The Rise of the Female Antihero

Sisters are doin’ terrible things for themselves.

Last week we discussed the predominance of antiheroes and straight-up villain protagonists on TV.

Ben Adams:  So we’ve touched on it here and there, but I actually think there is at least the beginnings of a trend of legit female antiheroes (of various flavors).

unrealIn the world of TV/prestige-ish dramas, Exhibit A has to be Quinn and to a lesser extent Rachel on the Lifetime (yes, I said Lifetime) show UnReal. Which, if you haven’t seen, is doing some great work. The soap-y roots make it a little over-the-top to be truly a “prestige” drama, but the female leads are some of the “strongest” (in Mlawskian sense) female characters around. They’re both antiheroes in the sense that they are a) deeply flawed and b) occasionally do deeply despicable things. Quinn probably shades closer to Walter White/Tony Soprano in that she is A Villain Who You Still Root For Sometimes, whereas Rachel is probably an antihero in more of the Don Draper mold in that she Has Deep Character Flaws and Leaves a Trail of Broken Lives in her wake, but she is at least somewhat redeemable, and is much more the focus of the narrative.

Exhibit B is Cersei Lannister. She started off the series as an outright villain/antagonist, but as the series has worn on I would argue she’s turned into more of an antihero – she’s our POV character now, and we see things through her eyes, even if she’s doing ridiculously evil stuff.

olivia-popeFinally, as Exhibit C you have Olivia Pope on Scandal. She’s much closer to a true hero, in the sense that she (mostly, kinda, sort of) tries to do the “right” thing, but she still does a lot of messed up stuff to a lot of people that only occasionally deserve it.

Jordan Stokes:  We could argue that none of this is exactly new. You can find characters like this if you go back looking for them. (Start with Bette Davis’s IMDB page.) But I have a hard time thinking of characters like this from the 80s and 90s. Also, it’s worth pointing out what these characters aren’t. None of them are femmes fatales. None of them are “beloved smothers” (to borrow another TV Tropes term). This is significant. If we think of antiheroes are “instead-of” heroes, the femme fatale is basically an “instead-of” love interest. The smother is an instead-of mother. They’re defined by their relationship to the male protagonist, and defective with regard to that relationship.

You can find male versions of this if you go looking for it. In Twilight, Edward is less of an antihero and more of an anti-boyfriend. But it’s more rare, because female protagonists are more rare, especially in the kind of popular entertainment that we focus on here.

cerseiSo I do think it’s significant that the characters Ben mentions don’t work this way. Bits of these tropes come up — Cersei’s relationship to Tommen is a bit smothery, to be sure — and that’s fine. They’re useful tropes. But Cersei’s villainy, her antiheroism, call it what you will, is something that seems to arise first and foremost from within, which then effects the relationships that she has with the people in her life, whether they’re male or female.

Peter Fenzel:  As far as connecting this to the 90s in various ways, it’s worth noting that Harley Quinn is a 90s character, and so were the various good and bad sympathetic witches in The Craft, Charmed, Buffy, The Witches of Eastwick, and Hocus Pocus, who did this to a greater or lesser degree and were generally front and center relative to any male love interests. Heathers is somewhat related, as is Barb Wire, Tank Girl, and the women in Death Becomes Her. Erica Kane from All My Children is a transformative character and a direct or indirect inspiration for Cersei, no doubt, and Melrose Place had a lot of “ladies to the front” energy to its cruelty. To that you can add its list of imitators, like Models, Inc. And of course there’s the global phenomenon of La Femme Nikita.

femme-nikitaIt’s not the same as it is now, but I don’t think 90s antiheroes were just a male or male-centric phenomenon. It was the age of the Riot Grrrl, after all, as well as Peak Wicca.

Stokes:  Well, Harley Quinn isn’t helping your case there, is she? But Tank Girl, for sure. And yeah, any account of female antiheroes that leaves out soap operas is probably under-researched.

(I’d say Nikita is a wholly different phenomenon, though: she’s not an antihero, she’s a hero forced by circumstance to do bad things. The movies are always about her trying to stop being an assassin.)

Fenzel:  Yeah, she’s in that other category of reluctant wrongdoers we discussed before.

What about Alanis Morissette? How does the speaker of “You Oughtta Know” fit into all this?

Stokes:  There’s a sliding scale that runs from “crazy ex-girlfriend” to “wrath of a woman scorned,” and she’s on it. Probably closer to the wrath side of the scale — I guess we never get to hear Coulier’s side of the story, but the protagonist of the song never struck me as morally ambiguous. That would be another category of antihero-ish female character that’s defined primarily by her relationship to a man.

crazy-ex-girlfriendWhich is not necessarily problematic in its own right — we don’t want to throw Medea under the bus, I assume — but it feels out of date. It’s hard to imagine a version of The Good Wife that’s basically about Alicia airing her grievances like this. It’s hard to imagine a version of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend that doesn’t spend the opening credits explaining that “crazy ex-girlfriend” is a sexist term, and that Rebecca is really much more than that.

Compare “You Oughta Know,” to “Since You’ve Been Gone,” to “We (Clap) are NEV-er, EV-er, EV-errrr, gettin’ baaaack together.” Specifically, to the reception of that Taylor Swift song, which had a strong vein of “Well, yes, this is about some specific guy… but on the other hand it’s not. Because this is just how Taylor Swift writes songs.” Whereas Alanis comes across as obsessed and angry. I worry about her, I also worry about the dude.

Fenzel:  Claire Underwood is somewhere on the scale.

Stokes:  Wait, Claire? Or Carrie?

If you mean Claire, I think you need to show your work. (I could believe it though. Is it, like, that she told Frank to choose between her and power, and he chose power?)

claireFenzel:  I don’t think the choice was between her and power, it was between power for both of them and power for just him. He broke the terms of their partnership by throwing her under the bus, so she launched a complex campaign against him – until the show just fell apart and dropped its threads.

Anger at him and a sense of hurt and betrayal was a strong motivator for her, and it was centered on a heterosexual relationship and the expectations therein.

Although the expectations themselves were sexualized and gendered, but not strictly sexual.

Adams: Stokes, your point is well taken that female antiheroes aren’t exactly a new phenomenon – but you could say the same for brooding male antiheroes. My hypothesis is much more that what we are seeing is a gradual evolution of the Golden Age of TV, taking the Tony Soprano/Walter White/Don Draper mold and mapping it on to female characters.

Stokes: What gets lots in the process of the mapping, however (aside from, I guess, a penis) is the aura of crumbling empire that the canonical golden-age shows tend to evoke. Don Draper’s masculinity is in crisis, and so is his whole era. If Tony goes down, he might take the whole criminal enterprise down with him. (Because, again, these guys are patriarchs: they are the linchpins of their particular little patriarchal orders.) My sense is that that’s not the case with any of these other shows you mention. Am I wrong?

(You know who else we should probably be talking about is Cookie from Empire. )

Adams:  The aura of crumbling empire is still there. It’s just that if it’s the patriarchy that’s being smashed, the antiheroine’s story is being told from the prospective of the Huns.

katnissFenzel:  Which also brings to mind Katniss Everdeen, who might in a different story be a rebellious antihero (“This is a rebellion, I rebel.” Rogue One, anyone?), especially since she is a murderer of children and a belligerent fascist collaborator and propagandist. Except she’s much more of a good person forced to do bad things by circumstances, and by an evil patriarchy in particular. She’s involved in moral monstrosity and has to struggle with that constantly and the book I think does a more “morally upright” job than the movies of framing this.

Stokes:  Right, due to the internal monologue, which shows her struggling with the bad things that she’s forced to do. (This has been one of our perennial themes when discussing the Hunger Games franchise.)

It’s interesting to divide the Katniss/Peeta/Gale triad along the lines that we’ve been discussing here. Gale is a classic antihero: he does some very dark things in the service of a good cause, but he’s 100% comfortable with what he’s doing and views it as the appropriate way to behave. (It would be naive and irresponsible to behave any other way.) Katniss is a victim-of-circumstance hero: her basic impulses are all heroic, but she’s forced to do bad things to survive in the nightmare world that she inhabits. The interesting twist is the role that Peeta plays here. Like Katniss, he’s a victim-of-circumstance hero, but he’s always finding ways of coping with the nightmare world that are more heroic than Katniss’s solutions. (More heroic in the sense of “more moral.” We can have a whole other conversation about the “takes decisive actions which have a big effect on the plot” and “hurts bad guys with violence” sides of heroism, in which Katniss probably has an edge.)

enders_game_yaThe tragedy and humanity of Katniss’s situation is highlighted by Peeta’s presence. It would be one thing if she was thrown into these untenable situations and then did the best that she could. But she’s not doing the best that she can. Peeta is doing the best that she could do. She’s failing. Or behaving more like a person, which amounts to the same thing.

Contrast this to, say, Ender Wiggin, who is thrown into untenable situations and then always always always does the best thing — and feels, set against Katniss, like an insufferable little fascist.

There are no moral monsters in Ender’s Game. Just moral realists. In The Hunger Games, there are monsters, and humans (who haltingly aspire to heroism), and a couple of paragons of virtue (Peeta, Prue, Cinna?). Interestingly enough, the paragons don’t have the capacity to really handle the problems that the protagonists are grappling with. They guide our aspirations, and then get killed and/or tortured to provide us with motivation.

Which is not totally unlike the role of the messiah in modern Christianity. Like, you’re supposed to ask yourself what Jesus would do, but you can’t expect him to step in and take care of the Syrian refugee crisis.

We’re gonna have to do that ourselves, with our faulty mortal moral senses, which probably — given humanity’s track record — means using violence.

7 Comments on “The Rise of the Female Antihero”

  1. Crystal #

    The female anti-hero that jumps to my mind is Patty Hewes in Damages. She has no qualms about doing wrong to get her way. Arguably, she is doing what’s right for her clients, even if it’s skirting the law. That is a code of sorts. I suppose, in theory, the series is about whether or not Ellen is going to follow in Patty’s footsteps and turn evil, but I had to look up Ellen’s name, so I think it’s safe to say that Patty is the more memorable character.

    The Peeta/ Katniss/ Gale conversation is interesting. The idea of Katniss being an anti-hero seems incredibly wrong to me, at least in the way we usually mean anti-hero. She is an anti-hero in that she really doesn’t want to be a hero. She’s not usually an agent of the plot (except to start the whole thing by volunteering as a tribute, which she does on impulse). The point of THG is that Katniss is forced into these situations she doesn’t want to be a part of. She just wants to save her sister and be left alone, dammit, but she’s swept into a revolution and forced to be its icon. Sure, she could run away, but that’s really her only other option. She can’t refuse the role of Mockingjay if she wants to be a part of society. Comparing Peeta and Katniss is an interesting parallel to the real world. We often hear that women have to work 2x as hard to get half the respect and recognition a male coworker does. Would Katniss realistically be able to do what Peeta does? Not if she wants to live. But then if Peeta didn’t have Katniss to protect him, he wouldn’t be able to do it either. It’s an interesting parallel. I never saw Katniss as really worrying about right vs. wrong. She is in a situation where she has to put survival first. Maybe I’m a Hunger Games fangirl (okay, probably), but I can’t see Katniss on the anti-hero shelf next to Walter White or Patty Hewes.


    • 3lemenope #

      The irony there is that Katniss doesn’t want to be part of society at all. She daydreams (when she had the capacity, before the whole PTSD thing) all centered around her and Gale running off into the woods to live off the land. The only thing that keeps her around, besides the fear of being caught and avoxed or killed, is her surviving family. Society could burn for all she cares. I think this serves to push her back into genuine antihero territory.


      • Crystal #

        It’s true that she doesn’t want to be a member of society, per se. This is a common opinion for 17 year olds to take. If you look at pre Hunger Games Katniss, she’s quite integral to a lot of merchants in the black market and to the survival of Gale’s family. She is an important part of her community. Her objections are more to the society as a whole (the Hunger Games are wrong, better to burn the whole government down than to live like this, etc) and to not knowing where she fits into society (as far as I can tell, 17 year old girls in District 12 are expected to get married and have kids. If she doesn’t want that, she’s forced into the role of outcast whether she likes it or not). Over the course of the series, she becomes more invested in the survival of people who are not in her community (she empathizes with the people in the Capitol who really don’t know better).

        For the sake of argument, let’s say she’s not interested in the survival of society. Is that really what makes someone an anti-hero? Don’t anti-heroes actually do bad things? Or is failure to act as bad as evil actions?


  2. cat #

    I think I relate the most to Stokes’ perspective in this Think Tank. Though I’m more of a Joan Crawford girl.

    Also, Harley Quinn, Charmed, Heathers, Death Becomes Her, and Erica Kane? Did you guys write this post just for me?

    But seriously… to take up Ben’s point, “My hypothesis is much more that what we are seeing is a gradual evolution of the Golden Age of TV, taking the Tony Soprano/Walter White/Don Draper mold and mapping it on to female characters.” I can see the argument for it. What I think we got in the 90’s/early 2000’s with shows like Xena and Charmed were heroic characters with some complexity and humanity. I wouldn’t really call them antiheroes. Now there seems to be two brands of female protagonist (not that these are the sole two types but these are two that stand out). There are the characters who do bad things but the narrative is almost always on their side. I’m not talking about a female Walter White or Norman Bates but writers who write somewhat despicable characters but don’t truly acknowledge how problematic their creations are. This is a big Lifetime problem. Examples include Ugly Betty and Drop Dead Diva. On the other hand, you have what Ben is talking about which is a female protagonist adopting the traits of the male antihero. USA tried some lady genius shows. Another trait grafted on from the guys seems to be the hard-drinking aspect. I’m not sure it necessarily results in better characters. Lady antiheroes like Rebecca Bunch tend to be a little more selfish (definitely more than heroic characters) but unlike the first type, they admit to it. They pursue their self-interested goals the way the mostly heroic characters devote themselves to saving the day.

    Side note: UnReal was a weird place to start. I enjoyed season 1 but if you’ve kept up with it, season 2 was a mess. They failed at almost everything they were trying to say about race and gender.


    • Crystal #

      Wait. Who is despicable on Drop Dead Diva? The whole premise of the show– shallow model is reincarnated as a plus-size lawyer and is at first horrified because she’s no longer conventionally beautiful– is problematic (the show handled it with about as much tact as it could), but I don’t recall anything else particularly troubling. Of course, I watched it many years ago. I don’t remember any character’s being despicable. The show tries to present Kim Kaswell as being evil but I don’t recall her doing anything evil.


      • cat #

        Jane. Though it’s been a while since I’ve seen the show myself so I don’t want to be too harsh without justification. But it was definitely an Ugly Betty problem and a Being Erica problem. There’s a kind of self-righteous female character that gets written who often has the moral high ground but who also makes bad choices that the show doesn’t really acknowledge.


  3. cat #

    I thought about this reading Crystal’s comment. Someone who is really missing from this discussion is Annalise Keating (Viola Davis’ character on How to Get Away With Murder). She was really written in the mold of the male antiheroes. She does horrible things (though she stays just redeemable enough… mostly by not getting her hands too dirty). She’s a hard drinker. She has affairs. She will cheat and lie and manipulate to win. But she’s the protagonist and the way the show is structured, you need to root for her to succeed.

    Another side note: Does anyone know if the name Annalise Keating was taken from the real AnaLouise Keating? I saw her name in This Bridge Called My Back and the similarity jumped out at me.


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