How far would a person go to reinvent herself? In the case of Dr. Jean Holloway, played by Naomi Watts, the answer is a little too far. In the Netflix series Gypsy, Jean crosses many lines as a therapist, creating good TV, but leaving the audience to question her overall character. But that's OK. Not all female lead characters are intended to be likeable.
In a phone interview, Gypsy creator and writer Lisa Rubin tells me about the intricacies of creating a character like this. "I think with a lot of TV and movies, we subscribe to the idea that women have to be likeable," says Rubin. Jean’s lack of boundaries and her abuse of power as a therapist may shock the audience, but this shock is necessary to break the stereotype that a woman needs to be well-liked in order to be a compelling character.
In this age of storytelling, women can be both the heroes and villains of their own stories. Traditionally, this standard was represented by the “femme fatale” trope, but female characters today are moving beyond using men to gain power and are causing their own chaos. It is this chaos that seems to be Jean's specialty. “The idea of her knowing as a therapist, knowing [her patients'] innermost thoughts, and they know nothing about you. It’s a real power position if you use this information for good or for bad," says Rubin.
As a woman in a society the audience recognizes, it is expected for Jean to behave within the appropriate boundaries of respecting both her clients and her family. But Jean is selfish and manipulative as she rebels against her life which is, on the surface at least, perfect. This rebellion is something Rubin wanted to convey to her audience. "I think for Jean, she’s so controlled in her image, her life looks really enviable," she says.
Jean is an antihero, whose actions subvert the expectation of women being nurturers. However, the vulnerability she shows in trying to find something to care about in her life makes her a multi-faceted character who, against her better judgement, watches herself commit these transgressions. When she's "Diane," Jean begins to insert herself into her patients' lives outside of their sessions. Jean's complicated relationship with her clients is an important component to Gypsy's narrative.
"In a way, it’s almost expected — her patients really like her and trust her even though they probably shouldn’t. It’s an expectation that she’s going to do good, that she means well, and we want to think that about women," says Rubin.
Sonia Saraiya wrote in Variety, “Even Jean’s pathologies or proclivities — her bad behavior — stem from a socially mandated femininity. After all, when she crosses boundaries, she does so because she wants to ‘help’ — and gets so over-involved that she manipulates patients, and their families, toward the conclusion she hopes for.”
Rubin seems to echo this statement when she explains, "The audience is the therapist diagnosing Jean. Jean herself isn’t willing to be honest and confront that." On the surface, Jean is a loving mother, wife, and therapist. Beneath this image, she is Diane, who lacks the impulse control to know when she has gone too far. “I think it’s really fun to root for something that we as a society think is bad," says Rubin.
However, for the most part, the "bad person" we tend to root for is usually a male character. As Diane, Jean tends to lie, cheat, and steal to get what she wants. These actions are accepted in in fan-favorite characters like Don Draper or Walter White. Gypsy attempts to establish a narrative where the main character can exercise her femininity, but not feel held back by it to act appropriately.
In an article about Jean-like protagonists in The Los Angeles Times, Christy Grosz wrote, "Despite having a well-established level of comfort with ruthless male characters, even savvy audiences can feel cold and disconnected when the gender tables are turned." Jean's choice to steal aspects of her patients' lives suggest her need for thrill-seeking, even if it's at the expense of someone innocent. According to Rubin, “It’s creepy and interesting but compelling. You should feel repelled but you are compelled.”
In the case of Jean, her behavior is unsavory, but she doesn't operate with the ambitious greed usually associated with male antiheroes. "I call it the 'anti- white picket fence show' — it’s where we are as women," says Rubin. “Jean has all of those things and you would think that’s enough. Maybe it’s not enough, maybe it’s not satisfying.”
Crossing boundaries with her clients isn’t done with malice, but rather a need to be part of something that she feels she missed out on in her life. “Jean might be lying and doing — quote, unquote — bad things but she's becoming more authentic," says Rubin.
Part of Jean's authenticity lies in the relationship she has with her daughter, Dolly, who is grappling with gender identity issues. "Jean has a hard time relating to Dolly. Dolly’s totally fine; it’s the adults that make it an issue," says Rubin. Jean is desperate to understand her daughter, but since she struggles to be honest with herself, she and Dolly find themselves at crossroads.
Jean's relationship with Dolly offers a sharp contrast to the person she is away from home. "I talk a lot about how Jean is a polarizing character to some people," Rubin says, "but with her daughter it’s very pure and genuine."
Aside from her relationship with Dolly, the rest of Jean's life is painstakingly heading toward destruction, but she can’t seem to stop. “The show is purposefully a slow burn. It’s a character study in a way," says Rubin. By being unaware of her limits, Jean subverts another expectation that women are controlled and lack any physical and sexual desires.
Gypsy is asking audiences to both accept and reject Jean based on her transgressions. In doing so, the series changes the conversation of whether a female character can be both unlikable and believable in her own story.