Why are there so few anti-heroines?

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

How many anti-heroines can you name? How many are from romance novels?

I freely admit that I am not as well read as a lot of people when it comes to popular literature, nor have I been widely exposed to foreign literature to any appreciable degree. But I suspect it’s not my lack of exposure that has had me sitting here for more than two hours trying to think of all the female anti-heroines I have enjoyed reading about or watching on film.

In point of fact, my list is, as of this very moment, a sorry four females long and most of them I can argue myself out of with little effort. Surely there have to be more that I’m missing, but I’m just not coming up with much. Even the very public lists on Wikipedia come up with precious few names that are female. Male names? Not a problem. I can list scads that I love dearly (Han Solo, please expect my call soon). But females? Not even enough to fill one hand’s worth of fingers. Why is that? I think it’s just that popular American literature has little love for the anti-heroine.

Is it a classification problem?

Anti-heroines, when they even appear at all, largely display their imperfections for everyone to see. That’s not far off from the heroes and heroines in most of the romances we all read though, so let’s expand. Most anti-heroines also include ignorance and selfishness among their notable characteristics. Both of these are quite forgivable and rarely damming as character flaws because of how easily corrected they are. And again, the heroines of the literature world sometimes even include a measure of these characteristics as well.. So let’s explore a bit further.

Anti-heroines also possess qualities typically associated with the villains, like a tendency toward violence, usually at the least provocation, and greed. On those rare occasions when we see anti-heroines popping up, especially in romance novels, their less-than-stellar qualities are nearly always justified by horrific occurrences in their past. Usually this justification is abuse related. But anti-heroes? They have a whole gamut of reasons applied to their less than stellar qualities, or simply none at all (Ferris Bueller, I’m looking at you).

So what’s the key difference?

Han Solo was my first boyfriend.

Han Solo was my first boyfriend.

I think when it comes down to it, anti-heroes possess a decided amorality. They believe that the ends justify the means. Amorality is the very stuff that makes an anti-hero the perfect proto-hero. What’s more, I think it’s increasingly become the core of the alpha hero’s raison d’être in romance today.

It’s so appealing because when “love conquers all” with these anti-heroes, it really does conquer all. Assuming the author has managed to pull it off, the anti-hero turned hero is irrevocably changed from all that has come before, usually through the love of a single person not giving up on them. Heady stuff for the partner who manages to woo and win them into the hero camp and change their wicked ways. Except for one problem: that’s heroes.

What about heroines? Oh no, they rarely are afforded such luxury as redemption through love. It is almost a forgone conclusion that these ladies will simply continue down their paths to eventually become the villainesses of the world without any hope of ever finding love or happiness like their heroine counterparts. Worse still, to a woman, they nearly always experience a an horrific death once they reach the villainess stage and not a tear is shed for them as a result. So, pretty much any Disney villainess ever.

Can we come up with more examples?

So back to my original problem. Who are the anti-heroines of the literature world? I’m using the blanket of literature in general because frankly I didn’t come up with any in the romance world off the top of my head. Here are the few I’ve managed to come up with and even these are arguable:

  • Rebecca Buck from Tank Girl
  • Pippi Longstocking from the popular children’s stories
  • Mathilda Lando from Léon: The Professional
  • Lisbeth Sanders from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I’m  drawing a blank in the romance world. Who else is out there in any genre, my friends? Do they have the chance to become the proto-heroines of future romances?

26 thoughts on “Why are there so few anti-heroines?

  1. Great post! I love Scarlett O’Hara (Gone with the Wind) but I think she could also be considered an anti-heroine. Also, Sugar Beth Carey in Ain’t She Sweet by Susan Elizabeth Phillips. Ain’t She Sweet is a GREAT example of how to make readers fall in love with an initially unlikable character.

    • Ah, there you go. See? I knew someone would have at least one from a contemporary romance that I couldn’t remember. Good call on Scarlett O’Hara too. You know what I wonder, especially regarding Sugar Beth Carey? I wonder how many people abandoned the book before they got to the point where they found out she was likable. I have it on my TBR pile, but haven’t started it. This might be a good time to start.

  2. I love this topic! I just wish I had more names for you.

    Scarlet O’Hara and Katniss Everdeen in popular literature. In romance, certain “I need to get married for the money” heroines come very, very close if they maintain that value for any length of time: pretty much all of Cecilia Grant’s heroines and maybe Cynthia from Julie Anne Long’s Like No Other Lover. On television, I’d list Meredith Grey and Olivia Pope. Grey is selfish, whinny, and has an affair; she helps a serial killer die (I broke up with the show shortly after that for unrelated reasons so I can’t comment on what she’s doing now). Pope definitely has an “ends justify the means” approach, she has an affair, and she’s used violence. None of these designations are criticism, by the way. I like or love all of these books and I have long insisted that Grey was a ground-breaking character and that Shonda Rhimes’s shows never get the attention they deserve in golden-age of television discussions.

    I get very frustrated by our ability to forgive male characters anything or at least to still find them interesting in the face of their villainy while putting female characters into smaller and smaller boxes in terms of what behavior we’ll accept. We need anti-heroines!

    • I’ll tell ya, Emma, for not having names you sure came up with some great ones. I can see why you would add many of Ms. Grant’s names to the list. I haven’t read Julie Anne Long’s book though and I don’t watch much TV but some friends I spoke with on vacation also mentioned the Shonda Rhimes lack (and these were all IT geek guys!). I think maybe Ana’s post below describes a possible reason. I’m also frustrated by our inability to forgive female characters as much as male characters. Maybe that’s the very reason I want to see more of it. Once we see it and see it done well, we’ll start to accept it more in our romance genres. Thanks so much for stopping by!

  3. Very interesting topic indeed! I can’t help but wonder: could it be that anti-heroes get all the attention because – especially what romance novels are concerned – women are the main readers? Women fall in love with men, not other women – well, mostly, and not in THAT sense. They like to see their female counterparts destroyed. So isn’t the readership who’s asking for a cruel ending of the villainess? On the other hand: Don’t mean to overly generalise here, but from the novels I’ve read I did notice that many male writers tend to vilify their heroines and end them up in misery and even death, probably punishing them for the real-life muses not being available in… well, the real life? There are differences between sexes, not matter how hard some try to deny this all too real fact, and I think most male authors have their feet better anchored in the ground (knowing ‘it’s never gonna happen, wouldn’t have happened and can’t know how it would have been like if it’d happened because it didn’t happen’), as opposed to many female authors, who forgive their high school crush for not having as much as looked at them and build up worlds of fantasy in which the crush is a handsome vampire who loves her above all else… (yes, that’s right, I’m looking at THAT particular story, which I think mirrors many others). Please don’t get me wrong, I have deep respect for female authors who fight for the happy end. I also consider females the better, more positive and stronger philosophers here: fighting for an ideal, putting it into fiction and giving it at least one chance of influencing reality, rather than going into Nitzschean nihilism. Nitzschean nihilism is easy. One just has to get depressed and – ta ta – there it is. Fighting it and pulling out a delicious story with a happy end is the hard job. In my opinion at least…
    Sorry for the long comment, I could probably write a whole novel on this 🙂 It’s just that the topic is so good! 🙂 God bless you, Ana

    • Long responses are just fine and I think you really have nailed it so far. I mentioned in another comment that perhaps what we really need to do is see one of the “counter-culture” romance genres start the ball rolling and make it more fashionable (ala 50 shades). In the 70s there were a slew of movies that were hugely popular that had anti-heroines or unlikeable ones and then poof we’re in the 80s-00s range of history and now….nada. What was the turning point? I can’t put my finger on it and likely that means there’s a dissertation analysis in there somewhere. Not that I’ve been thinking about going back and getting another degree … no not me. /whistles innocently

      Cheers and blessings,


    • Hmm. I’m not sure about that, to be honest. Morticia’s “normal” in her worldview is just that. Normal. She found her prince charming and lives her happily ever after. I wonder if it’s *our* perspective that’s messed up sometimes. 🙂 — Jennelle

  4. Interesting post. Two years ago at Nationals everyone was talking about SEP’s Ain’t she Sweet. The heroine was a really unlikable character who’d falsely accused a teacher of rape. Tweeted and shared.

  5. I love old movies, so here are a few examples for consideration. Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwick often played anti-heroines. Stanwick in John Doe – excellent work. Check out Kate Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story. Shakespeare – Taming of the Shrew and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But yes, we need some modern anti-heroines! And then we need to persuade the publishers that the story works, instead of sending out automatic rejections.

    • You know, Ashantay, you’re absolutely right. Kate in TotS is one of my absolute favorites (we had the Burton and Taylor version on beta-max until I finally wore it out). I hadn’t really thought about some of the old movie stars but yes, most certainly, especially Joan Crawford, don’t you think? Now if we couldn’t only convince publishers that anti-heroines were just as viable as anti-heroes. Likely it’ll have to start in the counter-culture romances first (e.g., LGBTQ or menage romances, perhaps).

  6. My favorite kind of heroines are anti-heroines! (Or unlikable heroines, as they’re sometimes called.) Scarlett and Sugar Beth are two favorites and historical-wise, Penelope from The Betrayal of the Blood Lily comes to mind. She ends up married to an awful man due to her own bad behavior and commits adultery with the hero of the book, but I still love her.

    As far as getting anti-heroines that are as bad as some of the anti-heroes we’ve seen (like Walter White and Dexter, say), I’m not sure that romance will ever go quite that far. But heck, I’d be happy just to see more heroines like Penelope in romance. I want to see more heroines that look at the world through narrowed eyes and think “How can I get mine?”.

      • Normally adultery is a complete no go for me as well, but Willig sold me on this one. And yes, Mary is another one of my favorites. Such a perfect match for Vaughn. I kind of wish Willig would only write anti-heroines, since she does it so well. Those, and Turnip stories. I could use some more Turnip stories.

    • Genevieve, how awesome. Yes on Scarlett and Sugar Beth, as a couple of people have mentioned these so far. I haven’t read Blood Lily yet, so thank you for the recommendation. I’ll have to check it out. Maybe we need to start a master list on the Teatime Pinterest page of anti-heroines or “unlikable” ones so that we can all consider reading them. I’ll put one together and see that it’s posted on the Teatime facebook page and twitter account too. Thanks so much for the inspiration!

  7. I think there are a lot of great examples here! I definitely agree with Scarlett and SEP’s Sugar Beth Carey. I’d argue that Anna Karenina could be an anti-heroine as well-she made a lot of bad decisions that lead to her downfall.

  8. Oh my God, girl, it’s like you’re channeling my brain (AGAIN). I am deeply in love with anti-heroines and plan several of them for the Rookery Rogues. I’ve been a little worried about how they’ll go over, but I’m going to do it anyhow.

    I honestly can’t think of any literature examples, but I feel like television does better with the anti-heroine. Tough as nails women who end up finding vulnerability, etc. Anya from Buffy comes to mind–she’s definitely got the greed, the vengeance, but she learns to become more human over time.

    • Honestly I think the love of the anti-heroine makes your books perfectly poised, Dear Twin. So many people need to understand the injustice and bias we have towards the anti-hero and your stories will go a long way toward advancing this crusade, if you will. PS: Thanks for letting me borrow the brain for writing this post. 🙂

  9. I think our culture has this idea that for a woman to be the hero, she has to be perfect. It’s so strongly engrained in us that when we run across an unlikeable heroine, we’ll put the book down. Unlikeable heroes tend to get a pass, because they’re men. I actually just wrote a post myself on the anti-hero and why we forgive them.

    Women though… How many reviews have you read that complained about the heroine? Lots and lots. If she’s not likable from page one, that’s really it for the novel–especially in the romance genre.

    • Hi Nancy, wow, you really hit the nail on the head over here. I’m an author, and have recently released a book in which the heroine is young, immature, selfish, disloyal to a certain degree, and easily influenced. At the time I didn’t think she was particularly unlikable, but more a product of her circumstances. As the book is part of a trilogy, I have a growing curve in mind for her, as she ‘grows up.’ But imagine my surprise when I started getting 2 star reviews, and the only reason being cited was that they didn’t like Lily. Even though they admit that the book was well-written and plot was good etc. these reviewers felt justified in trashing the book because they didn’t like the heroine. From this blog post I now realize it is because she is an anti-heroine.

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