The antihero is exciting because he is transgressive. Most of us color within the lines, but antiheroes rip pages out of the book. (Villains do that too, but then they set the pages on fire. Antiheroes make paper airplanes.) The antihero’s behavior upsets staid assumptions about virtue — he muddies “good” and “bad” in a way that mimics real life.
Despite their troublesome ways, antiheroes are performances, safe for audiences to enjoy. We can relish morally complex characters without having to bring mess and conflict into our own lives (or without having to admit the mess and conflict that we don’t know how to handle). Antiheroes allow us to externalize our own grapplings with selfishness, loyalty, and altruistic bravery. They give us a relatable avatar, complete with id as well as superego. Watching the antihero’s antics can even be cathartic.
So, given that women are roughly 50% of the human race, where are the antiheroines? Why are they so outnumbered? Could they be hiding in plain sight?
The antiheroine is not just a simple mirror image of the antihero. She must be derived from the traditional female protagonist the way the antihero is derived from the hero. To complicate matters, we’ve reached an era in which we see male versions of female character archetypes, and vice versa. For the purposes of this essay, any of these character archetypes can be either male or female:
- Damsel in distress
The archetypes are gendered, but they can be occupied by characters who don’t match that gender. Usually that’s not the case, but it’s possible. In my taxonomy, a heroine is just a female hero, but a female antihero is a different thing from an antiheroine. Don’t worry — there will be a chart later.
I also want to note that throughout this essay I’m working with Western culture and especially American culture. I can’t speak to other traditions.
The Shape of an Antihero
First we must analyze the original male antihero.
What are the distinguishing characteristics of this creature? He’s not merely an unconventional hero; the formula is more specific than that. TV Tropes can tell you, but I’ll boil it down further. The antihero is two things above all else: subversive and likeable. The aesthetics lean toward gritty, but in terms of character the antihero must defy authority in a way that makes the audience sympathetic.
He is a dishonorable but lovable rogue, a mainstay of adventure and romance (and sometimes political drama). The line between anti-establishment hero and true antihero can be hard to define — where does Robin Hood fall, or Wesley from The Princess Bride? My rubric is that the antihero has to do genuinely bad things, to cause pain and suffering, as well as genuinely good and admirable things.
He’s Loki before Loki turns evil. Han Solo, especially in A New Hope. Gregory House from the eponymous TV show. We root for him, but we can’t wholeheartedly endorse his actions. He is torn between protecting and enriching himself, versus choosing to sacrifice for a cause outside of himself. A greater good — or a girl.
The antihero is a gender performance, just as anything associated with men over women, or vice versa, is a gender performance. Antiheroes are a particular type of masculine: rugged and gruff, usually laconic. There are exceptions — say, Michael Scott from The Office — but I’m not aware of a bubbly antihero with a slight build. (Venkat suggested Jack Sparrow, but even with the eyeliner and flamboyant hand gestures, I don’t read Sparrow as femme. YMMV.) Many antihero stories include a good girl who is tempted by this bad boy. Princess Leia’s attraction to Han Solo is emblematic.
The archetypal hero, and thus also the antihero, is a virile man in his twenties, thirties, or forties at a stretch. Like a classic hero, the antihero is willful and active. He doesn’t wait around. But unlike the hero, his own interests are foremost. The antihero has to struggle with his self-preservation instincts. Often the antihero’s character arc brings him closer to being a classic hero — he decides to value something or someone outside of himself above his own interests. For instance, Han Solo returns to help the Rebel Alliance assault the Death Star.
The character Mal from Firefly is another typical antihero. He mocks and belittles Inara for being a sex worker (probably mostly out of jealousy, but that doesn’t excuse it) while cherishing and protecting Kailey. Even if he doesn’t like someone, he’ll go to bat for them if they’re part of his crew. He never leaves a member of his team behind. He’s a stern, autocratic ruler who reigns in his constituents’ worst impulses, while occasionally letting his own fly.
The antihero is not the perfect opposite of the hero. The opposite of a hero is either a villain, if you consider goodness to be the dominant qualifier for heroes, or a passive layabout, if you consider action to be the dominant qualifier. A hero is fundamentally good, more selfless than not, and brave. Heroes are honest; they are honorable.
An antihero is morally complex and probably internally conflicted. The antihero can be selfish — but not sociopathic. He is connected to the world of virtue without being immersed in it. Villains are bad, usually selfish to the point of sociopathy. They are irredeemable.
Lack of Ladies’ Night
Some female antiheroes do exist. Twitter supplied a handful examples that buck the trend: Lisbeth Salander, Electra, Bonnie Parker, Bella Swan (debatable), Mindy Lahiri, Blair Waldorf, etc, etc. Here’s a list of books featuring female antiheroes. There are a few women on Wikipedia’s list of antiheroes, including Scarlett O’Hara and Madame Bovary. I just started watching Netflix’s Brazilian series 3%, and the main character is a female antihero. Still, they are definitely less common than the male rendition.
“Antihero” has a Merriam-Webster definition, but “antiheroine” is merely “a female antihero”. (I’ll dispute that definition later.) Granted, there are fewer prominent female protagonists in general. Using American movies as a proxy: “Females comprised 22% of protagonists featured in the top 100 domestic grossing films of 2015.” [PDF]
But maybe the difference in absolute numbers isn’t the only reason why we see fewer women occupying this character space.
Both society and individuals tend to think of men and women differently. Most men have a Y chromosome; most women have a double X. The genes express themselves, and we react to the results. There is a very long history of social roles being determined by a person’s phenotype. We’ve built up cultural structures to support that division of reproductive labor, and even now in the age of the self-determined individual, we can’t shake free of our instincts or cultural detritus.
Tradition persists. Useful frameworks continue shaping society until the resistance overcomes inertia, and that process takes centuries at least. Masculinity and femininity are deep-rooted memes (in the Richard Dawkins sense). Except when consciously repudiated — sometimes even then — they rear their heads in the stories we tell.
As Haley Thurston wrote in “The Heroine’s Journey”:
The Heroine’s Journey is about learning to suffer, endure, and be subjected to indignity while maintaining grace, composure, and patience. While most heroic stories involve some element of perseverance and strength of will, what makes Heroine’s Journey stories different is that a heroine’s perseverance is tested not to see whether she can persevere to achieve a separate goal, but rather simply to see if she can persevere, period. When you lay it out like that, it’s pretty hard to see the Heroine’s Journey as fundamentally heroic, to which I say: well yeah.
Thurston gives the apt example of Queen Penelope, Odysseus’ abandoned wife in The Odyssey. The long-suffering wife, damsel in distress, and evil queen are more familiar than what we might call a hero-type heroine. Katniss Everdeen, from the Hunger Games saga, is a hero-type heroine, or what I would simply call a female hero.
The closest traditional feminine analogue to an antihero is a femme fatale, the antihero’s foil in noir fiction. She’s too sexy for anyone’s good. She’s out for herself, just like the antihero, but conflicted by torturous loyalty. Self-preservation or self-sacrifice? This is the essential conflict of the antihero, and the subordinated femme fatale shares it.
However, femme fatales can range from disguised damsels to outright villains, so the character is not a perfect counterpart. The femme fatale is also a niche concern, better known for slinky dresses and Humphrey Bogart than active participation in the plot.
Yes, there are individual female antiheroes, who follow the same pattern as the male version. But there’s no independent antiheroine archetype. It’s just an echo.
Mimicking the Men
If we reach back into fairytales and mythology, examples of female protagonists abound. But the heroine hasn’t caught on the way the hero did. In terms of popularity, can Wonder Woman hold a candle to Superman, Batman, or Spider Man?
Dealing in archetypes means dealing in stereotypes. The thing that makes them useful — generality, a pattern that can be applied across many narratives — is also their flaw. I look at archetypes as interpretative rubrics, shortcuts for finding meaning. They exist because we indulge them and perpetuate their lifespans. Both ancient and contemporary stories hew to archetypes so often because they embody the essential values and conflicts that deeply fascinate and resonate with human nature.
The antihero is complication of the hero pattern, one whose popularity just keeps growing. To find an antiheroine, we could look to the standard heroine (a female hero). She’s gender transposition of the male version, touted as a symbol of feminist progress when she’s featured in a book or a movie. I think this is the wrong impulse. There’s nothing wrong with that character, but she doesn’t correspond to the “deep meme” of femininity.
We must find a complication of the female archetype that has persistently occupied our hearts and minds. Think of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. I say that the damsel in distress is the best candidate.
In the beginning of this essay I wrote:
We can relish morally complex characters without having to bring mess and conflict into our own lives (or without having to admit the mess and conflict that we don’t know how to handle). Antiheroes allow us to externalize our own grapplings with selfishness, loyalty, and altruistic bravery. They give us a relatable avatar, complete with id as well as superego. Watching the antihero’s antics can even be cathartic.
To solve for antiheroine, we should examine which feminine archetype serves this purpose when contrasted with the damsel in distress. The damsel in distress is passive and tragic; things happen to her. The true antiheroine must have passivity in her also. But the damsel in distress is wholly virtuous, often virginal. The antiheroine won’t conform to those standards. She will break the rules; betray the expectations set upon her.
I think the best match is the maladjusted party girl. You won’t find her in a fairytale, since she’s an innovated archetype. Unlike the femme fatale, her manner of seduction isn’t carefully controlled. She’s wild — too wild for anyone’s good. She consumes too much; she is open to the world beyond what is seemly. Drinking, smoking, possibly a stint as a sex worker, love affairs in which she wants more than the partner can give.
The moral complexity part is easy: she’s often manipulative, or emotionally abusive, and lets people down. As with the antihero, this conception of the antiheroine can teeter on the edge between “asshole” and “flawed but loveable”. And even more so, the antihero’s outwardly directed bitterness and self-prioritization are inverted in the antiheroine’s self-loathing and performative self-harm.
A collection of popular musicians emblematize this type. Lana Del Rey is probably foremost among them, but Tove Lo, Ke$ha, post-Disney Miley Cyrus, Lily Allen, certain Lady Gaga sub-personas, and Melanie Martinez also qualify. These are women who peddle a glamorized depiction of their angst. (Oddly enough, there’s a male version too — not an antihero, but a masculine version of the twisted damsel in distress. A male antiheroine. Lately he’s been calling himself Starboy. Drake has dabbled in this territory as well.)
Two years ago, I wrote an essay called “Crazy Girl Chic” for Bustle. It was about a type of woman who is different from the typical femme fatale, that mistress of crafted artifice, and different from a sincerely strong female hero like Katniss Everdeen. It was about the “don’t stick it in crazy” kind of woman. In this passage, I tried to encapsulate what I meant:
Oblivion is the ideal aesthetic. It’s like the tragic self-awareness of Lana Del Rey’s “Carmen”: “She says, ‘You don’t wanna be like me, working for fun, gettin’ high for free.’” And, “Darlin’, darlin’, doesn’t have a problem. Lying to herself ‘cause her liquor’s top shelf.” Daisy Buchanan in a nutshell, no? Glorifying mental illness is supposed to be bad, or so I hear from Tumblr, but it keeps me alive. I have to believe that there’s something glamorous about being depressed because otherwise it’s that much more depressing.
I cited Edie Sedgwick, Zelda Fitzgerald, Cat Marnell, and so on, as examples. This is the woman who builds up momentum and falls apart at full speed. Like Sylvia Plath, but more manic. Unlike the typical demure damsel, she participates in her own distress. We can’t approve of her coping methods, but we sympathize with her pain.
The redemption, when there is one, is figuring out how to change mindsets into happiness, or into a place of being okay with something short of that.
I called this woman too open to the world — too hungry. She has to find herself, within herself. She has to become self-contained, able to sustain her own needs. The antihero, who begins the story in a closed-off state, opens up to a quest that he sincerely cares about, that he’s willing to prioritize over his own well-being. The antiheroine is used to prioritizing anything over her own well-being, and she must recalibrate. The antihero learns to love the world; the antiheroine learns to love herself.