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Analysis

The Unfair Criticism of Paige Jennings

One thing always seems to draw out the irrational criticism towards TV dramas like The Americans; “nagging” female characters. Breaking Bad fans hated Skyler White. Carmela Soprano and her daughter Meadow faced the same attacks. The wives of The Shield’s Strike Team heard it, too. What else tends to irritate fans? Well, children do the trick. Audiences don’t want to watch annoying kids act annoying, so they roll their eyes every time they show up on screen. Even an innocent ball of breakfast-eating fluff like Walter White Jr. received a decent amount of criticism. People would rather watch the main characters delve deeper into crime and inhumanity than try to be a good parent. Most want excitement.

So Paige Jennings, a child character who also serves as the “nagging” moral voice of The Americans, never stood a chance. And that’s really unfair.

the-americans-paige-church

Surprisingly, fans held off for the first two seasons of the show. Paige went out her days unaware her parents worked as Soviet spies, though she suspected something strange about them. Philip and Elizabeth spent more time on missions and marital drama than paying attention to their two kids. Fans sometimes grumbled when Paige dared to question her parents’ random work schedule that made no sense (how dare she). For the most part, though, the complaints were quiet and few.

Then something happened in season 3 that made those voices louder. Paige, as an intelligent, good person, had enough of the lies, the midnight calls, the sudden road trips, and the various strange behaviors Philip and Elizabeth exhibited. She confronted them to demand the truth. Because they care for their children, and having previously discussed the possibility of telling Paige due to events of the second season, they do tell her the truth. Shockingly (not really), since she is a young teen girl caught blindly off-guard by a world-shaking secret, she struggles to deal with it.

And fans have never forgiven her for it.

Some of the complaints come from a fundamental misunderstanding of what exactly The Americans wants to be about. The basic gist of this argument boils down to fans not wanting to watch the boring family side of the show. They want to see the two badass spies doing badass spy missions. Every time the family drama happens they roll their eyes and tune out. The badass spy stuff is thought to be the point of the show.

Creators Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields don’t agree.

“So I wanted to do a show about a husband and a wife and their children who don’t know and how it affects the kids. We always conceived of The Americans as a show about a marriage, more than espionage, that shows how, even under the craziest circumstances, the marriage still looks and feels like any other marriage.” – Joe Weisberg

Since the very first episode aired, The Americans has focused on the Jennings marriage, which includes their differing opinions about their children. Considering Paige’s age and well-established suspicion and curiosity, her assuming a much larger role focused on the knowledge of who her parents are was always inevitable. Yet for some reason this development caught some by surprise. They wondered throughout seasons 3 and 4 where the badass show about spies went. They wondered why the show spent so much time focused on Paige.

the-americans-skyler

I know she has her bad moments, but come on…

However, this does not account for much of the criticism. Most fans fully understand the importance of Paige and her brother Henry to The Americans. Their disagreement instead stems from a much more familiar place anyone familiar with this conversation will recognize immediately. To sum it up simply, it comes from the natural tendency to side against the characters that oppose the main characters. And it doesn’t matter that the opposition comes from watching the ones they love do terrible, indefensible things.

Any veteran of these fandoms knows the debates that arise about these characters. There is no denying that many times, these characters are annoying because they are hypocritical. Skyler White might as well be the Poster Woman for this. She lectures about the immorality of Walt’s drug-dealing career while demanding involvement. She attacks Walt over secrets while keeping her own. There’s no denying the hypocrisy involved in some of her words and/or actions and that hypocrisy’s role in the hate she gathered.

However, that hate bleeds into everything she does, causing fans to criticize her every move no matter the circumstances. The conversation about the intentions behind the actions existing with Walter fails to materialize. Instead of a fun conversation about the actions characters take, fans will attack and blame Skyler no matter what. “I fucked Ted” is a perfect example of this. She still takes blame and shame all these years later for “cheating” on Walt. Fans confuse the timeline of the affair and ignore Walt’s role. They ignore Walt fighting their divorce, breaking into the house after they separated, and refusing to leave, and how Skyler slept with her boss because she sought a way to drive Walt out. There was definitely a bad guy in the Ted Beneke saga, but it was not Ted or Skyler.

With Paige, none of the hypocrisy which exists with these other characters exists. She is not culpable in her parents’ actions the way Skyler was with Walt (not yet anyway). She does not knowingly benefit from crime the way the Sopranos did. Most of all, The Americans never, ever treats her like an antagonist the way Skyler and others often are. Frankly, there is little reason for Paige to shoulder the blame or hatred she does.

Philip and Elizabeth love their children. Very rarely do they confront Paige angrily and usually because of stress from outside circumstances. Paige is never an opposing force her parents must navigate around. They seek to protect her from their secrets and give her a better life. When their superiors try to force them to recruit Paige into their life, they refuse. When she guiltily spills the secret of them being spies to her pastor, they understand why. They even refuse the simplest solution to the problem, killing the pastor, because they want to do right by Paige. Instead of pushing her away they sought to make her understand. They tried to understand her.

If only all fans of The Americans sought to do the same.

The fact she is a teenage girl can’t be discounted, of course. See Sansa Stark on Game of Thrones for yet another example of the inability of TV audiences to understand a teenage girl. The comparisons of the hatred between these two shows striking similarities; both told a secret they were not supposed to that caused negative consequences for fan favorites, and have never been forgiven for doing so. The thing is, is it really so hard to understand these characters, or do audiences just not want to since teenage girls don’t represent them? Understanding Paige’s fears and difficulties with her parents’ lives is no Rubik’s Cube to twist and turn that only a few people can figure out. From the start The Americans displays a strong sense of American pride for Paige. Empathizing with her struggles to deal with Philip and Elizabeth’s war against America should be easy.

the-americans-sansa-sewing

This image probably sums up irrational Sansa hate pretty well.

However, Paige also shows a rebellious, idealistic spirit. Philip and Elizabeth recognize this well before they tell her their secret and use it to try and “recruit” her afterwards with tales of themselves as “freedom fighters”. They sell the idea not of destroying America, but eliminating the less savory aspects of America. Paige does not feel blind patriotism. Rather, she believes strongly in making America and the entire world a better place. She believes in peace. She believes in non-violence.

This above all is the reason she finds dealing with her parents’ secret so difficult. Paige is not stupid. She knows the danger her parents deal with, and she recognizes the very likely possibility that they hurt people. Every time she reaches a stable mindset regarding the lies they tell her – lies she almost certainly knows are lies – something else happens that exposes them as such. Fans blame her age, they blame her religion, they blame her pastor, they blame everything they can. The truth is so much simpler; Paige is a good person with strong moral convictions and struggles with the ever-growing realization that her parents lack that same morality.

For some reason people really hate that about her, even though she has spent months now protecting her parents at the expense of her soul and the moral convictions she holds so dear. She still gets treated as a bad guy, a traitor to the immorality of her parents.

So nothing new in this age of the TV anti-hero. Audiences still struggle to reconcile the unproblematic protagonists of old with the scumbags starring in shows today. We’re still prone to defend every awful thing these characters do and vilify anyone who dares oppose or even speak out against them.

Still, that reasoning does not work with Paige because she does not oppose her parents in any way. She sacrifices her own happiness and beliefs to protect the parents she loves.

The main sin she commits that fans refuse to forgive her over is the confession of her parents’ spy activities to her pastor. She has more than made up for that one “betrayal,” and betrayal is far too harsh a word. She found out her entire life is a lie. For some reason, more than the main characters, characters like Paige and Skyler White are expected to react to the terrible things their loved ones do with unconditional love and support. Any wavering in that support and audiences pounce. Anna Gunn talks about this in an editorial she wrote for the New York Times:

“Vince Gilligan, the creator of ‘Breaking Bad,’ wanted Skyler to be a woman with a backbone of steel who would stand up to whatever came her way, who wouldn’t just collapse in the corner or wring her hands in despair. He and the show’s writers made Skyler multilayered and, in her own way, morally compromised. But at the end of the day, she hasn’t been judged by the same set of standards as Walter.”

Anyone who participated in the Breaking Bad fandom knows this to be the truth. The previously-mentioned “I fucked Ted” moment serves as a perfect example of this. Instead of demonizing the drug-dealing separated husband that breaks into her house and refuses to leave, Skyler gets labeled the villain for sleeping with another man and confessing in hopes of driving Walt away. Even when Skyler and Walt eventually reconciled and Skyler accepted his criminal activities, the hate and double standards never vanished. Often she is considered worse than Walt for simply participating, even as Walt’s evolution into a monster hit its peak.

In Skyler’s case, as talked about in this article expanding upon Gunn’s, there is the larger issue of the writing for women characters on TV. Skyler’s character did exist in those first couple seasons only as the voice at home to nag Walt, with little character separate from him. She was portrayed only as opposition, an obstacle at home that Walt deals with, which made it easy for audiences to hate her. People threw hate at Carmela Soprano for moralizing despite knowing full well what the man she married did to make his money. Vic Mackey’s wife took an antagonist role. Many of the hated women of television do. Whether it is right or wrong, the hatred has some basis due to the way the narrative portrays these characters and their opinions.

the-americans-paige-and-parents

Thing is, that 100% does not apply to Paige Jennings. She may be treated like these other characters, but her role in the story never becomes antagonistic. In fact, season 4 placed her squarely alongside her parents as a main character on The Americans, one meant to be sympathized and sided with.

In hindsight, and arguably not even needing hindsight, Paige as a main protagonist should have been clear from the start. As previously mentioned, The Americans has always been about the Jennings family. Paige always received more focus than her brother. She seeks her parents’ secret during season 1. Her church plotline features significantly in season 2. By the time season 3 rolled around she may not have featured the way Philip and Elizabeth do, but she saw at least the same screen time as the other characters below them.

The important distinction between her feature role and those of other female characters facing the same criticism is the way the narrative treats her. This is a discussion seen often here at Fandom Following, as no plot point or characteristic exists in a vacuum. It doesn’t matter if Tyrion does something awful if the narrative treats him as the hero. The narrative decides whether it wants to treat a character’s actions as positive or negative. For example, often during Breaking Bad, Skyler’s actions or opinions are portrayed in a villainous light despite good intentions. She simply wants her husband to stop lying to her. Yet she gets treated like the nagging shrew Walt must evade.

Paige never positions herself opposite her parents. Her character mainly exists to represent the struggle Philip and Elizabeth face regarding their lives in America and the beliefs of their Soviet homeland. In order to keep their identities secret, they raise children instilled with beliefs and ideals they oppose, no matter how they may try and teach them otherwise. It’s unavoidable; Paige goes to school, has friends, watches television, and reads the paper. She has a social life (near the end of the Cold War) which imprints a certain belief about America and the Soviet Union, just like Philip and Elizabeth’s upbringing instilled separate beliefs about the two countries. There’s only so much any parent can do to stop their children from adopting cultural beliefs, and even less they can do when opposing those beliefs makes them suspicious.

When she eventually finds out, the narrative never, ever treats her as the bad guy. It treats her pastor that way, despite his complete innocence and good nature. It treats the FBI agent across the street that way (though he deserves it). It even treats the American government that way. Paige, though? She is swiftly sided alongside her parents. Her confession to her pastor does not place her among Philip and Elizabeth’s enemies. She is a part of the Jennings family, and her confession is yet another challenge for the family to face together.

Fans still treat her like the enemy. Is it possible The Americans will turn her in the future? Sure. The moment may come where Paige’s morals and convictions cannot reconcile with the actions her parents take. Maybe she will learn something that disturbs her the same way the initial revelation did and cause her to tell someone else the truth. As of now, nothing of the sort has happened. When she found out her pastor told his wife about the confession, Paige immediately took her parents’ side in the matter. She spends all of season 4 helping them keep their secret. She responds openly for most the season to Elizabeth’s attempts to “recruit” her. Even after Philip and Elizabeth use her love and loyalty to freaking blackmail her into spying on her pastor, the poor girl bears the burden as best she can rather than betray them.

So why do fans treat her as if she already has?

“Whining” becomes the only reason left to give, and not a strong one at that. Besides the ridiculousness of hating a teenage girl for having trouble with the lying and eventual confession of her parents’ secret life, the double standard issue again applies here. Philip and Elizabeth spend much of the show whining. They whine about the kids, they whine about each other, they whine about their handlers and neighbors. And that’s fine; the Jennings marriage and family runs The Americans, and a married couple hiding as much from each other as these two must hide will see constant stress. It is still whining all the same.

They don’t receive the criticism Paige does, and this makes the whining excuse ring hollow.

the-americans-parents

Seriously, they complain a LOT.

There’s always the “I just don’t care about teenage girls and don’t want to see her” reasoning. Thing is, there are plenty of children and teen characters that audiences love (see: Arya Stark). Paige avoids many of the pitfalls that usually turn people against characters like her. She is not self-absorbed, she’s not selfish, and she doesn’t place her parents in constant danger. She doesn’t have major plotlines centered on things people find boring like love interests or unimportant school drama. She doesn’t take drugs or hang with bad crowds just for easy parenting scenes to fill time. Most parents pray for a daughter as well-behaved and considerate as Paige Jennings.

All we’re left with is the one thing Paige has in common with the other hated female characters listed. She dares to be a moral voice on a show starring immoral characters.

Like it or not, TV writers these days loves the scumbag protagonist, and audiences love it even more. Maybe it is the escape from reality television provides. Maybe we enjoy the violence, so everyone hates the character that decries the violence and/or stops it. Whatever the case, it is the character who dares to be morally strong that gets the most criticism. Now some deserve it; again, Carmela Soprano knew very well what her husband did. Paige, though, does not. She’s a loyal, good kid that loves her parents. She doesn’t waste time with stupid teenage problems, she doesn’t go out of her way to cause her parents problems, and she is not treated by them or the story as someone to dislike. The Americans is usually at its strongest when she is involved.

Maybe next time people start thinking about how much they hate Paige Jennings they should sit down and ask if they’re being unfair. Because they probably are.


Images courtesy of FX and AMC

Bo
Written By

Bo relaxes after long days of staring at computers by staring at computers some more, and feels slightly guilty over his love for Villanelle.

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