“I’m not a wreck, I’m angry,” a woman tells a condescending man in the new AppleTV+ series Bad Sisters. “And that doesn’t make me drunk or crazy or hysterical. That just makes me angry.”
A lot of women are going to recognize themselves in that moment, I suspect. And scenes like that hit the sweet spot that Sharon Horgan, Bad Sisters’ creator and star, is interested in exploring with all her work, as a writer (the relationship dramedy Catastrophe, on Amazon), a producer (the HBO series Divorce, starring Sarah Jessica Parker), and/or an actress (the telefilm Together).
“Until about 20 years ago, most of television was written by men, so you got a male interpretation of what a woman is,” Horgan, 52, said in a recent video interview. Raised on a turkey farm in County Meath, she speaks with an Irish accent, and wore a chic lavender-coloured suit. “Quite often that was either a really good person or the complete opposite. But I love writing about the connective tissue in between those extremes.”
Women aren’t here on Earth to be pleasing, Horgan says, and she’s “not in the business” of people liking her: “I’ve lived long and hard enough to not give a crap about that kind of thing. I think it’s important to show women making choices. And not always choosing what’s best for everyone around them. Sometimes it should be what’s best for them.”
In Bad Sisters, which Horgan adapted from the Belgian series Clan and relocated to seaside Ireland, four of the Garvey girls – Eva (Horgan), Ursula (Eva Birthistle), Bibi (Sarah Greene) and Becka (Eve Hewson) – make a pact to save their sister Grace (Anne-Marie Duff) from her abusive husband John Paul (Claes Bang), whom they’ve dubbed The Prick. The actresses are incredible at conveying the easy physicality of siblings, and the silent communication that goes on around a family member whom everyone else loathes. But murder isn’t as easy as they’d hoped.
“It’s such a wild, fun ride,” Horgan says, “but there’s something bigger and deeper underneath. Making it a shiny thriller, a how done it, almost disguises what our subject matter is, which is coercive and abusive relationships.”
That kind of disguising is happening all over television these days, especially in series written by women. The ideas their creators want to put out there, such as, “A woman has an emotion and she’s treated like a mental patient,” or, “I’m a demon because I know what I want and I speak my mind?” are hidden inside a horror comedy like Shining Vale (Starz), starring Courtney Cox and Mira Sorvino, which Horgan also produced. The ways in which women chefs are slighted in restaurant kitchens, but keep their anger in check, is a subtle but powerful undercurrent in the brilliant new Hulu/Disney+ series The Bear.
The theme of a woman contorting her personality to suit her more powerful spouse is made palatable in a gentle comedy (Loot, starring Maya Rudolph) and in an amnesia thriller (Surface, starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, both on AppleTV+). And in the new Disney+ series She-Hulk, Attorney at Law, the title character Jennifer Walters (Tatiana Maslany) gets her Hulk persona under control immediately, without the struggles her cousin Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) endured, because as she says, “Anger and fear are the baseline of any woman just existing.” With Dorothy Parker snappiness, Maslany tosses off zingers – about “pathologically entitled” men, social-media trolls, self-obsessed dates and the dangers of walking home alone at night – that sound like jokes, but cut deeper.
Making a comedic drama about an abusive relationship was “a fine line to tread,” Horgan says. “On the one hand, John Paul is a fool, he’s a dick. He panders to his boss. He calls his wife ‘Mammy.’ He’s a bully and a coward, and we humiliated him wherever we possibly could, like making him walk through an office with a wet toilet mark on his arse.” She laughs. “Claes didn’t love that.
“But we needed to make him a clown,” she continues, “because on the other end, he’s dangerous, he’s a monster. What’s so often associated with abusive men is a sexy danger. I kind of hate that. Should it be entertaining watching a woman be abused by a dangerously sexy man? We didn’t want to give him that. We send him up as the fool he is.”
Horgan doesn’t have a specific agenda for Merman, the production company she co-founded in 2014. Yet most of Merman’s output does come from female or diverse creators “who desperately need to tell a story, because it’s doing something for them, so they know it’s going to do something for the world,” she says. “We’ve all benefited from that. There are better stories out there now.”
In her own work, Horgan wants to explore characters who are recognizable to her, and what makes them that way. “The thing I get approached about the most is when I put a female on screen who has failed, or isn’t doing what society expects of her,” she says. “Who makes selfish choices, or is brave. Or a coward. It’s about writing my actual lived experience.
“It’s wonderful to get good reviews and a big audience,” she sums up. “But what’s best is when I’m approached by an individual who says, ‘Thanks for putting that out there, because that’s how I felt. It meant something to me to see that woman struggling to be a mother, struggling to be what society wants of her.’” Or being angry. “I’m not trying to educate anyone. To me, it’s just more fun to watch.”
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