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In 2018, female antiheroes wielded femininity as a weapon

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This article contains spoilers for many shows and movies, including Killing Eve, Sharp Objects, and House of Cards

All our lives, the “fairer sex” has been told that femininity is a delicate flower, a weakness, a virtue, and an invitation for abuse.

The #MeToo movement made it clear that power imbalances can make womanhood feel synonymous with victimhood. And the women-led entertainment of 2017 often reflected that reality, or offered escapism from it through fantasies like Wonder Woman imagining female empowerment as the magical ability to be stronger than men. 

But in the best of this year’s offerings, representations of womanhood went beyond simple narratives of victimhood or empowerment. We saw women’s stories instead revolve around the complex realities of feminine power, warts and all.

Female antiheroes and villains dominated entertainment in 2018. Through them, femininity became a weapon rather than a weakness, turning the constraints of misogyny into a tool against it. 

The rise of morally ambiguous women characters does not paint us in a positive light. But that’s exactly what makes it feel humanizing, exploring depths of womanhood we’d never dared to before.

The golden age of the antiheroine

To be clear, “unlikable” female protagonists are not new. In recent years, prickly women have led stories as varied as Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Homeland, Young Adult and Gone Girl

But the antiheroines of 2018 reflect our specific cultural moment. The women and girls in shows like Killing Eve, Sharp Objects, House of Cards, and Picnic at the Hanging Rock, and films like Halloween, The Favourite, Thoroughbreds, and Suspiria aren’t just difficult or disagreeable. They’re morally gray in ways that challenge our traditional portrayals of femininity. 

It’s not unlike the way that the interrogated masculinity through protagonists like Don Draper (Mad Men), Tony Soprano (The Sopranos), Walter White (Breaking Bad), Dexter Morgan (Dexter), and Omar Little (The Wire).

For a long time, our sympathy for these characters could excuse serial killing, blind hubris, mob bossing, and child murder — but we drew the line at gender. Women like Skyler from Breaking Bad and Betty from Mad Men often received harsher judgement than their male counterparts, both from audiences and from the story itself, even though their “crimes” were far less repugnant.

But 2018 continued to test society’s capacity to empathize with women by demanding our compassion for “bad” ones. 

Their narratives asked us to accept the full spectrum of women’s humanity, too.

The one-dimensional conceit of an evil woman isn’t new, of course. It’s a trope older than the Bible, and still prevalent in the femme fatale types of modern entertainment. 

The fundamental difference with 2018’s antiheroines, though, is the empathy of an insider’s perspective. The new faces of feminine darkness are often as relatable as they are unforgivable. 

By finally seeing womanhood through a morally gray lens, their narratives ask us to accept the full spectrum of women’s humanity, too. Not just by showing us women who are flawed, but by giving us permission to enjoy our own fantasies of violence, power, revenge, and rage. 

The pleasure of being seen by other women

These antiheroine narratives not only let us be seen for the complicated human beings that we are, but also the liberating experience of being seen through the eyes of other women specifically.

That’s why, like Killing Eve‘s Eve, we cannot help but fall for Villanelle as a rejection of the usual assumptions about what women are or are not capable of doing. 

Like us, Eve is compelled to dispel the myth that a woman couldn’t possibly possess the strength, cunning, or ruthlessness to be a world-class assassin. Like us, Eve cannot shake her unbidden love for what Villanelle represents — in Eve’s case, even as Villanelle kills and threatens her loved ones.

Villanelle's appeal is that's she's as psychopathic as she is sympathetic

Villanelle’s appeal is that’s she’s as psychopathic as she is sympathetic

In their attraction to one another, Eve and Villanelle reflect the ways in which only women see one another for who we really are. 

Men (like Eve’s poor husband) can do their best, being as supportive and understanding as possible. But without meaning to, even the good ones impose gendered pressures, fears, and expectations under the guise of being protectors. 

Her husband’s love cannot compare to the intoxicating nakedness Eve feels when Villanelle recognizes the parts of Eve that she feels she must hide from everyone else.

The antiheroine narrative is where the male gaze goes to die.

Only Villanelle sees the full extent of Eve’s power and capability and — far from feeling threatened — adores her for it. Only Villanelle expresses the rage we, and Eve, repress, literally castrating men and shooting the annoying ones who call women patronizing nicknames like “pumpkin.”

By the end, when Eve survives the season, the show’s title takes on a whole new meaning. This was never about the death of a protagonist. This was about killing the first Eve, that subservient ideal of a woman created from man, for man, by a male God.

In this way — by allowing women to be recognized as complicated human beings — antiheroine narratives like Killing Eve subvert the traditional male perspective. Here are two women as seen and understood by each other, rather than the prism of a male gaze.

Killing Eve isn’t the only one that zeroes in on the thrill, pleasure, and terror of other women as a reflection of yourself — especially the darker impulses we try to suppress.

The women of Suspiria often talk to each other through literal mirrors, emphasizing the fascination with seeing your own trauma, desire, and lust for power reflected in another woman’s gaze. But the experience can be as painful as it is pleasurable: The movie’s most horrifying scene shows a dancer trapped in a room of mirrors, her body breaking and contorting in a grotesque reflection of Susie’s dance.

In House of Cards Season 6, Claire and her foe Annette Shepherd mirror each other in a debutante dance they learned as girls — displaying, for us and for each other, the controlled restraint that transformed them into the powerful women they are now, and positioning them as dangerous equals to one another.

There is nothing more dangerous than when Claire Underwood smiles like this

There is nothing more dangerous than when Claire Underwood smiles like this

Mirrors aren’t explicitly used in The Favourite or Thoroughbreds, but both show women’s relationships as spaces where all pretenses drop to reveal the deepest, darkest, ugliest urges kept hidden from the rest of the world.

Under the eye of the male gaze, women must act as they are expected to rather than as they are. Alone together, they can finally admit to being heartless, or petty, or power hungry. 

Yet while women’s relationships in antiheroine narratives offer a form of escape from men, they are far from the utopia promised by Wonder Woman‘s Themyscira. Because unlike the Amazons, the human women in these narratives bear the scars of growing up in an oppressive society.

The deadly ideal of the ‘good girl’

Just as the golden age of TV antiheroes grappled with the effects of toxic masculinity, 2018’s antiheroines showed us female villainy as a repercussion of sexism and misogyny.

The Favourite depicts a love triangle of women who metaphorically eat each other alive to secure what little power they’re afforded, waging war against one another to survive the rigid patriarchy of 18th century England.

And despite the final reveal in Sharp Objects, there’s a sense that the real killer of Wind Gap’s little girls was suffocating gender norms.

We see how the ideal of a perfect, passive woman harms the small town’s female population in various ways: at Camille’s disastrous lady brunch where supposed friends turn their own unhappiness into daggers against her, or the women who died over labels like lesbian and slut, or the Calhoun Day legend celebrating a woman for staying silent as she was raped and murdered.

Adora is a vision straight out of Stepford Wives

Adora is a vision straight out of Stepford Wives

Ultimately, the diseases afflicting Adora and Amma and even Camille aren’t just psychopathy, Munchausen by proxy, and compulsive self-harm. Really, it’s an internalized misogyny — a learned hatred toward women (even yourself), and the subsequent need to punish the ones who refuse to conform to the narrow definition of femininity that imprisons them all.

That’s why there is something so eerily relatable about Amma, who seeks empowerment by making up a story about a female militia that never existed for the Calhoun Day school play — all while manipulating her friends into her own kind of militia, torturing and murdering other girls who stray from those feminine ideals. 

2018’s antiheroines show female villainy as a repercussion of sexism and misogyny.

As Detective Richard says, the murders are displays of power from someone who feels powerless. Forced to play the part of the perfect, passive, docile little girl, Amma hoards any semblance of agency, whether through sex, beauty, cruelty, violence, or an obsessively meticulous doll house.

Thoroughbreds captures a similar cycle of violence, where two friends resort to murder as a response to a world that treats them like silly little girls that don’t deserve control over their own lives. 

In Picnic at the Hanging Rock, Mrs. Appleyard is able to justify the abuse of her students as a way of teaching them to become proper society ladies.

Meanwhile, Sharp Objects‘ Adora is what happens when these young girls made to feel powerless grow into womanhood and the accompanying societal pressure to fulfill their ultimate feminine duty.

You can almost understand the sick love of a mother who rewards the docility of her daughters with a poison that kills them, but also frees them from maturing into the hollow existence of Betty Friedan’s housewives. By killing her girls, Adora is, in a way, sparing them the pain of becoming “good” women. 

Laurie Strode, while treated as a traditional hero by the narrative of Halloween, is criticized by other characters for failing to live up to her duty as a wife and mother. 

Laurie Strode's victimization comes full circle in 2018's 'Halloween'

Laurie Strode’s victimization comes full circle in 2018’s ‘Halloween’

The podcasters are eager to find the humanity in Michael Meyers, a literal monster, but characterize Laurie as a “basket case” for divorcing and losing custody of her kids. Laurie’s own daughter understandably responds to her mother’s rejection of the traditional nurturing mother role by becoming an aggressively traditional housewife herself.

But when danger rears its head at the three Strode women, guess whose approach to motherhood  keeps them alive? 

How antiheroines weaponize sexism

The brilliance of 2018’s antiheroines doesn’t just lie in their rejection of gender norms, though. It’s in how each one uses those gender norms to their advantage.

In the case of Halloween, Laurie and Karen reveal that playing the victim was the plan all along. 

“This isn’t a cage, it’s a trap,” they both say of Laurie’s house, after successfully luring Michael Meyers into the safe room that actually turns out to be a death trap designed to kill him. 

It’s an apt metaphor for womanhood as a whole. Laurie essentially transforms the domestic sphere — this symbol of what imprisons women — into a hunting ground to kill the source of her victimization.

The brilliance of 2018’s antiheroines is not just that they reject gender norms. It’s how they use gender norms to their advantage

While it’s for more heinous reasons, Sharp Objects‘ Adora and Amma also wear their feminine roles like armor. No one would accuse a doting mother of murdering her children, and no one wants to imagine a demure girl with pretty bows in her hair pulling teeth from another little girl’s corpse.

Killing Eve‘s Villanelle gets away with hilariously blatant suspicious behavior by playing up her youth as well. She wears infantilizing girlish dresses to hit jobs, lulling her targets into ignoring her as a threat while readying her preferred (very feminine) weapon: a stylish hair accessory that’s actually a lethal blade.

Meanwhile, the most compelling through line of House of Cards‘ final season is how it leans into the expectation (including the audience’s) that Claire does not know what she’s doing. 

We trusted in Frank’s showy bravado, assuming all his ridiculous displays of brute force (like murdering a journalist practically in public) would add up to a brilliant plan that got him what he wanted. 

But Claire exploits our impulse to doubt a woman in the same leadership role. Her plan remains hidden even to the audience throughout the season, until it’s revealed that she’s been using the assumption of women’s incompetence as a way to outmaneuver her foes. It’s a more subtle approach than Frank’s, for sure, yet twice as effective.

Villanelle banks on people underestimating her

Villanelle banks on people underestimating her

Claire’s weaponization of sexism culminates in the pitch-perfect monologue explaining how she manages to muster the performative cry face that got her enemies to play right into her hands:

“First, I have to think about all the ways in which men have tried to manage me my whole life. Then, I think of America’s worst fear when it comes to a female in the Oval Office.”

This is how the antiheroines of 2018 redefined our assumptions about femininity, turning presumed weaknesses into secret weapons. 

In a way, Wonder Woman‘s Diana began the trend in a more wholesome context, characterizing her stereotypically feminine inclinations toward kindness, peace, and caregiving into the strength that wins a war. 

But in other ways, Diana’s literal superpowers rely on traditionally masculine ways of measuring strength, like brute force. And unlike this new wave of antiheroines, Diana feeds into the myth of women’s innate “goodness.”

America trembles at the notion of lady stuff sullying the oval office

America trembles at the notion of lady stuff sullying the oval office

But luckily, Wonder Woman doesn’t have to shoulder the entire burden of women’s representation anymore. There’s enough variety in the entertainment of 2018 to finally begin to show a richer tapestry of what it means to be a powerful woman in a patriarchal world.

In this new golden age of antiheroines, femininity is neither about goodness or weakness. 

Above all, it’s about the deadly resourcefulness women are forced to learn in order to fight for their own agency. We don’t need superpowers to turn the shackles of patriarchal oppression into a noose that chokes the life out of our enemies before they even realize we’re a threat.

It feels good to be bad

Revenge is not a pretty sight to behold. It’s dirty, distasteful, reprehensible. It can be disconcerting to watch women take part in it — not only because of patriarchal stereotypes, but also the feminist pressure to represent our gender well.

We are angry. We are tired of vulnerability. We want power. And we will not apologize for how we take it.

Antiheroine stories can, to an extent, feel counterintuitive to feminist ideals. Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl and Sharp Objects and patron saint of the antiheroine, has been accused of misogyny for the lack of positive examples and female role models in her books.

But that’s kind of the point.

These characters do not exist to serve as patronizing morals about victimhood or girl power. The best antiheroines are not women as abstract ideals, whether in service of patriarchal expectation or feminism.

Rather, these portrayals bestow women with full personhood, in all its ugliness and contradiction. Because we are angry. We want power. And we will not apologize for how we take it.

Perhaps the most comfortable takeaway from the rise of the antiheroine is that society is welcome to continue to patronize, abuse, undermine, and underestimate feminine power.

But, as a glint of Villanelle’s hairpin or the smirk on Claire’s face will tell you, it does so at its own risk.

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