By Julie C. Dao
Picture this: a male anti-hero strutting onto the page, cape billowing, eyes burning, the perfect smolder on his lips as he lies, cheats, and kills. He wins us over with his careless smirk and well-placed sarcasm, and readers are eager to defend him when he performs terrible deeds. “There’s a reason why he does that,” we say. “It’s because he’s hurt, lost, scared, angry, lonely, defending who and what he cares most about.”
Now picture an antiheroine. Watch her smirk and smolder and her cape billow as she does everything the male character above does. She’s cold, ambitious, cunning, single-minded. She doesn’t hesitate to step on other people to get to where she wants to be. She will burn down the world if it means achieving her destiny. Readers don’t defend her as readily, and in fact, begin to divide in their opinions of her – some will admire her, but many will say, “I don’t like her.”
Let’s ask ourselves why a male character is allowed to brood, steal, scream, and destroy, but when a female character does the same, she is deemed unsympathetic? Why do we celebrate boys and men who charge forth in the name of power and ambition, and condemn girls and women who do the same? Compare reviews online for books featuring male antiheroes to those with a lead antiheroine, and you will quickly see how high the standards are for fictional females.
There is an expectation out there that female characters should be nice. They should be pure of heart, loving, heroic, and self-sacrificing, and they must always do the right things and make the right choices. The only acceptable form of strength for them is by displaying traditionally masculine physical skills: wielding a sword, firing a crossbow, or fighting as well or even better than their male counterparts.
But why are we telling young girls that this is the only way to be? Why are we pushing a narrative that doesn’t allow them to make mistakes, to learn and change, to be ambitious and power-hungry, and to feel fear and shame and hatred and anger the way boys can?
The definition of an antihero is a main character who doesn’t have typical heroic qualities.
So, isn’t it so much more fun to read about a female lead who isn’t perfect or necessarily good? Isn’t it more thrilling to read about a girl who isn’t always courageous, who feels hatred to her deepest core, and who seeks revenge at any cost? Isn’t it compelling to read about a woman who thinks she’s doing the right thing, even if it isn’t “right” in the eyes of other characters?
Isn’t it more realistic?
Fellow readers, let’s let girls and women in books be more realistic. Let’s celebrate the many types of different female characters out there without worrying about liking or not liking them. Let’s explore the background, the depths, and the tough choices of a villainess the same way we do with guy villains. Let’s lift up books and stories that follow girls and women through every type of journey and every kind of strength.
Because a lot of times, in the darkest characters, we learn more about ourselves.