This month I have a piece in Spectator USA about the idea of the antiheroine. It’s a change I’ve noticed in TV and film in recent years, where for a long time, the message was always that women couldn’t be assholes for free.
They’ve always got to be “damaged”. If a woman was unpleasant, there was always the plot point, that she was a victim in some way. This smacked to me of lazy male writers, whose idea of character development for women was just to add a backstory of sexual assault.
Of course in the same way women's villainy is always viewed as a much greater transgression than men’s. Our culture finds ways to explain male anger. Men's aggression is seen as natural even laudable in some contexts. Plenty of commentators have noted the level of sympathy shown to men who've committed crimes, particularly violence against women, referred to sardonically as “himpathy”.
Women are constantly told to #benice, in a way that men are not. I'm reminded again of the summary from Jeremy Freese that a woman’s options are 1. be attractive or, failing that, 2. be amenable. (Where in truth, option 2. is pretty much held as an obligation for all women, only escapable in limited contexts by the very attractive, usually for a pretty short age window).
The observation that what makes a man “assertive” makes a woman “a bitch” is hardly new. But perhaps interesting though is that in the long history of antiheroines, few give any airtime to the ultimate example: Scarlett O’Hara. She is not nice. She isn’t evil, but she’s a young woman with limited options given society’s boundaries (and a war). She is bold and wants what she wants. Perhaps because it was written during the Depression, when many women were coming into their own (against adversity), she found a ready audience. Scarlett’s voice must have echoed with women suffering the hardships of the 30s, and vowing to do whatever they needed to “never go hungry again”.
Of course draw the lens back, and she is a villain, at a structural, societal level. She is a beneficiary of a white supremacist system. And such a book would not be published today (or at any rate it would be unlikely to become a bestseller). But for everyone who saw in it a rosy-tinted lost-cause nostalgia, there must have been some readers who were excited by a female protagonist who just wanted to get hers.