Anti-heroes are some of the most enjoyable characters in fiction. Though there are many differing opinions on what makes an anti-hero an anti-hero, I find this definition gets to the heart of the matter:
“An anti-hero is a central or supporting character that has some of the personality flaws and ultimate fortune traditionally assigned to villains but nonetheless also have enough heroic qualities or intentions to gain the sympathy of readers. Anti-heroes can be awkward, obnoxious, passive, pitiful, or obtuse—but they are always, in some fundamental way, flawed or failed heroes.” source
Though male characters who fit this definition are a dime-a-dozen in tv, film, and fiction (think Severus Snape, Spike the Vampire, and Captain Jack Sparrow), there are comparably fewer anti-hero females, and I’m not sure why. Maybe writers struggle in depicting women who are flawed but still sympathetic. Or maybe audiences have a hard time accepting as likable female characters who fall into the grey area between good and evil.
The trope may be male-dominated, but there are still some anti-heroines out there who can give any male anti-heroes a run for their money. Here are seven women who show the trope works just as well for female characters as for males:
Lisbeth is characterized as a socially maladjusted anti-heroine as a result of her traumatic past. She has a strong desire to promote justice, but her desire for this justice is not based on a general desire to “do good;” instead it is sourced in a psychological need to bring retribution to people who hurt others like she’s been hurt. As a result, her feats of heroism are heavily tinged with vengeance and rage. Her version of anti-heroine is dark, but undeniably sympathetic.
Faith has a long and complicated arc, but during her time on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (I’m talking pre-mayor, pre-Angel and pre-comics), she was a definite anti-heroine in how she would fight baddies alongside Buffy, but struggled with her sometimes over-enthusiastic love for violence and dominating others. Her biggest pitfall was succumbing to the Ayn Rand-ian notion that the rules shouldn’t apply to her because of her superior abilities and destiny. This is how she slid at some point from anti-heroine to full-on villain.
Boomer, the Number 6’s, Deanna….Every single female cylon on Battlestar Galactica featured models that were blends of hero and villain in them. They were all sympathetic characters and frequently found ways to blur the line between baby murderers and courageous rebels. That was part of the genius behind the show’s depiction of a whole species of characters who were enemies to the human race – the writers were able to portray the humans as just as flawed as the cylons, if not more so. You’d think this would make all the cylons anti-heroes regardless of sex, but with some exceptions BSG made the female cylons much more sympathetic, which was a refreshing twist in a male dominated trope.
Vain and selfish but oh so very likable, Scarlett is the epitome of the anti-heroine trope in the romance genre. She is tough, motivated, and handles adversity with incredible strength. I would venture to say that the reason her character remains popular 75 years later is that she blends pigheadedness with nobleness in a way few characters have pulled off since.
Beatrix Kiddo is the classic version of the anti-hero whose end-goal is righteous, but whose journey to attain this goal is far from righteous. She is a systematic cold-blooded killer, but since she was wronged first by these people, and since they’re all cold-blooded killers too, she ends up appearing the most righteous of them all.
Count on the Ancient Greeks to invent the most ethically sticky anti-heroine imaginable. The poor woman was treated terribly by the very husband who she helped bring to power, so that in the end the only way she could get her revenge was to kill her children in order to hurt their father (by denying him the right to patriarchal succession). Does that make her a villain or just a heroine put in a desperate position? Euripides makes her story tragic enough that she comes across as flawed, but overall heroic (in the Greek ‘action hero’ sense).
Catwoman started out as a villain in Batman and ended up a true anti-hero in her own comic. Part of this had to do with her obvious chemistry with Batman and the fact she was never really a killer even at her worst. Her ability to paradoxically straddle both the hero and villain roles is evidenced by her character’s simultaneous placement as #11 in IGN’s “Top 100 Comic Book Villains of All Time” list, and #20 on IGN’s “Top 100 Comic Book Heroes.” She is also the perfect example of the tendency for anti-heroines to verge on another trope: the femme fatale.
What other anti-heroines should be on this list? Why are so many more male anti-heroes than female anti-heroes? Do you have a different definition of what makes an anti-hero? Tell me what you think below.