Rise of Female Antiheroes
The rise of the antiheroine: why women are finally allowed to be ‘unlikeable’ on-screen
“When a girl is unlikeable, a girl is a problem,” writes Roxane Gay in her 2014 essay collectionBad Feminist. The cast and crew of the marital-dissolution dramaWildlifefound this to be true at the film’s New York premiere this month. During the post-screening Q&A, one viewer aired his grievances with Carey Mulligan’s flawed and impulsive character Jeanette, branding her “completely reprehensible” and “unsympathetic”. The actress hit back. “We’re all too used to only seeing women behaving really well [in movies],” she said. “When we see them out of control or struggling it doesn’t ring true because of everything we’ve been brought up to understand that women are always perfect and can do anything. That’s an unrealistic expectation of a woman. Seeing real humanity on-screen can be really jarring from a female perspective.” Cue applause from the East Coast film crowd.
Despite objections from this naysayer, 2019 has seen a marked increase in untraditional female roles that don’t pander to the idea that women should be nice: fromKilling Eve’s charismatic assassin to the all-women bank-robbing team of LFF's opening-night movieWidows.As Gay remarks: “When women are unlikeable it becomes a point of obsession in critical conversations... Why are these women daring to flaunt convention? Why aren’t they making themselves likeable (and therefore acceptable) to polite society?” The influx of women behaving badly in film and television this year is slowly chipping away at these outdated expectations, prising off the overly perfect veneer that so often clings to female characters. We investigate what has sparked this rise in antiheroines.
The market has expanded
In the days of yore before streaming and satellite, visual-entertainment options were limited. Either you settled in to watch one of the five channels beamed onto your TV set or you headed out to your local multiplex, which would most likely be playing a handful of blockbusters. Now, we are positively inundated with content: subgenre upon subgenre is available on Sky, on Amazon Prime, on iPlayer. This year alone, Netflix has rolled out 700 series and 80 films to its 137 million-strong subscriber base – who spend 100 million hours a day using the service.
But how does this relate to antiheroines? Since viewership has exploded, with 99 per cent of Britons watching four hours and 41 minutes of TV and video a day, studios are no longer forced to cater uniquely to the lowest common denominator. This leaves room for more ambitious programmes with complex female characters likeThe End of the F***kingWorld, in which the runaway schoolgirl Alyssa blackmails, steals and manipulates, but also protects her boyfriend; orThe Good Place,featuring a morally questionable and self-absorbed Eleanor, who is nonetheless fighting against her basest instincts by learning moral philosophy. Since market competition is growing, production companies must adapt with the times and keep us engaged: innovative shows with underrepresented protagonists have proven they can do this. The Walter Whites, Don Drapers and Tony Sopranos of the small screen have been fleshed out so often that they have achieved archetype status. Antiheroines, by contrast, have largely been absent from popular culture. Addressing this imbalance makes business sense, while also appealing to our hunger for the new.
The same goes for movies. Yes, audiences will inevitably turn out for anAvengersor aDeadpool, but – reading the ticket-sale tea leaves – there are signs that we’re less interested in the constant stream of overfamiliar films.Solo: A Star Wars Story, which became the lowest-grossing title of the franchise in May, is a case in point. Although a number of factors explain its paltry box-office performance, the most telling of which is that its previous installment was released just five months prior. Viewers were fatigued by this rehashing of the same fraying narrative. The fate ofSolojuxtaposes with the sleeper hitHereditaryfrom A24 (the indie powerhouse behindMoonlight,Ex MachinaandThe Killing of a Sacred Deer). The supernatural flick exceeded expectations in June, snatchingLady Bird’s title as the studio’s most profitable movie to date. The protagonist ofHereditary, Toni Collette’s grieving Annie, is sympathetic for the most part, and yet she lashes out at her family, journeying deep into the occult to make sense of her bereavement in a dynamic, Oscar-tipped performance.
A London Film Festival title that probably would have struggled to get funding even a decade ago is the adrenalin-pumping horrorAssassination Nation. The movie – which begins with an extensive jump-cut montage of trigger warnings – is divisive. A brief scroll through disgruntled tweets decrying its blood-drenched finale says as much. It was, however, a festival crowd-pleaser thanks to its high-school girl gang of woke, sex-positive feminists who dare you to dislike them. Lily cheats on her boyfriend with a married man; Grace knocks out her disloyal friend with a baseball bat. For all their faults, these young women nobly strive to call out the insidious misogyny, slut-shaming and transphobia of Salem, the conservative Massachusetts town of witch-trial fame. Feisty, opinionated and unapologetic, characters like these are ushering in a new generation of better developed women into contemporary cinema. The fact thatAssassination Nationwas the biggest deal of Sundance illustrates that Hollywood is putting its money where its mouth is, hoping to reach audiences by taking a chance on creative ideas.
Women are, gradually, getting a seat at the table
Don’t get me wrong, there is still a long way to go in terms of reaching gender parity in entertainment, but progress has been made. With 75 per cent of its competition strands achieving a 50:50 gender split, the LFF is striding towards equality, eclipsing Venice and Cannes’ male-dominated rosters in the process. Moreover, several of the year’s most popular series were led by female showrunners: Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Killing Eve); Melissa Rosenberg (Jessica Jones); Issa Rae (Insecure); Shonda Rhimes (Scandal)…I could go on. The author and screenwriter Gillian Flynn – who arguably kick-started this recent upswing in female antagonists with her pilloried psychopath Amy in 2012’sGone Girl– is joining their ranks by serving as the creator, producer and showrunner on a remake of the British showUtopia. She toldVanity Fairthat the spike in demand for women’s voices had made it difficult to find female collaborators for the project. “The good news is we’ve had some trouble,” she says. “The real test is to make that a consistent reality – not just a trend or a cool thing to do – to make sure that two years from now, it’s still the case.” Amen to that.
Greater numbers of women in writers’ rooms mean that perspectives other than the (white, male) norm are proffered during idea-generation meetings, resulting in more rounded female characters who can explore the darker sides of their personalities. AsKilling Eve’s Jodie Comer toldBazaar, “This is written by a woman who is different and will say the unsaid... Villanelle should be the villain but you end up rooting for [her].” Having women on set during production is similarly invaluable, since female directors, camera operators and cinematographers help steer a project towards authentic gender representation. In the words ofThe Bisexual’s producer Naomi De Pear, “If you want to tell diverse stories you have to be diverse in the way you tell them.”
The Kindergarten Teacher, premiering in the LFF's debate strand, definitely succeeds in this regard. Directed and written by Sara Colangelo, the movie follows Lisa (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a creatively frustrated educator who passes off her five-year-old student's poetry as her own. The relationship she forms with her young protégé is undoubtedly disturbing – she harasses his family, gets his nanny fired and kidnaps him twice – but we still empathise with her. The camera frequently frames Lisa alone, presenting a physical solitude that echoes the growing distance separating her from her dismissive children. (Lisa's “Who's here?” to her husband upon returning home is particularly poignant, since it illustrates that she has come to expect her teenagers' neglect.) In the hands of another film-maker, Lisa could have easily strayed into diabolical-caricature territory. Colangelo, however, mines her protagonist's ambiguity, relishing in the disjunct between her pure intentions and overbearing actions. The larger presence of female talent behind the scenes in film and television has started to replace rough, generalised character sketches with recognisable portraits of womanhood in all its glorious shades of grey.
The complexity of antiheroines mirrors our own
No one person is completely virtuous. No one person is wholly abhorrent. This is why there is nothing more frustrating than watching a Manichean character. Our motives cannot be neatly categorised – there is a spectrum of emotions that propels behaviour. As Roxane Gay says: “Likeability is a very elaborate lie, a code of conduct dictating the proper way to be. The question [of likeability] suggests that characters should not be a reflection of us, but of our better selves.” Antiheroines are reclaiming this narrative. We loved watching Annie Landsberg snap at her sister inManiacand Camille Preaker lie to her editor inSharp Objectsbecause these actions were true to life, shedding light on the human experience by being messy, spiteful, misguided and, above all,relatable.
The most fascinating aspect of these flawed women is their unpredictability: the self-serving schemes cooked up by Annalise Keating inHow to Get Away withMurder or Claire Underwood inHouse of Cards, for example, display a disregard for social expectation that is refreshingly liberating. This makes for compelling viewing and, given that 79 per cent of UK adults admitted to binge-watching television in 2019, unexpected twists and out-of-character moments (the weapons in any antiheroine’s arsenal) are almost guaranteed to keep us hooked.
Film-makers, for their part, have also realised the value in presenting these women to audiences. The director Yorgos Lanthimos – who cast Emma Stone, Olivia Colman and Rachel Weisz as three scrapping antagonists in his subversive royal dramaTheFavourite(playing at LFF this week) – is a proponent of richer female-centred storytelling. “Women are often portrayed as housewives or girlfriends or objects of desire,” he told reporters at Venice. “So we tried in our contribution to show how complicated and complex and wonderful and horrific they are, like every other human being.” Seeing antiheroines thrive on-screen goes some way to make up for decades of painfully flat female characters.
With traditional viewing platforms staring down existential crises, the entertainment world has irrevocably shifted. There certainly have been some one-dimensional, partially dressed women in film and TV this year (Under the Silver Lake, I’m looking at you), and yet, amid this evolving landscape, flawed female characters have finally gained traction. Through their exploitation and duplicity, they reveal that women are multifaceted, neither good nor evil, a composite of contradictory experiences. InBad Feminist, Roxane Gay bemoaned how “an unlikeable man is billed as an antihero” but an unlikeable woman is lambasted for her transgressions. I hope that watching the parade of female antiheroes and villains sweep into the cultural mainstream this year brought a smile to her face.
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