Howard Suber in his book The Power Of Film argues that there is no such thing as an antihero, only those who act heroically and those who do not. Another problem is with the misleading name. Suber has noticed the word ‘antihero’ suggests a character who is ‘anti’ (against) the hero, but this is not what it means at all. Characters called ‘antiheroes’ are ‘not yet heroes’.
Christopher Vogler has said the same thing:
Definition of Antihero
Anti-hero is a slippery term that can cause a lot of confusion. Simply stated, an anti-hero is not the opposite of a hero, but a specialized kind of hero, one who may be an outlaw or a villain from the point of view of society, but with whom the audience is basically in sympathy. We identify with these outsiders because we have all felt like outsiders at one time or another.
The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler
Perhaps Suber and Vogler would prefer the term ‘unhero’, though the unhero is a comic character and doesn’t tend to rise above his ordinariness:
The un-hero is most similar among the types of heroes to the everyman, with a key exception: he rarely ends up being a proper hero. Generally, the un-hero is in all the wrong places at all the wrong times and does more to hinder the cause of good/justice/world-saving than to help it. Somehow though, through cosmic confluence or the intervention of a more traditional hero, everything works out in the end and the un-hero is heaped with the credit.
This is generally a less serious heroic form and should be reserved for a less serious work.
The Function Of The Antihero
Antiheroes are fun to watch. We get to see characters breaking boundaries we’ve fantasised about breaking in our own lives. A lot of the time, antiheroes have the witty comebacks. They are ace with a handgun, always prepared and very organised. These people would actually make great workmates if they were working on the side of good.
In thematic terms, antiheroes play another role. By transgressing social norms and legal boundaries they ask the audience to reflect upon what is okay and what isn’t okay. Breaking Bad did this very well, though I believe the writers overestimated the reflective powers of a vast majority of their viewing audience. If you’ve seen Vince Gilligan interviewed, you’ll know that he expected his audience to stop siding with Walt and take the side of characters such as Skyler after a while. This didn’t happen for much of the audience, who are like ducklings, falling in love with the first character they are encouraged to bond with. Breaking Bad and the discussion that happened online around that time, with much hatred directed towards the character of Skyler, and to the actress who played her, offers insight into the Duckling Phenomenon.
A Brief History Of Storytelling That Lead Us Here: To The Age Of The TV Antihero
In the 19th century, you maybe spent an hour a day reading a novel, two hours a month watching a play. That was all the storytelling done by professionals for you. People now see that much storytelling every day. Theater became Broadway, then radio, movies, and TV. It all happened in the 20th century.
All the arts in the 20th century exhausted themselves technically. By the time Ad Reinhardt painted a canvas black from edge to edge and said it’s a painting, the form was over. Music had been explored down to noise. Every technical possibility had been explored. All possible techniques.
So I was thinking, Since all the arts have reached the black canvas, what was going to become of story? Where would writers go in the 21st century?
I realized there is one aspect of human nature that really hasn’t been exploited and explored: evil. You have dark characters like Iago, great villains who are diabolical and evil, but it’s a pure evil. Human beings are very rarely pure evil, and storytelling hadn’t truly explored the complexity of realistic evil.
And then, a few years later, came all these great long-form series, which opened an exploration of evil. There was The Wire and The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, even Mad Men. With all these great series, you get complex, good/evil characters.
Rise of the Female Antihero
When storytelling gurus talk about antiheroes, you’ll notice they offer male characters as examples. But before we had Tony Soprano, we had Carrie Bradshaw. It can be argued that the main female characters of Sex And The City were antiheroes in their own way — Carrie would alternately seem sympathetic but next minute she’d do something most of the audience wouldn’t identify with at all. This is an essential element of the fictional antihero.
More recently we have a complex, fascinating female antihero in Animal Kingdom’s Janine Cody (aka Smurf). The discussion around this character is often about what makes a ‘good mother’, a discussion I don’t remember James Gandolfini being asked to comment on. Society has higher expectations for mothers than for fathers, and this is reflected in stories.
I expect we will see more female antiheroes on screen. Because of that gendered expectation differential, it’s actually better sometimes to have a female antihero, if you really want the audience to pass judgement. Imagine how different the discussion would have been if Skyler White had been the main protagonist of Breaking Bad.
I see this double standard pop up all the time in novels […] We forgive our heroes even when they’re drunken, aimless brutes or flawed noir figures who smoke too much and can’t hold down a steady relationship. In truth, we both sympathise with and celebrate these heroes; Conan is loved for his raw emotions, his gut instincts, his tendency to solve problems through sheer force of will. But the traits we love in many male heroes—their complexity, their confidence, their occasional bouts of selfish whim—become, in female heroes, marks of the dreaded “unlikable character.”
More recently, in her book The Logic of Misogyny, philosopher Kate Manne has coined the word ‘himpathy’ to explain the extra empathy we afford men as a patriarchal default. It is therefore more difficult to write empathetic male anti-heroes than empathetic female antiheroes. Anyone who successfully manages it should be applauded. Then again, if we as readers don’t ‘like’ or ’empathise’ with a female antihero, perhaps it’s not actually the fault of the writer? Perhaps we are himpaths.
So, what exactly makes someone an anti-heroine on film? A ‘catch-all’ definition is this: someone who does bad shit for good reasons. A woman who’s flawed, but in the most relatable and almost inspiring of ways (because aren’t we all?), and whose decisions and development unfold on screen independently of their male counterparts.
They’re the Thelmas and the Lousies, the Beatrix Kiddos. We’re now saying buh-bye to the Disney princesses from our youth, who were (and remain; sorry Emma Watson/Belle) almost impossibly virtuous, beautiful and small-waisted. The anti-heroine of today is messy, gritty and imperfect in a more ways than one, often navigating her life with a moral compass that could probably use a service.
We don’t love that Veronica from Heathers literally kills a whole bunch of people, but her reasons for doing so resonate with us (in any case, who DOESN’T love our girl Wynona, even when she’s a murderous high-schooler?). Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne is arguably batshit, but is there anyone who hasn’t thought of a real-life application for her ‘cool girl’ monologue at least once since hearing it for the first time?
Further Reading On The Antihero
- Are You Sick Of TV Antiheroes from LA Times
- The Top 10 Fictional Antiheroes from Litreactor. It would seem most antiheroes are male, but this list includes some women.
- A great definition of antihero, and a list of examples, can be found at TV Tropes.
- The Likability Trap: We like to root for the antihero, but not for the antiheroine, from Bitch Media
- A Day In the Life of a Troubled Male Antihero from Toast
- Writing The Antihero (And Why So Many Authors Get It Wrong) from The Passive Voice