Look at A Clockwork Orange’s Alex, Goodfellas’ Henry Hill, Scarface’s Tony Montana, The Wolf of Wall Street’s Jordan Bellford, Pulp Fiction’s Jules Winnfield, American Beauty’s Lester Burnham, Fight Club’s Tyler Durden, Gran Torino’s Walt Kowalski, American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman and Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle: all riveting characters, all antiheroes and all, interestingly, male.
I went to an all-girls high school. I’ve had enough of feminist rants for a lifetime, so just to be clear, that’s not where this is heading. Rather, I want to offer some food for thought — why does this imbalance exist? That being said, there is something very troubling about the disproportionate ratio of antiheroes to antiheroines, especially in film.
While doing research for this column, I came across a very interesting list on Flavorwire, “The 50 Greatest Movie Antiheroes of All Time.” Three female characters made the list: Young Adult’s Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), Batman Returns’ Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Bonnie and Clyde’s Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway).
Meanwhile, Al Pacino made the list four times for The Godfather’s Michael Corleone, Dog Day Afternoon’s Sonny Wortzik, Glengarry Glen Ross’ Ricky Roma and Scarface’s Tony Montana. Al Pacino is one of the greatest actors of our time and is undoubtedly deserving of his antihero accolades, but I find it hard to believe that he could singlehandedly pull four spots on this list when antiheroines as a whole couldn’t equal that.
Of course, the movie landscape today does not leave much room for antiheroines. Instead, this weekend’s moviegoers can look forward to heroic antics, much like those of The Hunger Games’ Katniss, now taking the shape of Divergent’s Tris. Now in its second week, the film has already been warmly received with a near $100 million haul at the box office.
By all means, let the heroines continue. We don’t have enough heroines either, but I like my characters morally ambiguous, amoral at times, even, and — I’m sure many others would agree — I could use an influx of heroines who are rough around the edges. Namely, I want to see more antiheroines.
Thankfully, television is much more progressive. In fact, it’s paving the way.
Before we continue, let’s establish a definition: An antihero is a protagonist or character who is typically considered to be very morally ambiguous. He could be a mob boss, meth cook or corrupt politician, to offer a few examples. Still, outliers have the support of the audience because they are much more complex than the archetypal villain. They have feelings, motivations and rationale that justify their actions, if only to a certain extent.
Breaking Bad’s Walter White, The Sopranos’ Tony Soprano, Mad Men’s Don Draper, Dexter’s Dexter Morgan, Firefly’s Malcolm Reynolds, 24’s Jack Bauer, Lost’s James ‘Sawyer’ Ford, House M.D.’s Dr. Gregory House, The Wire’s Jimmy McNulty and House of Cards’ Francis Underwood are a handful of many antiheroes.
But, they are met with equal, female matches. Consider: Weeds’ Nancy Botwin, Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Faith Lehane, Nurse Jackie’s Jackie Peyton, Girls’ Hannah Horvath, Scandal’s Olivia Pope, Homeland’s Carrie Mathison, Game of Thrones’ Daenerys Targaryen and House of Cards’ Claire Underwood. Perhaps not as extensive of a list in the grand scheme of things, but these female characters are equally — if not more — compelling.
Many of the female characters I just mentioned adhere to this definition.
Consider Claire Underwood.
She is just as devious as her husband and scheming counterpart, Frank, and yet she is entirely more complex. She is a woman (warning: spoilers ahead!) who evokes sympathy as she cries in a bathroom stall at a government event over her sexual assault. But, she is also a woman who maliciously performed a sexual act on an elderly former employee who confessed feelings for her on his deathbed. She is both sensitive and ruthless. She is entirely gripping.
Then there’s Game of Thrones’ Daenerys Targaryan. Yes, she’s reclaiming the throne that’s rightfully hers, but last season she was completely ruthless (Dracarys!) and yet we cheered for her as she sent the order for hundreds of men to be slaughtered. Simply put, she’s a bad b-tch and we love her for it, not despite it. I have no doubt that she will continue to wreak havoc as she ascends to power, and we’ll be there right there with her, thirsting for more.
To return to the battle of the sexes, an ordinary high school teacher motivated to pursue meth manufacturing isn’t so terrible when he’s dying of cancer and wants to provide something for his family, now is he? Also, he’s brilliant and delivers terrific one liners (“I am the one who knocks”), so there’s that. On the other hand, a twenty-something-year-old aspiring writer who is lovable (err, likable) but is completely obsessed with herself and her abilities as an artist is a very different story.
Maybe that’s where the problem lies. Perhaps, an antiheroine is not merely “a female antihero,” as Merriam-Webster defines it, but rather its own separate entity. Or, perhaps, viewers can’t accept an antiheroine in the vein of Hannah because her problems are miniscule by comparison, and the cons outweigh the pros.
Arguably, Hannah shouldn’t even be part of the antiheroine list, but her presence stirs up a few questions: Is an antihero/antiheroine someone we root for or someone we accept despite their flaws? Is there really that much of a difference between antiheroes and antiheroines or do they differ because of audience perceptions of sex and gender? Do audiences want to see antiheroines match their male counterparts in quantity and quality?
These are very loaded questions, and they can’t be answered simply. Television is taking a step in the right direction, and film needs to follow suit, but these media could still go so, so much further. Claire, Daenerys, Carrie, Jackie, etc., have all been popularly received. Why not take it further? What do we have to lose?
As an audience member, I can confidently say that I’m ready and wanting for more antiheroines. And as a woman, I want to see someone I can relate to, not just someone I understand.
C. Molly Smith is a senior majoring in communication. Her column, “Art Garfunkel,” runs every other Friday.