The Bitch Always Gets Cancer

Let’s be real: television and film love to hate bitches. The bitch archetype is a fixture of onscreen plotting—a go-to antagonist and occasional anti-hero. Some of these women (and even men!) grate on the milquetoasts and bourgeois drips who surround them. Their wit, their uncompromising attitudes, their perceptiveness are just too ‘extra’ for those who prefer a world of self-fulfilling delusion. Others are sexually rapacious or otherwise disinclined to abide by repressive social mores. Some are just smartasses. And a few are, it’s true, unremittingly awful people, villains through and through. But most are just misfits at heart, dissatisfied by their circumstances and reacting in kind.

These characters are frequently my favourites. Even the worst of them temper the pious pronouncements of the average protagonist. Calling out hypocrisy, critiquing ridiculous behaviour when no one else has the balls, refusing to apologize for their distinctive approach to life, they steer their vehicles away from the insipid and keep their ostensibly more-noble counterparts on their toes.

I’ve noticed a pattern on television in particular: for a season or three, your average bitch gets to deliver devastating one-liners and regularly leaves the principal character fuming. Then, having exhausted her utility, she gets walloped with a cancer diagnosis. Presumably intended to either humanize her or take her down to size, this plot device suggests an abiding dislike of women who refuse to cleave to the minty-mouthed Doris Day ideals that persist in even the coolest women of the small screen.

Using illness as retribution for behaviour considered unladylike and unkind (whether or not it actually is) strikes me as a lazy way of developing characters whose complex trajectories deserve more careful and original treatment. Though some of these bitches are in fact bad seeds, most are multi-dimensional, flawed humans. While people certainly get cancer in real life, and thus it ought to be portrayed, using it to level some of the more fascinating inhabitants of American television is cheap.

For many of these women, cancer serves as a sort of karmic reckoning. Hilariously caustic Celia Hodes of Weeds was taken down a couple of notches by her double mastectomy and endured a slew of other insults to her person throughout the show. Seeing the alcoholic termagant get her tooth knocked out or dolled up in Chola drag while doing time in the big house might have provided some welcome schadenfreude. After all, she constantly mocked her daughter’s weight problem and ceaselessly badgered Mary Louise Parker’s weed-slinging soccer mom. But giving her the big C seemed a little too on the nose. The queen bee of the cul-de-sac dethroned by her own breasts? Come on. And what about Parker’s character? She was a worse person by far, putting her children in danger by pursuing a drug-dealing career-motivated more by narcissism than a need to provide for her family.

So too, Betty Draper’s terminal diagnosis in the final season of Mad Men struck me as a pointed revanchement for seasons worth of acid remarks and poor parenting. In many ways, a profoundly unsympathetic character, January Jones’ glacial matriarch nonetheless displayed flashes of grit and insight. And she was hardly a shittier person than her philandering, soulless ex-husband, who finished out the show seeking bliss on the West Coast. Particularly in light of the sixth season assault on her vanity, for which the lithe Jones was compelled to don a fat suit, it’s hard to take this as anything but clumsily executed poetic justice for a much-despised character.

Even brassy libertine Samantha Jones of Sex and the City was softened in the show’s final season by the revelation that she was suffering from breast cancer. Her simpering confession of her fears was one of the more disappointing moments of the show. Seeing this iconic voluptuary reduced to base terror in the face of illness seemed emotionally manipulative and unfair. Why not Charlotte or Miranda? Well, they weren’t nearly as proud of their breasts or as willing to share them with attractive gentleman callers. Samantha enjoyed sex and celebrated it. Her diagnosis felt like punishment, even if that wasn’t the intent.

This trope takes on a new dimension when viewed in light of Brian Kinney’s testicular cancer scare in Queer as Folk. Kinney is the ultimate bitch, blunt to a fault and scathingly critical. And surprisingly, the character is almost devoid of camp. Maintaining an aura of masculine sexual power, he’s still unapologetically, even aggressively, homosexual.

The show was commendable for its care in framing his devil-may-care attitude and incisive commentary as positive traits, devastating as they may be in the moment for his targets. But when in season 4 he finds out that the source of his power now houses a tumour, this celebration of insouciance takes a nosedive. His “no apologies, no regrets” philosophy is remonstrated by a random illness. Rather than finding a reproach to his brash attitude in personal relationships or professional setbacks—admittedly also a part of the show—his ultimate emasculation occurs as a result of a betrayal by the family jewels.

Similarly, the female bitches of the boob tube are taken out by, well, their boobs. It doesn’t seem like an accident that these characters are targeted at the source of their sexual power.

I was hoping that the most recent example of this phenomenon would turn out to be an inversion of the misogyny that defines its earlier instances. Animal Kingdom, TNT’s fantastically lurid California crime drama, features Ellen Barkin as Smurf Cody, a deliciously nasty cougar presiding over a dynasty of thieves. Alternately snarling and purring, this female Tony Soprano maintained an Oedipal hold over her brood of degenerate surfer minions for the first couple of seasons. Walking in on them in the shower and pummeling them with her augmented decolletage, she masterminded their illegal activities with a criminal acumen that put Walter White to shame. The Cody boys, of course, eventually bucked the yoke, sidelining their domineering mother.

Predictably, Smurf was diagnosed with terminal melanoma.

The thing is, she was a career grifter. So, the show skillfully spun out theories that she might be feigning weakness in order to draw out her betrayers. Further, her grandson Jay had sworn to destroy her, so it was conceivable that he might be poisoning her and paying off her doctors to tell her she was suffering from a real illness. As it turns out, she actually was dying. Hoping to go out in a blaze of glory rather than slowly succumb to her illness, she drew her brood into a final caper that ended in a shootout. While her eldest son saved her, she turned her gun on him, demanding that he shoot her or be killed himself. When he couldn’t, the shark-eyed Jay pulled the trigger instead. This is perhaps the most interesting and dramatically effective use of the cancer-bitch trope I’ve yet seen, but it was nonetheless disappointing to see the show’s centre of gravity taken out by what I consider to be a rather uninteresting device.

It’s interesting, too, that several of the women who portrayed these characters had tempestuous relationships with their showrunners or with the public. Perkins left Weeds in 2010 due to creative differences with creator Jenji Kohan. Jones was derided in the press for her supposedly icy personality—a 2013 New York Times piece was particularly intent on this portrayal. Barkin hinted that she wasn’t pleased with her character’s demise, tweeting “Next episode Smurf’s will is opened — she left her boys a hit TV show.” And, perhaps most famously, Cattrall clashed with her SATC co-stars, ending in a public declaration of antipathy in 2018. Are these devastating illnesses somehow a fictional punishment, a rebuke for perceived slights in the real world? Perhaps, perhaps not. But the fact that these tall poppies were all scythed by one of the worst maladies of the 21st century seems noteworthy.

And they aren’t the only ones. Mimi Whiteman, the scheming and libidinous CEO played by Marisa Tomei in the hip-hop industry drama Empire is levelled by a breast cancer diagnosis. Laura Roslin, the steely leader of a post-apocalyptic society in Battlestar Galactica, is ultimately killed by cancer. Gillian Anderson’s iconic X-Files heroine Dana Scully is at one point laid low by the disease as well. Even no-nonsense Murphy Brown ended her original run having just beat breast cancer. And Jen Lindley, Michelle William’s bad-girl character on Dawson’s Creek, dies at the end of the show—from heart failure rather than cancer. But still.

And the trope has made its way into film as well. Jackie, the seemingly embittered first wife played by Susan Sarandon in Stepmom gets a redemptive arc to be sure. But only after she receives a terminal lymphoma diagnosis and is given little choice but to turn her family over to the second wife played by bright-eyed Julia Roberts. The one shred of humanity in Meryl Streep’s viperous matriarch in August: Osage County is her bout with oral cancer and resulting addiction to narcotics. And let’s not forget Wit, based on a stage play, in which a brusque and unsentimental academic played by Emma Thompson is compelled by a battle with ovarian cancer to regret her previous lack of compassion.

Compared with their morally flawed male counterparts, these female characters get short-shrift. Even cancer-riddled Walter White died in a blaze of glory, no tubes or fluorescent hospital lighting in sight. Tony Soprano got plugged in his final episode. So did amoral gangster Nucky Thompson of Boardwalk Empire. And religious fanatic Bill Hendrickson of Big Love. Caddish writer Hank Moody, whose adolescent histrionics and surfeit of snark spanned seven seasons on Californication, got yet another shot at getting his shit together in the finale.

In a rare instance of a male protagonist succumbing to illness, smug and self-involved Nate Fisher died of a brain haemorrhage in the final season of Six Feet Under. His demise, though, was a considered decision that perfectly fit the show’s emphasis on mortality and existential confusion. He’s a dick a lot of the time, but he clearly doesn’t “deserve” his death according to the narrative … rather the reverse. It’s a senseless event that speaks to our tenuous grasp on life and our limited time on Earth. His death demonstrates how illness and death ought to be used in storytelling. Not as a ham-fisted attempt at giving people what they deserve, but as a natural and confusing event without rhyme or reason.

It would be paranoid to attribute every one of these illnesses to a misogynistic conspiracy designed to disempower unconventional women. After all, cancer is still a major killer of people of both sexes, and it’s hardly unrealistic for this malady to pop up in the lives of fictional characters. The authors, showrunners, and directors of some of these works are female. Sometimes, cancer is probably just topical, even if its manifestation reads as artificial or retributive.

But the number of bitchy women afflicted suggests a nascent trope akin to killing your queers or having the black guy die first. It has a whiff of shaming as if the blackened souls of these characters must be underscored by a matching physical rot. They may not be paraded through the streets and pelted with offal like ur-bitch Cersei Lannister on Game of Thrones —who, let’s face it, wasn’t much worse than the rest of the show’s characters. But the stripping of vanity and the humiliation of a failing body, which ought to evoke sympathy rather than schadenfreude, seem weaponized in some of these scenarios. In others, they seem like a shortcut to character growth or at least the revelation that the character is human after all.

Surely, the latter at least happens in real life. People do change when confronted with mortality, or at least try to. And there are a limited number of plot devices available to show personal evolution. Miranda Priestly, Streep’s frosty fashion maven in The Devil Wears Prada, drops her mask for a moment upon receiving the news of her impending divorce. And then firmly reattaches it in short order. I liked this scene for its brevity and realism—in a film that is not necessarily all that realistic. We don’t need to make difficult characters dissolve into a sticky puddle on the floor to demonstrate that they have emotional reactions like everyone else.

Contemporary film and television really are getting better at this, it should be said. Marissa Wiegler, the wonderfully chilly villain of season 1 of Hanna, comes to a plausible reckoning with her role in the enslavement of young female assassins and becomes the title character’s most valuable ally in the second season, for example. And, fresh off a stint in Bedlam, the hideously cruel Lydia Quigley of Harlots takes her nemesis’s daughter under her wing in the third season and fatally defends her from an assailant … her own agenda still in mind, of course. Lesley Manville’s Lydia is probably one of the most skillfully wrought character studies that I’ve seen on modern television. Her character’s arc, from off-screen victim of sex trafficking to onscreen abuser, is sculpted by a scalpel, not a bludgeon. This bitch starts as an irredeemable monster and ends as one. But at least we see what made the monster and gain some insight into her convoluted moral schema. This is exactly the show-don’t-tell dictum of narrative and performance in action. These slow evolutions show us how a person who might seem cold and unfeeling actually isn’t and allows us to perceive something of the complexity of their inner life, even if we can’t relate to their personalities. Aligning illness with evil is just telling.

As the golden age of television barrels on, I hope these more-nuanced ways of depicting the human side of the hilariously nasty chicks who make nearly everything more watchable will prevail.

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