The theme behind Scandalous Women is that well-behaved women don’t make history. Unfortunately, the entertainment business is another story. Though history is rife with women who have performed unheroic actions in order to further a cause they believed was right, it seems novels, television, and film have been slow to understand these qualities in women. The entertainment world is buzzing with the onslaught of anti-hero men; consider Breaking Bad’s Walter White, and Dexter’s Dexter, who are two of the most recent additions to the “dangerous men” club that began with Tony Soprano. Like Tony, these are men who make purposefully evil choices for what they believe is a pure-hearted cause. Walter White, after all, becomes a drug lord for the sake of his family.
Not to say we haven’t had our fair share of “evil” or “naughty” women, but in most cases, that’s all they are. Women in popular literature, on TV, and in movies are more likely to be found portraying “good girls,” who, even if they make mistakes, never meant to, or “femme fatales,” women who have no moral guidelines whatsoever. But where are the leading lady protagonists who have enough depth to stand as anti-heroes themselves, making evil decisions for acceptable reasons, and possibly leading the storyline?
They are few and far between, that’s for sure. One of the first examples that came to mind is the fictional character of Catwoman, who shows no hesitation when it comes to deception or even murder in the name of stopping bad guys, but generally plays second fiddle to Batman’s role. There’s also the recent film Young Adult, during which Charlize Theron played a woman entirely unwilling to change her sad, pitiful, life, which was able to give us a taste of what it was like to have a female lead we may not like. And the popular novel Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn did something similar with its possibly completely insane, though incredibly smart, female lead. Other examples show a trend toward female protagonists of greater depth and complication, such as Carrie on Homeland or Hannah on Girls, yet still, these characters lean further toward the realm of misguided mistakes than Robert De Niro worthy murders and drug deals.
Media has long been embedded in the male gaze, and it’s still generally men writing the scripts and frankly, the majority of men are incapable of writing women well (as always, with some exceptions). Jack Nicholson’s advice from As Good As It Gets, when discussing writing women is simply, “I think of a man. And then I take away reason and accountability.” Or, read this intriguing and frustrating article on why a few notable comic writers refuse to write women with more depth, simply because history and the genre haven’t previously called for it, and they believe readers won’t be interested in it.
But based on readers’ highly positive reactions to Gone Girl and other anti-heroes, it seems as if readers are clamoring for in-depth female characters that aren’t solely motivated by lust and greed, or the opposite, purity and moral perfection. Here are a few lead characters that have either come close, or have hope, of becoming the female counterpart of previous male antiheroes.
Lisbeth Salander, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Lisbeth is the victim of multiple crimes against her person, which puts readers immediately on her side. So much so that we accept the fact that she is a hacker who routinely invades the privacy of anyone and everyone. She’s also been known to lie, steal, and seek revenge in violent ways. But it’s all in the name of justice... right?
Jackie Peyton, Nurse Jackie: On this television show, Jackie is a manipulative nurse who has affairs, abuses medications, and frequently breaks the law. However, she’s saving lives most of the time, and for that reason has the same effect as House from the show House: we like her anyway.
Hannah Horvath from Girls: Hannah is young, emotionally a mess, and occasionally a whiny brat. She is selfish, unmotivated to get her own job and stop mooching off her parents, and is often petty. Still, we root for her as the lead character of this show.
Beatrix Kiddo from Kill Bill: An obvious choice for anti-heroism, this film is about Beatrix seeking revenge on Bill, and it results in many, many innocent deaths. Though plot wise she is a strong choice, the movie doesn’t give a lot of room for character depth, since it is a film more focused on gore.
Arya Stark, Game of Thrones: Arya is just a child in George R.R. Martin’s addicting television and book series, but as the story has progressed her actions have become increasingly morally unsound. We know Arya is motivated by revenge, and desires the destruction of anyone she believes is involved in harming her or her family. Still, some of her actions recently, murder by both her own hand and by the direction of her friend the assassin, are leaning toward an antihero trend. She may grow into the most conflicting character yet.
Alissa Nutting’s Tampa: Though this novel is yet to be released, there is high hopes that we’ll have found a female protagonist who partakes in more than questionable actions. The novel follows a young, beautiful teacher as she seduces a student.
Though I’m sure there are more, the stretch to find the female counterpoint to Walter White is not as easy as it should be. Partially this is due to many writers’ own fear of creating a morally questionable female character, but much of the time audiences too have failed to support the emergence of female anti-heroes. We’ll find that Nancy Botwin, from the show Weeds, who turned to selling weed in order to support her children, was heavily criticized for putting her children in danger. Likewise, Skyler White, from Breaking Bad was portrayed as a horrible mother and utterly unlikeable for smoking a cigarette while pregnant, (really, check the internet comment boards) despite the fact that her husband cooks meth and murders people.
In the end, for female antiheroes to succeed and rise in numbers, both audiences and writers must continue to create and support them. No longer should women be confined to easily compartmentalized characters of adoring wife/girlfriend or sexualized femme fatale. There should be female characters across the entire board with audience sympathy and qualities that land somewhere between angelic and demonic.
Author Bio: Elizabeth Eckhart is an entertainment and film blogger for directstartv.com. She frequently writes about literature, fictional figures, and media in general. She can be followed on twitter at @elizeckhart.