I went to see Les Misérables on Broadway recently. It was a moving and powerful performance, and afterward, my friend and I discussed the differences we noticed between the show and the film, as well as between the show and the original novel by Victor Hugo. She told me that the character of Éponine is a lot “rougher” in the novel. “Bitchier,” she added.
“I think they toned her down and made her a lot more sympathetic, to make audiences feel more sorry for her when she loses Marius to Cosette,” my friend said. In the musical, Éponine runs letters for Cosette and sings that beautiful ballad about loving Marius, but in the novel, she is described as having “the form of an unripe young girl and the look of a corrupted old woman; fifty years joined with fifteen; one of those beings who are both feeble and horrible at once, and who make those shudder whom they do not make weep.”
This is not the depiction of Éponine in the musical adaptation, who is a lovely and feisty, albeit bedraggled, young woman. But in the book, she’s ugly and meaner, and she even actively tries to separate Marius and Cosette. Knowing these details about her character, would audiences feel less sympathy for Éponine’s very real emotional anguish? This problematic question calls to mind generations of women depicted in literature who are unable to exhibit “negative” characteristics without being labeled bitches, and who are unable to be both ugly and sympathetic. This is the problem of the female anti-hero.
Popular fiction—and general society—places women in several clear-cut categories: the virgin, the whore, the femme fatale, the fat one, the ugly one, the sidekick, the best friend, the leading lady. Each category comes pre-packaged with certain cliche characteristics: the sidekick is funny, for example, but will never get the captain of the football team. Female anti-heroes in popular fiction are problematic because they challenge these inhibiting categories and dare to be three-dimensional characters with a healthy mix of both dark and light characteristics; in short, they could be real people like me or you. And when a female anti-hero enters popular fiction and culture, very few people seem to like them.
On the contrary, male anti-heroes are almost universally liked. Take Harvey Specter from Suits, or better yet, Humbert Humbert from Lolita. Neither one exhibits typical heroic characteristics like selflessness, honesty, bravery, and integrity. Humbert Humbert is a child molester, and Harvey an arrogant womanizer. But audiences love them because they’re either powerful, or handsome, intelligent, or coolly manipulative. These frankly abhorrent characters garner admiration from audiences despite their negative characteristics. But I dare to ask the question: what if they were women?
The backlash against a female pedophile as the hero of a popular novel would be apocalyptic in scale, and if Harvey Specter were a woman, people would definitely call her a bitch. Female and male anti-heroes in popular fiction and culture are perceived very differently. Take two famous characters from pop culture: Scarlett O’Hara and Lisbeth Salander.
Scarlett O’Hara has for generations enjoyed a notorious reputation for selfishness and vanity. She’s a spoiled little bitch, we can say. But the characteristics she exhibits are simply determination, confidence, intelligence, and a certain vacillating disposition that make readers uncomfortable because it shows a weakness, a crack in the facade of the character’s “category.” Scarlett is supposed to be beautiful and smart and when she shows negative characteristics like shallowness or cruelty, we immediately condemn her, even though she is the same as any of us, a mix of good and bad.
Then there’s Lisbeth Salander. She could be considered a female anti-hero because of her violence and desire for vengeance, but in my opinion, she’s just straddling the line. Readers root for her unconditionally because her crusade is for justice, and her violence justified. She also does have a lot of conventional heroic characteristics—her courage and her belief in human dignity for examples—and there’s no doubt the hardships she’s been through: rape and neglect and physical abuse at the hands of her father. We understand why she is so violent, so paranoid.
But what if she were a little more violent? What if she killed or attacked, not out of self-defense or vengeance, but out of sheer spite? Is female violence something we could accept in the same way that we accept the violence Breaking Bad’s Walter White? White is considered a fascinating character while Lisbeth must have justification for her violence. We’re surprised at Lisbeth’s violent tendencies. She’s a woman, after all.
The discrepancies between our perception of male and female anti-heroes in popular fiction suggest readers’ distaste for reading about complicated, deeply flawed women. Despite any “good” characteristics these characters display, the “bad” seems to leave a bitter taste in the mouth and erase any likability. But women in literature and popular fiction don’t need to be likable. They need to be real.
As a society, we’re more inclined to allow for a man’s moral complexity and dubious decisions than a woman’s. Male antiheroes are more likable because readers aren’t scrambling to find justification for his actions the way they do with a woman’s. When faced with a male antihero, readers are more likely to ignore his less savoury characteristics and focus on the character’s journey, or his justification for his actions, rather than use his “evil” side as an excuse to condemn him. That’s a huge social problem leaking into our books and movies and into our collective consciousness as a society.
The only recourse is to write more complicated, violent, cruel, confident, vulnerable, smart women who truly exemplify the complex nature of man– and womankind, and provide a true example of what it means to be a woman in this world. Until we do, the only women in popular fiction will be flat, one-dimensional shades that fail to encapsulate the whole female experience.