Bad Girls Club: The rise of the female anti-hero

It feels so good being bad. That rush, that skin-tingling, heart-racing thrill you get when you know you’re engaging in some clandestine act. And getting away with it? Being celebrated for doing it? Having a group rallying around you, encouraging you? Almost unthinkable, but not impossible.

We’ve long been exposed to male anti-heroes, the ones we know we shouldn’t love because they’re problematic at best and actual criminals at worst. But we never actually hate them because we’re conditioned to root for them, to want them to win and destroy all who impede them with abandon. They’re our twisted and dejected, our gloomy and catastrophically created. Our Walter Whites and our Francis Underwoods, our Dexter Morgans and Don Drapers, our Tyrion Lannisters. Even the wholly adored Elliot Alderson could be, in a way, considered an anti-hero, though he is the tamest of the bunch. They are the characters by whom it is second-nature to stand, for whom forgiveness is facile. The ways in which we have received male anti-heroes and ostracized those who have stood in their way are startling, but it isn’t new behavior.


Bryan Cranston as Walter White.

Photo Credit: Ursula Coyote/AMC

Anna Gunn as Skyler White. Photo Credit: Ursula Coyote/AMC.

Consider the vicious, volatile reactions Anna Gunn’s Skyler White of Breaking Bad endured. As a voice of morality — and a reminder that at least one character in the series had a conscience — she was annihilated, called an “uptight bitch,” a “nagging broad who can’t let anyone have fun,” and much worse. Audiences loathed the woman who was killing the joy of Walter White’s drug making/dealing/smuggling, murdering, conspiring-to-poison, money laundering escapades. Hell hath no fury like those who believe their murderous male anti-hero may not get away with the atrocities he has committed. The incredible gulf between these characters and the ways in which audiences have magnified and massacred them raises an important question I feel many of us have swept under the rug: why isn’t there a woman who can be just as bad as Walter White? Where is our female counterpart?

As television has matured, and as content has begun to uncover the incredible complexities of storytelling, character development and human nature alike, a bridge between male and female anti-heroes has been laid. While it is only getting started, the kind of progress already being made here is immense and paramount to the future of female anti-heroes in television and even in film. While female heroes — such as legitimate superheroes Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) and Supergirl (Melissa Benoist), and no-holds-barred heroines like Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) and even Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) — have gained rightful prominence, action needs to be taken and a field needs to be leveled elsewhere. Female anti-heroes should be portrayed and received in a way similar to their male counterparts that have garnered universal attention and even admiration.


Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope.

The questioning of the absence of a female Heisenberg type, the acknowledgement of a lack of female anti-heroes that are as well-loved as their male equivalents, has resulted in a great many women. Most notably are Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) from Homeland and Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) from Scandal, both of whom play an important role in the rise of female anti-heroism. Both Carrie and Olivia are complex and multi-faceted, never pinned down to a single trope, and just slightly off-center in terms of morality.

Lena Dunham as Hannah Horvath.

We can look at Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham) of the HBO series Girls in the same way. Hannah skirts around the perimeters of the anti-hero world, but never actually fits the anti-hero mold. She makes mistakes, finds herself in the wrong places at the wrong times, succumbs to the chaos of her life which, in an ironic turn, oftentimes increases the disarray and is extrinsically motivated by others, sometimes to a fault. Yes, Hannah is at points lazy and unemployed and self-concerned and can make decisions without thinking of the consequences they may have on those she holds close, but she is simply too good to be an anti-hero.

While these women surely have their moments of compelling crookedness, they aren’t nearly as harsh as the male anti-heroes that surround them. Though they ultimately are just not “bad” enough to fully be female anti-heroes, they are stepping-stones toward that “Donna” Draper or “Francine” Underwood for which we yearn. Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, equality cannot be achieved with the first few attempts. They are deeply flawed, unique and important female characters that have made incredible contributions towards female anti-heroism, but they’re no Annalise Keating.

Photo Credit: Mitchell Haaseth/ABC via Getty Images

Viola Davis as Annalise Keating. Photo Credit: Mitchell Haaseth/ABC via Getty Images.

Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) of Shonda Rhimes’s How to Get Away with Murder is one of two female characters who stand out in the world of anti-heroism. The other is Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) of Jenji Kohan’s Orange Is the New Black. These women are, without question, keystones for female anti-heroes to gain acceptance and prominence in television. And not as the type of characters whom we watch and feel a secret shame when we enjoy. No, they are not our guilty pleasures; they can be our esteemed the way our male characters are.

Annalise and Piper are everything male anti-heroes are in television: cunning, self-motivated, oftentimes evil but still human, neither too brutal to be villains nor too gentle-hearted to be heroes. Viola Davis has even said that Annalise is a not unlike a man; she is “sexualized, messy, mysterious.” We want to like them, despite their misdeeds and the wrongs they don’t want to right. Even when we find admiring or understanding them to be difficult, something I think is essential in a consumer/character dynamic, we want them to succeed. Just as Walter White could cook meth and mow down his enemies in a 2004 Pontiac Aztek, Annalise can frame an ex-lover for her husband’s murder, falsify evidence or lie to her students, and Piper can single-handedly send girlfriend Stella Carlin (Ruby Rose) to maximum-security after realizing she had betrayed her trust. And, in many ways, we want them to get away with these things.


Taylor Schilling as Piper Chapman.

Though they are not totally perfect anti-heroes, Davis’s Annalise Keating and Schilling’s Piper Chapman are damn close, standing out as some of television’s best bad girls. They represent a hope not only for acceptance of female anti-heroism but for a change in how we view female characters overall.

Audiences generally have a (shockingly) difficult time recognizing the validity of female characters that act in ways male characters do, have attributes male characters do or work through situations male characters do. Audiences simultaneously hold woman to a strict, tightly bound standard, struggling to accept when women do wrong or commit the acts a man would, and discredit them when they miraculously meet said standard.

Take the reaction our very own Rey article got. Viewers of the Star Wars film seemed to believe that equalizing a female to a male’s status, shaping her and presenting her in a way men had been before, gives off a message not of equality and empowerment, but the idea that such a portrayal teaches women “that they don’t have to work for anything.” When a character is male, their inherent abilities, regardless if they’re used for altruistic or selfish purposes, are celebrated and venerated. When the same character — with the same attributes, same personality and same story-line — is female, suddenly all suspension of disbelief is lost. And we all know why.

Equality in life and in media isn’t about one sex getting more than the other. It’s about every sex and every gender having an opportunity to be crafted and experienced in the same ways. If female heroes, anti-heroes and villains are portrayed to a degree similar to their male parallels, they should be easily accepted and admired. While it may feel like a big ask, it’s simple to the core.

The steady rise of the female anti-hero shows little signs of stopping, and represents a huge part of the movement toward gender equality in the entertainment industry. While the gap of disparity that separates male anti-heroes from female ones is quickly closing, there is work yet to be done, and we should be proud and eager to buckle down and take that ride. The destination will be remarkable and intricate and aflame with devious complexity, because after all, bad girls do it well.

AJ Caulfield is a 22-year-old writer, massive goofball, and quite possibly Leslie Knope's long-lost twin. She's a big fan of 80's rock music, female-directed films, and Mad Men.
  • Susan Jane Allen

    I love Piper! Schilling does a masterful job creating the most flawed female character EVER on the small screen (or the big screen for all it matters). How can someone not LOVE this character?????? Piper is not only flawed but she is perhaps the most fleshed out complex female character to have graced the screen. Schilling deserves so much more praise than she has ever gotten because she not only OWNS this role and has created Piper Chapman NOT in her own image….something few actors can achieve. BRAVO Taylor Schilling.

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