Television loves the scary woman. The camera lingers on her face for an extra beat as the perfectly-glossed lips purse and a groomed brow arches in sync with a swelling musical crescendo, a cue that lets you know this is a woman not to be fucked with. Scary women get shit done. Scary women wake up every morning, look at themselves in the mirror and whisper a list of things they will handle, a mantra repeated almost as involuntarily as breathing. Scary women learned quickly and early that being scary begets respect.
We are living in the golden age of the scary woman. She’s climbed out of the ranks of the chorus and is now the personality that dominates our television screens. We see it now in Olivia Pope on “Scandal,” intimidating because her icy professionalism belies a font of vulnerability and strength. It’s present in Constance Wu’s masterful performance as Jessica on “Fresh Off The Boat,” a woman who left her fucks to give back in D.C., who wants to raise her kids right, handle her husband and screw the white man if he gets in her way. It’s in every ounce of Taraji P. Henson’s performance as Cookie Lyon on “Empire,” a woman scorned returning to the institution her fall from grace created, heels clicking on marble floors, furs draped just right, asking — demanding, really — what she’s owed.
These women are compelling because their power is a direct threat to their male counterparts, a swift kick to the groin with a pointed heel. They possess the inherent ability to take the wind out of the sails of every man in the room, if and when they feel like it. Whether it’s a buffoon of a husband, a passel of ungrateful children, or a boardroom full of men, these women are scary only to those that perceive them as a threat.
Olivia Pope strides calmly through the halls of the White House like she owns the place, male and female staffers maneuvering out of her way, almost on instinct, in awe of her influence and how she might wield it — that’s really what inspires fear. But underneath her take-no-prisoners approach to crisis management lies a vulnerability. She’s more than a monolith of fear tactics and perfectly-paced monologues. What would traditionally make her weak is actually her greatest strength. Behind the nails, the freshly-pressed hair and the cream-colored coats, Olivia is a complex, conflicted, vulnerable woman. This season especially, she’s been vulnerable more than we’ve ever seen her — literally, by being taken as a hostage and used as collateral, and emotionally, as she struggles to deal with her PTSD. She wants to stand in the sun with Jake, but dreams of making jam in Vermont with Fitz, and both men would be putty in her hands, if only she could decide what she wanted. And while the delicate balance of her no-nonsense professionalism and womanly vulnerability has them under her spell, it has also made her exceptional at handling other people’s problems. Her strategic approach to empathy has made her the toughest nuts to crack. And that’s a powerful, scary thing indeed.
These women are trailblazing not just by being powerful but by taking power out of the hands of the men around them. The leader of the free world will drop everything when Olivia Pope beckons. “Empire”‘s Cookie Lyon served 17 years having taken the fall for her unworthy husband, and she stormed, fur-cloaked, straight out of prison and into the boardroom, demanding back what was rightfully hers. Cookie’s unwavering singular focus on getting back on top makes her mere existence a threat to all the men in her life, and she is not here for any of their bullshit. When her youngest son, Hakeem, calls her a bitch when she’s fresh out of jail, she picks up a broom and beats his ass, screaming her head off the whole time.
In truth, there’s nothing scary about a woman who understands what she wants and goes hard in the paint. Men do that every single day, without second-guessing it, a habit that comes as easily and involuntarily as tying their shoes or blinking. But when a woman strides into a dinner party, wearing nothing but a fur and a teddy, and leaves grabbing her ass to show just what her good-for-nothing ex-husband is missing? Those same men are left tongue-tied and sputtering. Her power poses a threat to everything they’ve ever known and assumed was theirs, and they don’t have a clue as to what to do about it.
Power doesn’t have to come through intimidation and fear, though it certainly helps. Candace Wu’s portrayal of Jessica on “Fresh Off The Boat” is a masterful study in intimidation through comedy. Unlike Cookie and Olivia, she’s not intent on seizing control as a bald power grab. Rather, she wants to make a good life for her kids in weird, white, mid-’90s Orlando. She knows that as the “other” that task will be especially difficult, so she takes a “do first, ask for forgiveness later” approach.
Some would call Jessica scary, but really, I think she’s just doing what she needs to in order to care for her family. When she needs to find a job to staunch the boredom and provide, she marches into a store that’s not hiring, and tells them exactly what they should be doing. Sure, it’s also meant to be funny, but there’s something very intimidating about a person who knows they’re more capable than you. Besides, why sit around and wait for opportunities to come? Do like Jessica and create your own, and don’t take no for answer.
Learn from these women, because being scary is a powerful thing. Be scary by being the smartest person in the room. Be scary by being vulnerable. Be scary by letting those who seek to undermine you that you’re not buying what they’re selling because it is of no worth to you. Be scary by knowing what you want, setting your sights on it, and going out to get it. Don’t be afraid to suck the air out of a room. Sometimes it’s the only way to come out on top.