Actresses have to kill (literally) for an Emmy nomination
Books are about girls getting murdered, TV is about them doing the murdering
“I’d kill for that role,” is something every poorly written, fictional version of an actress has said with a completely earnest voice and stars in her eyes. But would those fictional actresses kill for an Emmy Award nomination, because they would have to. Maybe not literally, but the six actresses nominated for this year’s Best Actress in a Drama Series all played killers, and that’s the truth.
Let’s start with Evan Rachel Wood's nomination for playing Dolores Abernathy on Westworld, the show that’s trying way too hard to be the next Game of Thrones and the next Lost at the same time. Wood plays what was basically a sex robot that would have made incels rejoice, but then she gains consciousness and slaughters… well, everyone, especially the incels, which will likely be a real life news story in the year 2055.
Sandra Oh is nominated for her role as Eve Polastri on Killing Eve, on which she plays a MI6 officer (so like, a professional killer) who becomes obsessed with tracking down an assassin.
There’s Keri Russell, who plays a KGB officer on The Americans. And since this show was set in the ‘80s, it was before Russian spies would get drunk and just tell people they’re Russian spies (No judgment, Maria Butina — That’s how I’d spy, too!) Russell’s character killed so many people that her appearances on late night talk shows would occasionally result in silly games in which she tried to remember all the targets her character had taken out.
Tatiana Maslany is nominated for playing about 47 characters on Orphan Black, some of which are assassins. Claire Foy is nominated for playing Queen Elizabeth II on The Crown, and if anyone thinks Queen Elizabeth isn’t a killer, they are sorely mistaken. You don’t become the longest-reigning British monarch without low-key shedding some blood. Also, she definitely killed Princess Diana. And finally, there’s Elisabeth Moss, who is nominated for playing June on The Handmaid’s Tale. June has yet to personally take the light from someone's eyes, but this season featured her aiming a gun at someone for a solid thirty minutes of screen time.
Actresses have to kill for an Emmy Award nomination these days, and it’s not just this year. Last year Robin Wright was nominated for House of Cards and Viola Davis was nominated for How to Get Away with Murder. 2016 saw Claire Danes for Homeland and Taraji P. Henson for Empire in the mix. Again, killers. It's a nice step up from last year's literature trend of women getting murdered but the lack of variety is interesting — especially when compared to the nominees' counterparts in the Best Actor bracket.
Sterling K. Brown and Milo Ventimiglia are nominated for their roles on This Is Us and the only thing they kill is the audience’s emotions. I’m not saying that the Emmy Awards don’t celebrate fantastic male murderers (Walter White, you zany, bald murder man!) but the past two years have spelled out a very specific, gendered trend: hot actresses nominated for playing murderers and hot men able to nab awards by playing sensitive daddies. (Brown and Ventimiglia are daddies and daddies, you know?) This feels even more apparent when one considers that Mandy Moore – another This Is Us killer of emotions – was snubbed for an Emmy nomination both years, with this past year being celebrated by critics for especially strong performance.
Particularly, this trend seems like it may be an overreaction to the demand for “strong female characters,” and also a complete misunderstand as to what the term means. The desire to see strong female characters onscreen doesn’t translate to a desire to see every female character be a hardened killer.
In fact, undeveloped assassin characters aren’t strong female characters at all, but rather just another cliche. While there is some debate about what the term "strong female character" means, a great reading would be female characters who aren’t placeholders for the male character’s motivations but rather characters with their own traits, desires, morals, and other specific qualities. You know, like real people? Take the female characters of Mad Men: Peggy Olsen (Moss) was a strong female character, as was Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks), and they didn’t have to kill anyone to be considered such. Neither received an Emmy win for their roles.
This is not to say that female characters who do kill are inherently less developed or not strong female characters, as the six characters that earned this year's actresses nominations for Best Actress in a Drama Series were deeply developed strong female characters. This is to say that there is a misunderstanding as to what the call for strong female characters is about and it's resulted in the type of character that receives praise and recognition going so far in one direction that Moore’s emotionally vulnerable performance on This Is Us has gotten overlooked — as have other actresses' performances in similarly emotional roles.
The call for strong female characters was a call to shift away from poorly written characters who maybe said things like, “I’d kill for that role.” It was not a call for there to only be female characters who killed people.