With television shows such as Big Little Lies and The Handmaid’s Tale releasing new seasons in 2019, we find ourselves in the midst of a new era of storytelling that questions what it means to be a “strong female character” … And it’s about time.
The relentless push for diversity in mainstream media has shown the world that strong female characters do draw the attention of large audiences – the Box Office success of DC’s Wonder Woman took many by surprise and even had Marvel Studios scrambling to release their own female-led movie, i.e. Captain Marvel. However, as recent trends in television shows have proven, being a badass heroine with super-strength and a heart of gold is no longer enough. Gillian Flynn, the novel author and screenwriter of Gone Girl and, more recently, the mini-series Sharp Objects, states the point perfectly in her piece for Powell’s Books:
“Women have spent so many years girl-powering ourselves – to the point of almost parodic encouragement – we’ve left no room to acknowledge our dark side.”
Since the dark side of a character is precisely what makes them compelling and relatable, it only makes sense that female characters are given the complexity they deserve. Women are, after all, allowed to be unlikeable, and recently in television that is becoming more of a given.
The anti-hero archetype has existed in the stories we tell since the ancient tragedies and comedies of the Greek theatre. Still, it wasn’t until the early 2000s that the Age of Anti-Heroes began in television, with the likes of Tony Soprano, Walter White and Dexter being heralded as masterfully written characters. In the past few years, female anti-heroes have overtaken this trend and are now standing front and centre on prestige television.
We’ve got Madeline Mackenzie, played by Reese Witherspoon, in HBO’s Big Little Lies. She’s an overly privileged, loud-mouthed woman who cheats on her husband and involves herself in everyone’s business, yet the support she provides her female friends makes her interestingly sympathetic and relatable.
There’s Villanelle, played by Jodie Comer, in BBC America’s Killing Eve – a psychopathic Russian assassin whose humour and love for luxurious fashion makes her intensely lovable to the point where we root for her.
Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale is another excellent example and possibly presents some of the most terrifying female villains in television thus far, because their internalised sexism and relentless fight for survival makes them feel impossibly real.
The list of current female anti-heroes on television continues on: there is (of course) the wicked Cersei Lannister from HBO’s Game of Thrones, the rugged and morally grey Camille Preaker from HBO’s Sharp Objects, the glossy yet brutal Elizabeth Jennings from FX’s The Americans, the impulsive and self-centred Rebecca Bunch from CW’s recently finished series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend…
The fact that we have an ongoing list of characters that represent real women – the good, the bad and the ugly – proves that we have reached an era of television to be proud of. Audiences are more willing to watch flawed and complicated women than ever before.
Who is your favourite female anti-hero and why? Let us know in the comments below.