There’s a long history of antiheroes in film with the likes of Tyler Durden, Travis Bickle and Captain Jack Sparrow all taking their slightly unhinged turns in the spotlight. An antihero can be defined fairly simply: a lead character who “lacks conventional heroic attributes”. But the antihero, as with most movie tropes, comes laden with a gendered expectation: they’re pretty much all male.
Admittedly, the male gaze has ensured that this definition is perhaps too simplistic when applied to female characters; women onscreen are routinely viewed as women first and as humans second, let alone heroes. The limited traits given to female characters – whether a manic pixie, a femme fatale or standard love interest – make using negative traits to define them as antiheroes a loaded affair. However, that is an article for another day.
As a basic litmus test, the Wikipedia list of film antiheroes contains not one woman. Flavorwire asked in 2013 why there were so few female antiheroes, deciding that a general lack of female-led movies, a lack of female talent behind the screen and, crucially, cinema’s simplistic view of women was to blame. And it is Diablo Cody’s fantastic Young Adult that Flavorwire cites as evidence of the audience’s disdain for the female antihero. Though critically-acclaimed, it took a loss at the box office, and Rotten Tomatoes shows an audience score of 49% against the Tomatometer’s 80%. Does this appreciation juxtaposition show that audiences just don’t like films about ‘bad’ women? Or is the answer more complex?
Cast your mind back to 1939: President Roosevelt is in office, the first Superman comic has been published, and across the pond, World War Two has kicked off. But by December, none of that matters because Margaret Mitchell’s epic best-selling novel has hit the big screen. Gone With The Wind broke contemporary box office records and is still the highest grossing movie of all time (*adjusted for inflation). Scarlett O’Hara is arguably the most famous female antihero ever, stomping, lying and fighting her way to a largely unhappy end. But clearly audiences weren’t put off.
Fast forward to the present and though you have to look hard to find O’Hara’s legacy, it is there. Young Adult’s Mavis Gary not only has pathetically pining after a married man in common with Scarlett, but also her almost sociopathic lack of empathy. The difference is Mavis doesn’t have the American Civil War as a challenge to overcome: perhaps audiences struggled to root for Mavis without an epic war to contend with, not to mention with no blockbuster book behind her.
The recent adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s thriller Gone Girl took $369.3 million worldwide – clearly the huge success of Flynn’s book was a help. Books have traditionally welcomed a woman with flaws, from Austen’s Emma and Bronte’s Cathy to Lisbeth Salander, Moll Flanders and Zoe Heller’s Barbara Covett. Fewer voices in the creative process, an easier use of the first person for better character representation and less cost and risk involved in production have all allowed female – and male – writers more room to let their female characters run riot. Though let’s not excuse the publishing industry of sexism too soon: unsurprisingly, one recent study showing that male leading characters are more likely to win awards. Le sigh.
A more successful set of objectionable women can be found in the indie sector. Mumblecore maestro Noah Baumbach has long been a champion of the female antihero – 2007’s Margot at the Wedding had Nicole Kidman try to tear apart her sister’s wedding, Frances Ha had co-screenwriter Greta Gerwig as the delusional, frustrating Frances and Mistress America saw Gerwig return as the equally delusional, flighty Brooke. But a discrepancy remains between the latter two’s critical and audience receptions, and Margot failed to reach even the critics. The Rotten Tomatoes ‘Critic Consensus’ tellingly states: “the characters… are too unlikeable to enthrall viewers.” Similarly, Anne Hathaway’s spikey former drug addict in Rachel Getting Married and Kristen Wiig’s recent narcissist in Welcome To Me may have made it to the silver screen, but their small budgets and limited releases led to only modest success.
As Flavorwire set forth, a key reason for the lack of unsympathetic female roles is a lack of female roles in general. A recent report by USC looked at the top 100 films from 2007-2014 and found only 30.2% of speaking characters were female. It is also well worth noting that all female ‘antiheroes’ mentioned so far have been white. Of those 700 films USC researched, only three of the female actors in lead roles were from underrepresented ethnic minorities.
To draw a predictable conclusion, negative audience appreciation of female antiheroes is sadly symptomatic of wider systemic sexism. It appears that in order for you to have a successful female antihero, you need to have warmed up your audience by getting them to digest her in literary form first. The films that do feature women whose existence – gasp – isn’t there just to please are often only on a small, select release. The fact is that when audiences don’t often get a chance to see women speak, let alone say unpleasant things, no wonder they are unforgiving of a woman who rocks the boat. Audiences don’t hate good films about bad women, they just barely ever get to see them.