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Female Anti-heroes on TV: Riding the Wave of Rage.

Updated: 7 days ago

Quite a few iconic protagonists from television have stuck with us over the last twenty or so years. Characters who've become the go-to reference when talking about anti-heroes.


A quick google search throws up names like Walter White, Don Draper, Tony Soprano, Dexter Morgan, Vic Mackey, Saul Goodman and Marty Byrd. But in a list of 24 character names, there are only three who are women.

Why is that? Why don't we idolise badass female characters in the same way?

What's an anti-hero anyway and how does it apply to female protagonists?

In contrast with a traditional protagonist, an anti-hero does not possess the usual positive attributes associated with a conventional hero, like heart of gold, generosity of spirit, idealism or strong moral code (Villanelle from Killing Eve or Clair Underwood, House of Cards are good examples). That's to say, her intentions are not good and neither are her deeds.


But for other anti-heroes, there could be a goal in mind that will ultimately bring good to the world or to another character. In other words, the end justifies the means (e.g., the sisters from Bad Sisters or Annalise Keating from How To Get Away with Murder).


Alternatively, the character might start off seemingly “normal” enough, but the journey we go on with them involves becoming someone more akin to an antagonist (Wendy Byrde, Ozark). We're witnessing a Walter White-like demise over time into a murky moral quagmire. We might also see these characters battling inner demons which cause them to make questionable decisions (like Annalise Keating).

Our anti-hero does, however, need to display some redeeming or appealing characteristics. It'd be difficult to get an audience on board if an anti-hero had nothing compelling or engaging about her, such as a killer sense of humour, high-level skill, or to-die for fashion sense (Villanelle from Killing Eve).


A trauma from the past usually goes a long way in helping us understand why this character is the way she is. Fallibility (e.g. a weakness or addiction) can make the character a) relatable, b) engender sympathy, and/or c) be a visual representation of how the character has been damaged by her past (Fleabag and Shiv Roy from Succession).

Or maybe our anti-hero simply has a different ideology from the accepted world-view, but it's one to which she is fiercely loyal (Elizabeth Jennings from The Americans). I would similarly categorise Wednesday Addams here. Although a good person deep down in terms of moral code, she is extremely unconventional and eccentric – which of course adds to her appeal.

Can female anti-heroes on TV be iconic?

Well, of course they can. We love to hate them and there's no doubt they're popular.

But I get the feeling they aren't held in quite the same awe as a Don Draper or Tony Soprano. These two characters in particular have come to symbolise tectonic societal change; they have become the face of not only distinct historical eras but the malaise of the American Dream itself.

Where are the female characters that are held up with the same degree of reverence? That illustrate what's wrong with our world? I wonder if this means we still (generally speaking) relegate female characters to smaller domains? Or is it because we're fundamentally still afraid to rejoice in female (traditionally the life-giver or carer) anti-hero exploits?


Female characters back in the day

There was a time when it seemed there were few remits available for women in TV drama: love-interest or nurturer; victim or shallow antagonist. There seemed more room to manoeuvre in comedy or crime series, where lady detectives were allowed to be obsessed about their work (e.g. Remington Steel, Murder She Wrote, Cagney & Lacey).

But overall, their intentions had to be very pure of heart. The complexity that was allowed in interesting male characters was absent in their female counterparts. There could be no ambiguity or sense of moral dilemma. No grit. A woman was either good or she was very, very bad in a superficial way that was not fully explored or explained.

The other huge point is that female protagonists, for a long time, had to be likeable. Ugh. We were so used to seeing these unrealistic standards of perfection for women that it left no room for complexity.

More on that later.


Things have improved a great deal since then. And in this content-rich era, where we have literally seen it all, increasingly sophisticated audiences crave more authenticity, range and nuance. There is less distinction between the goodies and baddies and far more of an appetite for shades of grey–as long as we understand why those shades exist. 

These characters say f*ck the patriarchy


I have a real soft spot for female anti-heroes on TV because they carry a powerful message, particularly in terms of what is "acceptable" female behaviour. For example, people pleasing is a trait that has been indoctrinated into many of us. But women who are assertive are often denigrated as bossy or pushy. A bitch.

If you're not sure what I'm talking about, watch America Ferrera's now famous monologue from Barbie:

Apart from that, women are angry. Sick and tired of being underpaid and overworked while at the same time being at the mercy of male violence.

There's a wave of rage percolating. Women don't want to put up with it anymore and they're delighted to see these feelings represented by kick ass characters on the screen.

KILLING EVE was kinda revolutionary when it came out. Villanelle was evil but funny. Eve was middle-aged, disgruntled and drawn to this astonishing character like a magnet. Who wasn't? Villanelle had killer fashion sense, killer lines and actual killer sensibilities.


Then last year, BAD SISTERS happened. Frankly, I didn’t want it to end.


The female anti-hero is clearly finding an audience. KILLING EVE killed it for three seasons and BAD SISTERS, with a slew of awards won last year, is coming back for a second season.

I'm hoping to see more material of this ilk. Perhaps we too will soon have a Don Draper-like anti-hero epitomising our struggles with the early 21st century.


My top 10 female anti-heroes from TV


1.     The sisters, Bad Sisters

Four sisters from Bad Sisters

Four sisters are forced to act when they realise sister number 5 has an abusive and thoroughly nasty husband. The take-away: murder is not as easy as it looks.

2.     Villanelle, Killing Eve

Villanelle from Killing Eve

Villanelle, skilled assassin and fashionista, is pursued by Eve, a bored M16 agent. Buckle up for high-jinx, dreamy locations and edgy romance.

3.    Annalise Keating, How to Get Away with Murder 

Annalise Keating from HTGAWM

A brilliant law professor and defence attorney with a troubled past takes some students under her wing. They become linked in their path to obtaining justice via drastic, and very illegal, methods.

4. Elizabeth Jennings, The Americans

Elizabeth Jennings from The Americans

A Soviet spy who, together with her allocated husband, infiltrates 1980s American suburbia to further the political and idealogical agenda of her masters in Moscow.

5.     Shiv Roy, Succession

Shiv Roy from Succession

Shiv and her two brothers scramble for power in the hope of taking the reigns of their Murdoch-like father's media empire. Many ups and downs and double-dealings ensue.

Who's your favourite female anti-hero?

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