From Lady Macbeth to Cersei Lannister, we go hunting for heroines in literature with a dash of evil and tons of chutzpah
Where are the women anti-heroes in popular culture? The men get to be a veritable gallery of loveable rogues- evil and yet swashbuckling- whether it’s Walter White on television or Hannibal Lecter in the horror novels, and even Artemis Fowl in children’s literature. But there’s no such shade of grey when it comes to the women.
Yes, there are some terrible women in literature and film. But these are often shrews or nags with no redeeming qualities, or batshit insane in the way of a Bellatrix Lestrange. Is it too much to ask for someone who is deliciously evil but also noticeably human, with perhaps a sense of humour to temper her world domination plans?
We asked the question on Twitter and someone indicated how Indian mythology and the classical texts have a treasure trove of anti heroines you can root for, from Kali – who is fearsome and yet essentially good, to Draupadi – who in some interpretations manipulated the start of a war, while in others was effectively a pawn in a vicious patriarchal time. Mythology also has its share of cackling straight-up villains like a Kaikeyi who are nonetheless redeemed by the love for their child and an understandable desire to rule the roost in palace politics.
The MBRB team looked into more recent literature to find anti-heroines that you cannot but love in spite of themselves, and here are the ones we can’t get enough of- incest, murderous plans, ambition, jealousy and all!
Of course, spoilers abound, so tread carefully where you haven’t read the book!
Lady Macbeth in Macbeth
Out, damn’d spot!
Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth is the anti-thesis of the fragile and airy beauties of her time – she is coldly ambitious, assertive and merciless as she goads her husband into murdering his King. Macbeth may have committed the actual crime, but it’s his wife who devises the murder plan, harangues her husband into going through with it and even helps him clean up after the deed is done – all with a remarkable clear headedness that is absent in her terrified husband.
But just when we were warming up to this fiendishly evil and manipulative heroine, she goes and does a volte-face. Inexplicable for someone who clearly craves power, Lady Macbeth turns repentant after the murder, endlessly washing her hands to get rid of the “damned spot” of blood in what has become one of the most iconic tropes of literature. Personally, we would have loved to see Lady Macbeth continue her rampage as she ruled over Scotland – but who can argue with the Bard?
Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind
Why does a girl have to be so silly to catch a husband?
You may not know it, but every girl born after 1936 grew up wanting a part of Scarlett O’Hara in her (and that includes Madonna & Lady Gaga). Some covet her 18 inch waist, some her guile and cunning, and the rest simply want Rhett Butler. It’s no longer fashionable to heap praises upon Margaret Mitchell’s saga of the American civil war, but no one can dispute that in Scarlett O’Hara we have one of the most enduring anti-heroines of all times. Extremely beautiful, fiercely loyal, delightfully selfish and never, ever helpless, Scarlett is a fantastic prototype for Darwinism (except that 18 inch waist of course).
She is not above stealing her sister’s fiancé to secure the financial future of her beloved Tara, nor is she averse to months of back breaking physical labour to feed her family. A casual liar, frequently kind, suddenly cool, nobody’s fool – Billy Joel most certainly had her in mind when he penned “She’s Always A Woman”. Scarlett’s fearless resilience is best reflected in her motto “Tomorrow, I’ll think of some way …..After all, tomorrow is another day.”
Lydia Bennett in Pride & Prejudice
And yes if you were our little sister we would totally tell you to stay away from the decidedly sleazy Mr. Wickham, and perhaps even be annoyed by your constant drama and boy craziness, but can you blame us for loving you just a little bit for your wild unrepentant ways?
With time, and some distance from Mrs. Bennett, perhaps you would have also matured a bit. And when you did become old enough to look back at this as “just a phase”, we bet you’d be the Bennett sister with the funniest stories to share in family dinners.
Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
I can be a regular bitch. Just try me.
Lisbeth Salander lives off frozen pizza, is a world class computer hacker, has trouble forming “normal” relationships and is bisexual – it’s tough to match the anti-heroism of this girl with the dragon tattoo. Steig Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy is a fascinating take on the seamier side of life in a country generally regarded as a paragon of human rights, and it’s Lisbeth’s slender – but sturdy – shoulders that catapulted the books into a viral rage a few years ago. As expected, there is a tragic back story to the fiercely private girl with questionable morals. But Lisbeth doesn’t rant about destiny – she simply repays violence and deceit in the same currency. Author Steig Larsson defied numerous conventions while crafting Salander, but it is for the pragmatic realism – and her ferocious loyalty towards the few people she likes – that we love her best.
Larsson died before the publication of the books (he apparently wrote the stories for his own pleasure and had no intention of getting them published) but fans of Lisbeth Salander can rejoice – a partially finished manuscript for the fourth novel was found in Larsson’s papers, and is currently being turned into a novel. We’d love to discover the next twist in Salander’s saga with the establishment, and fervently pray that this girl dragon retains her fire.
Amy Dunne in Gone Girl
But I don’t understand the point of being together if you’re not the happiest
It is easy to hate Amy Dunne- she is beautiful and manipulative and definitely poison (not to mention a murderer), but a lot of her is also real. If you’re a smarter woman than the rest of the room, you’ve likely harboured some of the same thoughts as she did when she speaks about men and their impossible ideal of a ‘cool girl’. And can you blame the woman if she tired of milquetoast Nick? We nearly fell asleep reading his narrative in prose!
It also helps that she is enterprising, plucky and has a real sense of adventure around her. But what’s most interesting about her is that we are never quite sure if her creator Gillian Flynn is admiring of her or repulsed by her.
A lot of people feel let down by the end to Gone Girl. But to us its ambiguity and despair is exactly the right way to end a story with such a fascinating protagonist.
May we suggest a “Ripley” like set of continuing adventures of Amy as she continues on her sociopathic trail across the rest of the globe?
Cersei Lannister in A Song of Ice and Fire
If there is one writer who delves out anti-heroines in spades, it is George RR Martin. Sansa with her tempered pragmatism, Arya with her disturbing revenge fantasies, Catelyn Stark with her vacillations and even Daenerys with her refusal to listen to reason, are all delightfully complex creations, none of whom are heroines in the traditional sense of the word.
She (Cersei) never forgets a slight, real or imagined. She takes caution for cowardice and dissent for defiance. And she is greedy. Greedy for power, for honour, for love.- Tyrion on his sister.
But our favourite anti-heroine may just be Blonde Ambition Cersei Lannister. The television Cersei is in many ways a defanged version of the super villain that is Madame Lannister from the books. There is the entire matter of her fooling her husband the king and carrying out an incestuous relationship with her brother (and later, a minor cousin). Not to mention the bloodlust, the naked ambition, and the irrational and entirely overblown rage towards her other brother Tyrion. And there is the battle of wills – and wiles- with crafty Margaery Tyrell. But deep inside she’s a woman who never expects to be seen as an equal to her brothers by an extremely demanding father. A woman who realizes that power and sex are the only currencies worth having, and one who is deeply in love with her children in her own sick, twisted way.
We don’t condone Cersei’s actions, but we can’t help admire her grit, determination and the desperate need to always stay at the top. And if the book ends with her ruling the roost by some crazy machination, we won’t be completely disappointed. (Just kidding. TYRION. TYRION needs to emerge victor)
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