I loved Russian Doll. Not because I’m a big Natasha Lyonne fan, I’m not. But the concept of the show was fascinating to me, the preview had great music, and at eight half-hour episodes, it was perfectly binge-able. I knew it was created, written, and directed by women, and featured a strong female protagonist. What’s not to love? I watched it in a weekend, and started thinking about when I wanted to watch it again. This was February, when the series debuted on Netflix. Cut to today…
This morning I stumbled across an interview with Leslye Headland, the co-creator, writer and director of Russian Doll on one of my comedy podcasts, Good One. Usually this podcast revolves around a comedian talking about a joke or bit, and the genesis behind it. But this episode talked about “the greatest joke of all, death.” Specifically, the 22 death scenes found in Russian Doll. This is not a spoiler, by the way. However, if you still have not enhanced your quality of life by watching this show, go do it already!
Since taking this feminist film class, I’ve been thinking more about feminist narratives, and more specifically, feminist counter-narratives. The character of Nadia is not your typical Hollywood female protagonist. I fell in love with Lyonne’s portrayal of Nadia almost immediately. She’s that cool but fucked up, fashionable without trying too hard, doesn’t give a shit kind of woman I think many women would like to be. This attitude doesn’t necessarily come organically; Nadia is dealing with generational trauma from her mother’s mental illness and untimely death, and the subsequent guilt and grief associated with it. Nadia is blunt, crude and selfish. Her own best friend describes her by saying, “I love that you’re a c***. It makes me feel morally superior.” Vanity Fair defines the character thusly:
“Onscreen as Nadia, Lyonne is acerbic and captivating; she doesn’t want to keep her cat indoors because she doesn’t “believe in dictating the boundaries of a sentient being’s existence,” and tends to leave parties early even when she isn’t abruptly being killed. She doesn’t care if you like her, but she suspects you will anyway.”
Simply put, Nadia is messy. The show allows her to screw up, over and over, without ascribing some moral judgment. Nadia’s own concept of morality is ambiguous, at best: “What is a bad person? There is Hitler, and there’s everybody else,” she says in defense.
Nadia’s antagonist is an OCD-prone, buttoned-down ball of anxiety called Alan. The two meet when they share an elevator that plunges them to their deaths. Neither are surprised it’s happening, as both are experiencing the same die-and-come-back events. “Didn’t you get the news? We’re about to die,” Nadia says to him. He replies, “It doesn’t matter, I die all the time.” Alan is the exact opposite of Nadia; he’s very controlled and proper. He’s certain his deaths are a divine punishment. He is highly moralistic, and wants to believe things happen for a reason.
In Hollywoodland, leading men are allowed to be messy, complicated, unsure of what’s going on or what they’re doing. Maybe they’re immoral garbage humans, perhaps they are just stuck. Typically, a woman comes along to clean up his mess or help him grow up. She shows him that there’s a better life ahead if he would just get his shit together, for her. Sometimes she’s a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. The point is, she’s there to help him. Rarely in mainstream TV and film are we introduced to fully actualized female characters with their own list of wants and dreams, although this is improving.
What makes Russian Doll so joyous and refreshing is the twisting of these tropes. Nadia is flailing about until she finds Alan, who helps her make sense of it, and together they formulate a plan. He’s not rescuing her, because she doesn’t need rescuing. She’s gonna die anyway, with or without him. The character of Nadia eschews typical female concerns that seem to dominate stories about women; she’s not trying to keep the guy or get the dream job. She is already a respected software engineer in a male-dominated field of video game production. “Her journey of self-exploration begins at age 36, it doesn’t revolve around men, her career or a quest for motherhood. Those are worthy topics and goals for a female protagonist to have, but like you see with a lot of male-driven shows, she’s a character that wants something that doesn’t fall into those categories,” Headland says. “She really is asking, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ and ‘What is my life?’ And to truthfully ask those questions is just something that women I do not think have access to.”
The show has received high praise from many critics, from its positive portrayal of women, trauma and mental illness, to its all-female writing and show-running staff. Currently it sports a 96% Rotten Tomatoes rating. Season 2 is in the works. When crafted with care, feminist counter-narrative stories can be amazing! I hope the success of Russian Doll will inspire more female storytellers to share their gifts.
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