Gangster Women
Kate Warner / University of Queensland

underbelly razor

Danielle Cormack portrays Kate Leigh in Underbelly: Razor

The gangster genre (( Flow asks for articles that are think pieces. This column is about work that I am still in the process of developing. It is underdeveloped but still fascinating. If anyone reading this could mention to me an female gang bosses on television that I have missed I would be most grateful. )) is a longstanding and popular one in both film and television. The genre almost always focuses on male characters and much academic writing on the topic considers the gangster genre to be primarily about masculinity. This means that the spate of female gangsters, in central roles in recent television shows, is worthy of discussion. Female characters could undertake a number of roles in the business of crime; however, I am going to limit my analysis to women who are in charge of their own criminal organizations: Mags Bennett from Justified, Nancy Botwin from Weeds, and Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh from Underbelly: Razor. (( Female gangsters also occur in prison set shows such as Orange is the New Black, Wentworth Prison, and the British series Bad Girls, but because these are prison shows they belong to that genre not to the genre of gangster. Felicia “Snoop” Pearson and Brianna Barksdale from The Wire, while clearly gangsters, are not in charge of their own organizations. ))

The definition of the gangster film, as established in the 1950s by Robert Warshow, includes a rise-and-fall narrative; a tragic, urban anti-hero; a critique of modern life and consumerism; and the use of violence to obtain the “American Dream” (Grieveson, Sonnet et al. 2005). (( Grieveson, L., E. Sonnet, et al. 2005. ‘Introduction’, in L. Grieveson, E. Sonnet and P. Stanfield (ed) Mob Culture. 1-10. Oxford: Berg. )) While there are revisions and disputes of this classic definition I am going to use it as a sounding board in this discussion.

Gangsters are primarily motivated by achieving money and power. They may also be motivated by cruelty, violence, or revenge but the fact that they are attempting to make money through organized crime is a central part of the definition of the type. Furthermore, it is often the violent aspects of the gangster’s character that bring his or her downfall. The women in my examples are all motivated by money and power, and they all use violence; however, only one of them suffers an ultimate downfall.

Mags Bennett from Justified


Margo Martindale as Mags Bennett, an antagonist on Justified

Justified is an FX series (2010 – present). Its central character is Raylan Givens, a U.S. Marshal transferred to his home state of Kentucky in disgrace. The show is usually episodic but has overarching seasonal villains. As a result of the episodic structure and central lawman character, Justified has the most traditional narrative form of the shows under examination. In the second season the villain is Mags Bennett, a middle-aged, raw-boned, and apparently uneducated woman—a stereotypical hillbilly, who still makes and drinks moonshine. Mags runs a criminal enterprise in rural Kentucky, and is assisted by her three sons. At the beginning of the season she is a powerful member of her community, one who performs, or at least attempts to perform, the role of vigilante justice. The first murder that she commits is of a man who went outside the community and informed the authorities that his daughter is being threatened by a child molester. Mags rules her family and her community with a rod of iron; when one of her sons disobeys her she breaks his hand with a hammer. Her highest point and moment of triumph is when, through treachery and betrayal of her own community, she manages to secure a legal fortune by selling out to a mining company.

Historically there have been few famous female gangsters However, one that stands out is Ma Barker. According to the legend Ma Barker was an intelligent woman, elderly and often represented as sexless, who ran a gang made up of her stupid and violent sons. She is usually portrayed as an unnatural mother (Strunk 2005). (( Strunk, M. E. 2005. ‘Mother Barker: Film Star and Public Enemy No. 1’, in L. Grieveson, E. Sonnet and P. Stanfield (ed) Mob Culture. 146-162. Oxford: Berg. )) A number of films have been made about Ma Barker, most recently Bloody Mama (1970), and she has become a noticeable archetype in popular culture. (For example, Ma Fratelli in The Goonies (1985) is a loose caricature). Mags Bennett clearly has some aspects of this archetype and is therefore part of an already existing tradition of representation of the female gangster. She is also the villain and not the protagonist of the story. Yet she is powerful, she is intelligent, and like the classic gangster she goes out on her own terms, killing herself with poison, her own chosen weapon.

Nancy Botwin in Weeds


Mary-Louise Parker plays Nancy Botwin, a suburban mom turned pot dealer

Weeds was a Showtime half-hour comedy drama that ran for eight seasons (2005-2012). The show’s premise was that Nancy Botwin started to sell marijuana when left impoverished after the death of her husband. However, over the course of the show she moves from selling to growing to large-scale distribution, becoming more ambitious and greedy in the process. Nancy is the central protagonist of the program and her tale is a repeated rise-and-fall narrative, but in contrast to a standard gangster narrative, Nancy’s story ends on a rise.

Nancy is a flawed character, in many ways an anti-hero. The earlier seasons of the show are more lighthearted and the comedy tends to obscure the fact that Nancy is a criminal businesswoman. However, as the show develops it becomes clear that it is Nancy’s flaws that lead to her loved ones getting hurt and also to her business setbacks. It is worth noting that whilst not unheard of, female anti-heroes are unusual, even in comedy, meaning that Nancy has significant rarity value.

Nancy also shows some relationship to the classic Ma Barker character. Her two sons start out innocent but eventually become criminals and involved in their mother’s business. Yet unlike the traditional Ma Barker, Nancy is attractive and sexually active, and uses her sexuality to achieve power. Nancy is somewhat sexually promiscuous but it is on her own terms. While her behavior sometimes incurs negative consequences, it does not remove her from being the protagonist of the narrative. Weeds is Nancy’s story and therefore she remains center stage, even when using her sexuality to make ill-advised alliances with Mexican drug lords.

Weeds is sometimes contradictory. Picture 3 above is an example of this. Nancy is pictured in a state of undress, bold and sexy. Her sons and associates stand behind her dressed in classic 1920s gangster outfits. Yet Nancy is the center of the show’s narrative—all action flows from her and she is the one in charge of the business.

weeds 2

The cast of Weeds

Nancy has similarities to a classic gangster: she is greedy and ambitious, she acts in an organized and criminal way, she benefits from and organizes acts of violence, she acts selfishly—assuming that her family will remain loyal to her no matter what. But at the end of the series she is not punished for her sins, even her family at least partially forgives her.

Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine in Underbelly: Razor


The final example most closely fits the mold of the classic gangster story. Underbelly: Razor was an Australian production for broadcast television in 2011. Razor was the fourth in the anthology Underbelly series, each based on a true crime story. Set in the 1920s and ’30s in Sydney at the time of the razor gangs (i.e. when criminals’ weapon of choice was the straight razor), the ongoing plot focuses on a feud between rival criminal bosses Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine. Kate was a dealer in stolen goods, “sly grog,” ((i.e. She illegally traded in alcohol. Australia did not have prohibition but alcohol was highly taxed and licensing and sale was strictly controlled, e.g. alcohol could not be served after 6pm. )) and cocaine. And, as the title of the show’s first episode makes clear, she was known as “the worst woman in Sydney.” Tilly Devine was a madam at a time when it was legal for women, but not men, to live off the earnings of prostitution. (( A third major character is a prostitute called Nellie Cameron, and the show also includes a female police officer stated to be the first female officer in New South Wales. )) This is not a story about women overcoming the odds and becoming gangsters despite their gender. These women are just very successful at what they do. The text of the program does remark on the fact that the two main characters are female, at least one rival wants to bring the “sheilas” down, but the fact that they are crime bosses is not considered unusual.

The story centers on the feud between Kate and Tilly and their ongoing criminal enterprises, their successes and failures, and the enemies that they fight in addition to one another. The story is narratively a rather straightforward gangster tale about ambition, revenge, treachery, greed, romance, and family relationships. Both Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine conspire to commit murder and to an extent participate in killings and beatings. Kate is a more personable character; her flaws are pride and a somewhat abrasive nature. Tilly can be charming but also has a spectacular temper and a tendency to act before she thinks; as a madam she performs the stereotyped role of mother to her “girls.”

In one unusual plot line Kate has an affair with Bruce, a handsome young man. Bruce joins Kate’s organization because he is attracted to her power. She is delighted with his youth and beauty, to the extent that she ignores the pain of her faithful lover. This is a common plot in gangster stories where the mistress is treated better that the wife. The role of gangster and ill-treater is never usually allowed to women in popular culture, but is fully and un-ironically embraced in this story. In addition, Bruce eventually leaves because he is injured and scarred in a fight in Kate’s service. He seems unable to cope with the loss of his beauty.


The finale of the show involves a gun fight between Kate and Tilly that ends with them putting down their weapons in a surprising moment of sisterly solidarity. They decide that they do not want to die because the men who will take over their businesses would just “stuff it up.” This end to the feud that has been the driving force of the series is something that would be unlikely to happen had the protagonists been male. Had they been male they would have shot each other and both died tragically in this situation.

These instances of gangster women being represented in recent popular television mark an expansion in the genre. The classic film gangster, Ma Barker notwithstanding, has always been male and the role of gangster has been specifically tied to concerns about masculinity. These gangster women implicitly criticize the inherent masculinity of the gangster figure, both in the ways that they are similar to the male gangster and in the ways that they differ. All these women are competent heads of criminal organizations, successful in their jobs. Only one follows the tradition of the male gangster and dies for her sins. The others pretty much get away with it.

Image Credits:
1. Danielle Cormack portrays Kate Leigh in Underbelly: Razor
2. Margo Martindale as Mags Bennett, an antagonist on Justified
3. Mary-Louise Parker plays Nancy Botwin, a suburban mom turned pot dealer
4. The cast of Weeds

Please feel free to comment.

Why Don’t I Like Breaking Bad?
Kate Warner / University of Queensland

Breaking Bad

AMC’s Breaking Bad

I have a confession to make—I don’t like Breaking Bad. It’s shocking but true. I have a PhD in TV studies, I really like watching television, I have thoroughly enjoyed the increase in well-made television over the last 15 years but I do not like Breaking Bad. I feel as though I am out of step with my culture. So I have decided to dedicate this column to working out why I do not like the show.

For those who have missed the hype Breaking Bad (2008-2013) is a critically acclaimed AMC serial. The main character is Walter White, a chemistry teacher who, on discovering that he has cancer, decides to make money by manufacturing methamphetamine. Eventually, after many travails and learning how to be effectively violent and murderous in the drug industry, Walter declares that he is in the ‘empire’ business. The plot follows how the increasing violence affects Walt, his drug-making partner Jesse, and his family—his wife Skyler, son Walt Jr., brother-in-law Hank Schrader and sister-in-law Marie.

A reason that I am confused about why I dislike the show is because I can see that the show is ‘good’. It is brilliantly acted, wonderfully scripted and the cinematography is amazing. It’s not that I dislike ‘anti-hero’ shows. I liked The Wire and Deadwood. I wrote a significant part of my PhD on Oz. When Breaking Bad first aired I found it fascinating and enjoyed the dark humor. But as it went on I grew to like it less and less. My problems seem to fall into four categories. 1, I don’t like the gender issues. 2, I don’t like the characters. 3, I don’t like the lack of community. 4, I don’t like the racism. These are issues of taste, issues of structure and issues of society.


Walt’s wife Skyler White, played by Anna Gunn

Gender Issues

Problematic representations of gender are one of the more discussed reasons for disliking Breaking Bad (Hudson 2013 (( Hudson, L. 2013. ‘Die Like a Man: The Toxic Masculinity of Breaking Bad.’ Wired. )); Kovvali 2013 (( Kovvali, S. 2013. ‘Breaking Bad’s Big Critique of the Macho (and Its Problem With Women).’ The Atlantic. ))). Even Anna Gunn, who played Skyler White, entered the debate by publishing an article about the vitriol she had suffered because of her character’s unpopularity (Gunn 2013). (( Gunn, A. 2013. ‘I Have a Character Issue’. The New York Times. New York. )) Skyler had been the subject of a great deal of hate and there were many Internet forums devoted to this. Anna Gunn attributed this to society’s conflicted attitudes about “women and wives” and that the hate of Skyler was because parts of society could not cope with women who thought for themselves (Gunn 2013). Skyler is one of only a very few female characters (( The characters are: Marie Schrader, Skylar White, Jane Margolis (season 2), Lydia Rodarte-Quayle (season 5) Gretchen Schwartz and Andrea Cantillo. )) and this limited number of women means that their representation is also limited.

One of the show’s obvious and central concerns is masculinity; it is clear that issues of what it is to be a man are at the center of Walt’s problems and are what make Hank such an unattractive person. In response to this kind of masculinity the women are not much better—they are not able to be. I can see and acknowledge the skill that has gone into representing these social and personal problems but at this point in time I have consumed enough stories about how hard it is to be a man. I don’t care anymore. Hundreds of years of literature have explored this and I have seen it too many times. Bored now.


The issue of gender does lead on to the issue of character. The show is at least partly about the horrors of current American models of masculinity. The show’s characters demonstrate how unlikeable these dysfunctional models make people. However, this unlikeability is often seen by critics as a positive. Breaking Bad is seen as a brave and artistic show because it dares to have characters that no one likes. I do understand the artistic bravery of this decision. I just don’t want to spend time with these people. They annoy me.


Walt’s brother-in-law Hank Schrader, played by Dean Morris

A clear example of an unlikeable character is Hank, who I disliked from the beginning. I understand that I was supposed to grow to respect him towards the end of the series as the stalwart defender of the law. I didn’t. Hank’s character is bullish, macho, rude and condescending. This representation of masculinity was unpleasant. The excuse of toxic masculinity does not actually make the character forgivable.

Interestingly, I don’t think that Walt is unlikeable because he cooks meth or even because he murders people. There are aspects of the character that are fun: he has a sense of humor, he’s the underdog, he is clever and inventive in surprising ways. However, he keeps stuffing up. He does things for reasons of pride and greed that he would have been wiser not to do. Walt isn’t an unlikeable character because he is bad. He is unlikeable because it is disheartening to watch someone make the same mistakes over and over again.


Breaking Bad has an unusually small central cast and—in my opinion, annoyingly—the characters do not get to interact with one another. The White and Schrader families interact but beyond that characters only interact with Walt. It is telling that Marie does not even meet Jesse until the 58th (out of 62) episode. I am sure that this depiction of social isolation was a deliberate choice but it resulted in a show that I had a hard time being interested in.

Historically, television has been great at showing the creation of communities because the same characters return again and again to the same spaces but this does not happen in Breaking Bad. Breaking Bad is, in many ways, about the failure of community. The lack of interaction that the central characters have with people outside their specific worlds is indicative of a lack of community.

Admittedly, there are representations of how people’s actions affect others. For example, the plane crash over Walt’s home, resulting in the death of hundreds of people, is shown to be a direct result of his actions. But this plot strand is largely forgotten by most of the characters after the start of season three and while dramatic it does not show actual people’s grief. Even when the show represents the community’s hurt about the crash, as in the high school assembly, it then mocks this grief by presenting its most facile aspects and by using it to embarrass Walt.


I argue that the show is quite racist in its depiction of Mexicans. (( Not necessarily Hispanic people because I think that the issues with Gus Fring, a non-Mexican Hispanic man, are different. )) It was this issue that caused me to give up the show in anger halfway through season three. (( I have since watched to the end of season five in the hope that I would grow to like the show again. )) Since the beginning of season three a pair of Mexican hit men have been stalking Walt. They are represented as silent, stylish, frightening and mystical. They seemed to me to be potentially very interesting characters. I had, at this point, a level of faith in the show that it could develop characters from these stereotypes and they would become more than mere colorful sketches. But this does not happen—they were killed by Hank in self-defense and in order to further Hank’s character development.


There is a tendency on Breaking Bad for Mexican characters to be other worldly—to be exotic and odd and not normal. Alternatively they are vicious criminals or hapless peasants. In seasons three and four some of the action takes place in Mexico but Mexico is always either a place of violence or magic, not a place where ordinary people live. The undeniably beautiful cold open of season three in particular needs some analysis. Not from an aesthetic perspective but from a social one. Mexicans in this section are alien and inexplicable. They practice strange religions and are inscrutable. They actually fit almost perfectly with Edward Said’s description of ‘Orientalism’ though referring of course in this case to Mexicans rather than Arabs (Said 1995). ((Said, E. W. 1995. Orientalism. London: Penguin. ))

Overall I am not arguing that people who love Breaking Bad are wrong or mistaken. I appreciate the quality and complexity of the show, but there are good reasons for not liking it that are not only matters of taste. Many of my objections are rooted in how I understand the world—not just what I like but what I want to like. It is political. It’s not a knee-jerk reaction to violence; I don’t have a huge problem with that. It’s a reaction to how the society is represented and also to the meaning of entertainment. I don’t want to watch horrible people doing horrible things to one another unless there is some underlying theme that I can relate to or at least some charm. I just don’t find that here.

Breaking Bad is about the failure of society. It represents a society that creates only people who are evil or stupid or uncaring. There are no good people in Breaking Bad. I am capable of watching and enjoying shows about the dystopia of the current world but I need some hope. I am not entirely cynical—I think the world can be improved. Because I think that while people can act badly there is still a hope that they can act well. Breaking Bad does not.

Image Credits:
1. AMC’s Breaking Bad
2. Walt’s wife Skyler White, played by Anna Gunn
3. Walt’s brother-in-law Hank Schrader, played by Dean Morris

Please feel free to comment.

Prison, Television and Sexuality
Kate Warner / University of Queensland

Orange Is the New Black

Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black

Television dramas and comedies set in prison have a reasonably venerable history. Shows have included the classic British comedy Porridge (1973-1978), the Australian soap Prisoner (1979-1986), the American cable drama Oz (1997-2003), and the British soap-drama Bad Girls (1999-2006). This year there has been an Australian remake of Prisoner called Wentworth (2013) and the Netflix comedy/drama Orange Is the New Black (2013).

This column will address how homosexuality has been represented in these programs. Prison shows were among the first to represent gay people and there has been a remarkable continuity of queer characters over a relatively long period of time in a single genre. This has not been the case in any other TV genre. I argue that the representation of queerness in prison shows falls into three time periods, which are indicative of society’s changing attitude to homosexuality.

Prison is rich dramatic territory for TV writers, and romance (particularly gay romance) is one of the most valuable tools in a TV writer’s tool box. Some of the homosexuality represented in prison programs may be there for its titillation value, but given that it is occurring in mostly long-running TV programs, the gay characters tend to be more than tokens and can become reasonably well-rounded.

Prison shows have benefited from a level of freedom in representing queer characters because this is seen as ‘realism.’ In general, prison shows appeal to realism whenever they are presenting matters deemed ‘shocking’ while simultaneously benefiting from the publicity that this brings (Geraghty 1995, 67). (( Geraghty, Christine. 1995. Social Issues and Realist Soaps: A study of British Soaps in the 1980s/1990s. In To Be Continued…: Soap Operas Around the World, edited by R. C. Allen. London and New York: Routledge. )) Realism acts both as titillation and as a defense against accusations of titillation. This is still true. There have been changes in the representation of homosexuality but the realism/titillation dyad still occurs.

My discussion will deal with three time periods: 1970s-1980s, 1990s-2000s and 2010s. In the early period the shows featured a variety of lesbian and gay male characters but the mere representation of homosexuality was controversial and romances were underplayed and often unhappy.

In the second period homosexual romances are unusual, melodramatic and often extremely romantic. Between the first and second periods there was a shift from social realism to a more melodramatic and romantic mode. This is characteristic of the early incorporation of homosexual characters into mainstream television as gay characters were incorporated into the standard plot device of forbidden romance.

In the third period the existence of homosexuality is unremarkable but the relationships are still melodramatic. The current period reverts back to the first period in terms of the ordinariness of its gay characters but still maintains melodramatic story structures as a valuable mode of story-telling.

Representations of homosexuality in the early period were sympathetic—Porridge had the stereotypical but inoffensive character of Lukewarm, played by famously gay actor Christopher Biggins. Prisoner had numerous lesbian characters ranging from the brutish yet heroic Franky to gentle Judy, manipulative Sharon and adventurous Chrissie. They also had the stereotypical but fabulous “Freak” described by Andy Medhurst as “loathsome” and in no way providing a “positive” image of lesbianism. (( Medhurst, Andy. 2009. One Queen and His Screen. In Queer TV: Theories, Histories, Politics, edited by G. Davis and G. Needham. London and New York: Routledge. )) Yet she was immensely popular from a camp perspective. She “(refuses) the condescension of heterosexual tolerance” in “her lying, cheating, sneering, fondling, gravel-voiced, hatchet-faced up-yours bulldykery” (Medhurst 2009, 84).

Prisoner: Cell Block H

Australian soap Prisoner: Cell Block H

Historically gay characters, particularly in soaps, have often provided poor drama because they remain peripheral to the central plots, only appearing in their own specific ‘gay’ plots (Allen 1995, 22). (( Allen, Robert C. 1995. Introduction. In To Be Continued…: Soap Operas Around the World, edited by R. C. Allen. London and New York: Routledge. )) This sidelining of gay characters is not a problem in prison programs. In an ordinary soap the network of relationships, which provides the show with much of its content, contains male and female characters; in prison shows significant majorities of the characters are of one gender, and therefore homosexual characters are more easily integrated into the networks available. The prison setting overtly prevents heterosexual contact, and hence invoking the needs of realism can be used to justify the inclusion of multiple gay characters. Finally, almost all the characters in a prison program are predefined as ‘bad,’ or at least troubled, and therefore homosexual characters do not have to bear the burden of being ‘good’ but dull representatives of their entire community. (( Geraghty argues that this was the fate of gay characters in British soaps of the 1980s (Geraghty 1995, 78) ))

The second phase programs also featured numerous queer characters: Oz included significant gay relationships, and Bad Girls was never without a lesbian couple. One of the initial attractions Bad Girls held for many viewers was the ‘will they/won’t they’ romance between prisoner Nikki Wade and Governor Helen Stewart. This relationship was intensely romantic involving substantial risk-taking. Their romance had a happy ending at the end of series three with Nikki freed and the two women together. There were many other lesbian characters (and a few gay males) but after Nikki and Helen were written out, none of the romantic storylines ever reached such heights of melodramatic romance. It might therefore be possible to argue that homosexuality became normalized in the show, but this would not account for the fact that Nikki and Helen were the couple that captured the audience’s imagination, and the ones who continue to be visible in the show’s internet afterlife.


The romance between Keller and Beecher is the central love story of Oz. Oz is often considered to be extremely realistic but a great deal of the action, particularly around Beecher and Keller, is romantic and melodramatic almost to the point of parody. The romance starts with the seduction of Beecher by Keller, and proceeds in an on-again-off-again manner where both characters betray one another, misunderstandings occur or external forces separate them. Many of these obstacles are a result of the prison setting. Finally, in the final episodes Keller kills himself and frames Beecher for it. This romance was grand, tragic and unhealthy, and—like the romance Bad Girls—it kept many viewers entranced. Its tragic ending seemed inevitable but that very inevitability was an aspect of its appeal.


These melodramatic romances take advantage of their prison setting to present their stories in the most intense way possible. Prison prevents the characters from being together, prison provides the sanctions against the characters getting caught having a romance, prison makes the characters lack of trust of one another reasonable. The setting allows the development of melodrama that would be hard to sustain in other circumstances.

In 2013 there have been two new programs, which herald a new phase in the representation of prison homosexuality. Both focus on women and contain characters who were gay outside prison. Both shows treat the subject of homosexuality as ordinary but create melodrama around specific romances. They differ from the romances of the second stage where homosexuality itself was an aspect of the melodrama. In Wentworth, the romance is between a prisoner and the prison governor. The plot is similar to Bad Girls, though the mode seems more like Oz with its heightened realism and violence. The forbidden-ness of a romance between a staff member and a prisoner helps to provide frisson.

Orange Is the New Black has a gay love scene in its first episode. However, this is not between Piper and Alex, whose relationship is the central romance of the program, but rather between the secondary romantic couple, Nicky and Lorna. Given the scene is placed at the beginning of the first episode, and the fact that all other love scenes between these two are played for laughs, we get the impression that the show makers felt that it was a generic requirement that they include gay sex. However it is the romance between Piper and Alex that forms the central melodrama. This melodrama is created by their personalities and their relationship history but it is clearly and overtly heightened by the prison setting with all the restrictions that this entails.

Over time there is a movement from social realism to melodrama and back to a slightly more realist mode but with dramatically useful melodrama. This is congruent with the movement of the representation of homosexuality as a social problem to an exotic romance to a more ordinary facet of modern life. However, despite increases in representation of gay and lesbian characters, the frisson of the forbidden is still a major selling point for these shows.

Image Credits:

1. Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black
2. Australian soap Prisoner: Cell Block H

Please feel free to comment.