We need to address the tedious bird the modern ‘heroine’ is turning out to be. Time and again we are presented with someone completely self-sacrificing, unapologetic about their dreams and radiating light out of their every orifice; their only issues being external complications as if they were the hero out of the Argonautica or Odyssey. After all, thanks to the pressures of social media and everyone trying to encourage tirades of faux pas ‘positivity,’ it is almost as if the world were in competition to spread ‘good vibes’ and convince themselves as well as others that they are coping and better than they might actually be. This is why the anti-heroine is actually far more important today, for rather than encouraging the manic idea that we must be ‘the best version of ourselves we can possibly be,’ they allow us to reflect more realistically; encouraging us not necessarily to embrace and stew in our darkest recesses, but acknowledge that they are a part of who we are and only then can we become more of the person we strive to be.
The inspiration for this article occurred whilst watching Jane the Virgin, as I found myself far more drawn to the supposed ‘psycho’ that was Petra Solano rather than the benevolent titular character. Yes, it is true that within the first two seasons of the show Petra proves herself to be absolutely off her rocker, conniving with her demonic mother and inseminating herself with her ex-husband’s sperm with a turkey baster. Like many anti-heroines, Petra is narcissistic, envious and judgmental, yet it is these toxic traits that makes her more empathetic and relatable. After all, it is exhausting trying to live up to someone as seemingly flawless and universally loved as Jane Villanueva. Yes, it is admirable that she is so forgiving and open-minded; that she has an all-female support system that practise being good at communicating with each other; and who puts her child’s needs well before her own. But the problem is that she makes this look easy. Now I’m not saying that we shouldn’t aspire to be as loving and as giving as we can, but what if it’s difficult? What if we constantly second guess ourselves and our abilities to be better? True, Jane has flaws, but they are hardly ones that can be taken seriously. Ooh, she’s over-organised. Ooh, she’s a little judge-y and interfering. Ooh she’s loved by everyone she meets and doesn’t know what to do about it. How tragic.
Anti-heroines such as Petra then are all the more crucial because they enlighten us to the normality of having to build ourselves from the ground up. We admire her for how, rather than eradicating the more toxic elements within her as social media would have us believe is possible to achieve, she simply becomes better at acknowledging and controlling those negative impulses in order to become who she wants to be. This is true not only of Petra but additionally of many more evocative anti-heroines, such as the brazen Jessica Jones and magnetic Annalise Keating (How to Get Away with Murder). They align with Petra in the same vein that their flaws are not ‘cute’ like Jane’s, but rather are far more dangerous and prone not only to pushing loved ones away, but dragging their lives into the middle of the fray. Regardless, their respective journeys allow them to learn from their turbulent pasts and become happier people along the way.
This is not to be confused however with some female leads who seem to be stuck in a state of self-conflicted limbo. These ‘heroines’ are the likes of Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw or, worse yet, Gilmore Girls’ Rory Gilmore. For these, ladies and gentlemen, do not conform with the idiom of being a bad or boss-ass bitch – they are simply a-list examples of the weak-ass brat. After all, if you were to read around criticism of either Bradshaw or Gilmore you would be hard pressed to find anything that does not berate them for being the absolute worst.
The difference in what makes them absolutely intolerable is the fact that they live with the delusion that it is okay that their mistakes are repeatable. Let’s examine Rory for instance: in a Year in the Life, she still thinks it acceptable to cheat and play with the affections of others, to the extent that she doesn’t even know her boyfriend’s name. She doesn’t take her career prospects seriously, her settling for taking an unpaid writing editor of the Stars Hollow Gazette being about as ambitious as when she dropped out of Yale and joined her grandmother’s lunch club instead. Indeed, as her mother Lorelei says herself, Rory has an unhealthy belief in the fact that even when she doesn’t try, she is still entitled to everything she wants. She may have been an inspiration to working hard and harboured a Hermione-esque appeal during the first seasons of the show, but that spring seemed to shrivel up as soon as she embarked into young adulthood and has continued to make the same immature mishaps well into her thirties. Rory still making these decisions for the sake of her own gratification rather than for the benefit of anyone else then just becomes embarrassing, for even in the case of Petra or Annalise, the questionable choices they make increasingly become more about the welfare of others rather than for the sake of their own skin.
It seems to be in the vein then that it is those with secure support systems from their foundation – even if these are to be shaken or robbed from the heroine later – that fall into the category of the mundane, Rory being particularly provoking as she fails to ever appreciate the support system that is embodied by her mother. We can apply this to another irksome heroine in Elena Gilbert and her own perfectly loving childhood, as it would only take a Google or so to show that there is far more of a cult following for her doppelganger Katherine than there ever was for her. This couldn’t be more telling considering how the two characters are played by the same damn actress, rumour even having it that the reason Nina Dobrev left The Vampire Diaries was because she felt the former too boring a part to play after the death of the latter. Now that’s pretty hard to argue with.
This is not to say that healthy and happy upbringings are not valid and that we should make childhood trauma as gruesome and abusive as possible for dramatic effect, however there may be something in the fact that anti-heroines bring more attention to the gruesome realities of adolescence and so we find comfort in the incapability of anti-heroines to consistently abide by morality and make the welfare of others a priority when their belief system has been corrupted by influences outside of themselves.
This then is what sets the ‘anti’ apart from becoming an out and out villain as their character development graduates upwards rather than spiralling down, two acute examples of this being Game of Thrones’ Cersei Lannister alongside Merlin’s Lady Morgana. Now these two heroines were depicted as flirting around the binaries of hero and villain for the majority of their run, Cersei being manipulative for the sake of wanting to protect her children and find a way to outstrip the shadow of her father’s legacy, whilst Morgana was inherently kind and self-sacrificial until provoked by the enemy. What changed for both of these heroines is how Morgana says it: ‘do not think I do not understand loyalty just because I have no-one left to be loyal to.’ Cersei has lost all three of her children; Morgana has lost her sister, was poisoned by someone she considered a friend and exiled from Camelot due to being endowed with abilities she never even asked for. Critics and viewers alike are pretty much unanimous in the fact that Cersei is going to be the big bad for the final season of Game of Thrones, and just as Morgana was depicted as being without a hint of mercy in the final two seasons of her own show, it is hard to blame either woman as to why. However, characters such as these admittedly rather dampen their fire when they decide to go all black and not look back. They go completely on the offense because they see little to no reason to question themselves and have nothing left to lose, this actually becoming quite boring because we end up feeling that we have little else to learn from them in turn.
In contrast, we have Petra seeking reassurance from Rafael as to whether or not she has become a better person. We have her confiding in Jane just how worried she is about being a terrible mother and inflicting psychological or emotional damage to her kids. Even Daenerys Targaryen is constantly conflicted, her desire to do good being repeatedly taxed by the reality that getting the results she needs will mean resorting to actions in which, even she, will be reluctant to believe. These instances of raw vulnerability entwined with confidence then is far more emotive and encouraging, as the anti-heroine does not promote the false promise that one can radically change the essence of who they are in order to get to where they want to be. Instead, we can learn from them how we can be encouraged little by little and with the right support; that we can love ourselves in the sense of accepting the most debilitating of flaws rather than wait for them to disappear before we can open doors.
Anti-heroines then are not to be looked up to, but instead stand down on our level. They recreate themselves, time and again if need be, just like we may often feel, thereby becoming far more engaging as accessible role models than heroines who are completely sure of themselves and how ‘good’ they seem to be.
Image: The CW