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Why Are There So Few Female Antiheroes on Film?

Last week, while assembling our mega-list of the best movie antiheroes, your film editor (and, subsequently, a few commenters) noticed a problem: there weren’t a hell of a lot of women on it. It certainly wasn’t for lack of looking, and while it’s feasible (hell, probable) that I missed a couple, the fact of the matter is that the complexities of the antihero — a protagonist and primary focus of a story that’s nonetheless blessed with little in the way of positive qualities — are given to male characters with infinitely greater frequency than their female counterparts. Why is there such a stark disparity?

It’s not a problem exclusive to film, though it’s certainly more of an issue there than in, say, television, where the current vogue of antiheroes (ushered in by Tony Soprano, best exemplified now by Don Draper and Walter White) has resulted in female protagonists of greater depth and complication: Carrie on Homeland, Hannah on Girls, and Jackie on Nurse Jackie leap to mind, as do the leads in the recently departed Weeds and Enlightened. And the female antihero is less scarce in novels as well; witness the protagonists of Alissa Nutting’s forthcoming Tampa, or Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, or Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs.

But even those writers are fighting a battle against the simplistic terms with which we like to approach fictional women. Messud memorably clashed with Publisher’s Weekly about her leading character, responding a numbskulled observation that “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora” thus:

For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?”

Messud’s indignation is entirely justified — in popular culture, be it books or theater or television or film, we like our female characters to be easily compartmentalized. The Madonna/whore complex may be an easy reference, but it’s an appropriate one; there are shadings, a Girl Friday here or a tragic victim there, but for the most part, those are the terms by which these women are still considered. You’ve got the adoring wife/girlfriend or the sexualized femme fatale, and not much in between. Women in mainstream film are seen as someone to befriend, someone to marry, or someone to fuck. We can’t really deal, it seems, with anything subtler.

This is well-entrenched gender stereotyping, and the results are fascinating; compare, for example, the hysterical way people respond to Hannah on Girls to the affectionate “boys will be boys” head-shaking that seems to accompany every fresh Don Draper betrayal, or the vociferousness with which viewers (and some critics) condemned Young Adult’s Mavis in comparison to, say, Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell in The Master. When confronted with female characters who force us to consider them in different, difficult terms, we tend to condemn, shut down, and walk away.

This is the kind of thing that’s so deeply embedded in the male gaze that astonishing numbers of men don’t even realize they see women in these stark, simplistic terms. But they do — and the trouble is, men are the ones writing most of the movies. And, unfortunately, most male screenwriters don’t write women well. There are exceptions (Joss Whedon leaps to mind — though, significantly, he’s had far more success doing that on television than in movies), but most appear to have taken as gospel truth Jack Nicholson’s advice from As Good As It Gets: “I think of a man. And then I take away reason and accountability.”

And nuance and complexity. And so we end up with a dearth of female characters in mainstream movies, period (next week’s The Heat is the first female-led studio film in not weeks, but months), and the ones that we get are either faithful wives or scantily clad eye candy. Male screenwriters seem to have either given up on trying to write interesting women, or never cared in the first place.

But there’s a simple solution. What’s noteworthy about that rundown of recent television shows and books with compelling female antiheroes is how many of them are the work of female writers and showrunners, and, yes, the aforementioned Young Adult was penned by Oscar winner Diablo Cody. Female screenwriters on the indie scene are writing women that don’t conform to the established types (often, out of frustration, for themselves to play — i.e., the recent Frances Ha and Before Midnight). The gender imbalance on both sides of the camera isn’t simply a frustrating equality issue — it’s resulting in films that are not just incomplete, but regressive. And until more women are writing women, we’re likely to continue seeing female types that are dull, lifeless, and antiquated.