it’s time to expand our view of the antihero beyond the heavyset mob boss. And female leads, whether they’re funny, moralistic, or just plain unconventional, are just the women for the job.