It’s no secret that men and women are treated differently in our society. But what about in literature? I have noticed, in my fiction travels, such a dearth of truly complicated women in popular fiction, and it’s a curious thing. Female antiheroes, even when they are featured in popular fiction, seem to garner more contempt than admiration. On the contrary, male antiheroes are common, frequently well-liked, and admired as complicated characters that make a story engaging. But with female antiheroes, many deem the woman “unlikable” and scorn her. Female antiheroes are problematic in popular fiction: very few people seem to like them.
Antiheroes aren’t supposed to display conventional “heroic” characteristics like selflessness, courage, and honesty. Sometimes they’re violent, they’re deceitful, or just plain cruel. Popular fiction is littered with male antiheroes who elicit sympathy and respect, even admiration, but female antiheroes are so often hated for displaying those same characteristics. So, what is it about female antiheroes in popular fiction that people just don’t seem to like?
When I think of female antiheroes in popular fiction, I recall two vastly different characters: Scarlett O’Hara and Lisbeth Salander. There are plenty of others, especially on television or literary fiction (one recalls Lena Dunham’s Hannah on Girls), but these two have managed to capture the attention of audiences with their complicated natures and, in Scarlett’s case, have split audiences into two camps: those who admire and those who abhor.
Take Scarlett O’Hara. She certainly isn’t very likable: you wouldn’t want to go shopping with her, for instance (well I would, but that’s a different article). But she quickly distinguishes herself in the story as smarter than the average Southern belle. She’s intelligent and charming, and definitely determined to get what she wants. She’s also vain, selfish, spoiled, and frequently insensitive. Basically, Scarlett is a person–a complicated one–with characteristics both positive and negative. But she has also been a victim of unparalleled hate for decades simply for exhibiting those less savory ones. But what if she were a man? Are vanity, selfishness, and lust for power characteristics that we disdain in a male character? Continue reading…
Then there’s the problem of violent women. Lisbeth Salander immediately comes to mind. However, in my opinion, I feel like she’s just straddling the hero/antihero line simply because she is so likable. Readers root for her unconditionally because her crusade is for justice, and her violence justified. She does have a lot of conventional heroic characteristics–her courage and her belief in human dignity for examples–and there’s no doubt the hardships she’s been through: rape and neglect and physical abuse at the hands of her father. We understand why she is so violent, so paranoid.
But what if she were a little more violent? What if she killed or attacked, not out of self-defense or vengeance, but out of sheer spite? Would readers still be her cheerleaders? Maybe, if she retained her other admirable qualities, like her fierce intelligence and sense of self-preservation, her courage and her determination, readers could accept her less admirable ones…but if Lisbeth were a man, his violence would not be remarked upon with as much obvious criticism. We’re surprised at Lisbeth’s violent tendencies. She’s a woman, after all.
The most popular male antihero I can think of is Severus Snape. Irascible, bullying, greasy Severus Snape who targeted little Harry from the second he walked into school. For seven years Snape bullied not only Harry, but the brave and brilliant Hermione Granger, the cheeky Ron Weasley, and lowly, self-conscious Neville Longbottom. He’s undeniably cruel and often inexcusably petty. Snape is easily one of the least likable characters in all of popular fiction but at the end of the seventh novel, when readers learn about his past, Snape is immediately exonerated. If Snape were a woman, dare I say, readers all over the world would still be calling her a bitch.
So why the discrepancies? What is it about female antiheroes in popular fiction that are so problematic?
I believe the answer lies in those stubborn gendered stereotypes that place women in one of two polar categories, the virgin and the whore, the chaste wife and the femme fatale, the good and the evil. The conspicuous lack of female antiheroes in popular literature suggests readers’ distaste for reading about complicated, deeply flawed women. Despite any “good” characteristics these characters display, the “bad” seems to leave a bitter taste in the mouth and erase any likability. But women in literature and popular fiction don’t need to be likable. They need to be real.
As a society, we’re more inclined to allow for a man’s moral complexity and dubious decisions than a woman’s. Male antiheroes are more likable because readers aren’t scrambling to find justification for his actions the way they do with a woman’s. When faced with a male antihero, readers are more likely to ignore his less savoury characteristics and focus on the character’s journey, or his justification for his actions, rather than use his “evil” side as an excuse to condemn him. That’s a huge social problem leaking into our books and movies and into our collective consciousness as a society.
The only recourse is to write more complicated, violent, cruel, confident, vulnerable, smart women who truly exemplify the complex nature of man- and womankind, and provide a true example of what it means to be a woman in this world. Until we do, the only women in popular fiction will be flat, one-dimensional shades that fail to encapsulate the female experience.