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31 March 2010

Anti-Heroines, Likability, & the Double Standard


There were a couple of fascinating posts and follow-up discussions on Dear Author in the last couple of weeks. The first was a post by Robin on Loving the Unlikeable Heroine, particularly interesting to me as I love to write and read about characters who are at least potentially unlikable. Especially heroines, I think because I love characters who are rule-breakers and heroines, at least in historical fiction, tend to face many more rules than heroes. Which leads to the follow-up post Jane wrote after Robin’s piece about whether there’s a double standard in the romance genre for what readers consider “allowable” behavior in heroines versus heroes and why.


Both of these posts took me back to a blog I wrote a a couple of years ago on my own website about anti-heroines. I got the idea for the blog when Sarah, a poster on my website, wrote to me because she was reading The Three Musketeers and getting to know the fascinating Milady de Winter. Sarah wrote, “I know I tend to prefer heroines who use their ‘feminine wiles’ – or sexuality – to achieve their own way, instead of resorting to the cliched ‘PC’ approach of typically male methods, such as physical violence, and Milady is the perfect example of a strong woman.”

As with so many classics, my first introduction to The Three Musketeers was my mom reading it out loud to me when I was quite small. I remember her describing the book before we read it and saying “It has a fascinating heroine–I mean villainess.” That’s a perfect way to describe Milady, because while she’s definitely an antagonist to d’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, she’s a compelling, fascinating character. As Sarah said, Milady “was actually wronged as well as in the wrong, and yet was punished for her ambition and desire.” Sarah compared Milady to the Scarlet Pimerpnel's nemeiss. “Milady reminds me a lot of Chauvelin, actually – the sympathetic villain, the ‘anti-hero’.”

Anti-heroine seems an appropriate description of Milady and, I think, sums up the contradictions of her character. Milady is an agent of Cardinal Richlieu which pits her against the musketeer heroes in the complex intrigues of the novel. She also, it is later revealed, has a connection to Athos. Athos (the most tormented of the musketeers) was once married. He was madly in love with his wife until he realized she bore a brand which meant she had been in prison. Enraged that she had deceived about her identity and past, he killed her. Or thought he did. It turns out she escaped, and she and Milady de Winter are one in the same. From the time I first read the book, I was far more sympathetic to Milady than to Athos (a view my mother reinforced). Sarah had the same response. As she wrote, “I think Milady won my sympathy in comparison with the men in the story, particularly when her ‘crime’ is held up against her husband’s. Imagine if Percy [the Scarlet Pimerpnel] had flown so violently and absolutely off the handle when he learned that Marguerite had kept her past from him!”

I hadn’t thought of this comparison until Sarah brought it up, but it’s very apt. Athos trying to kill Milady is much as if Percy tried to kill Marguerite. Or if Charles tried to kill Mélanie when he learns about her past in Secrets of a Lady. As much as I’ve thought of alternative ways the revelation of Mélanie’s past might have played out, that’s one scenario that never occurred to me. And yet, Charles would have had a “better” justification than Athos, because Mélanie was using him when she married him. Milady lied about her past to Athos, but as far as I recall she wasn’t spying on him or otherwise betraying him at that time.

What makes an anti-heroine? Are they the opposite of a heroine? Or of what we expect of a heroine? As with an anti-hero, I think the term encompasses a wide range of characters. I wouldn't I’d call Marguerite Blakeney an anti-heroine. She has some interesting flaws, but for the most part she is a caught in a fiendish dilemma and trying to do the right thing (at considerable personal cost). Mélanie may be an anti-heroine. Her actions are certainly food for debate, she elicits a wide range of responses from readers. I always knew that Milady de Winter influenced Mélanie a bit, but until I wrote this post, I didn’t realize quite how much :-) .

JMM pointed out in the discussion on my website that "Historically, women have always had the odds stacked against them.... That’s why I enjoy seeing heroines who 'play the game' in historical romances/mysteries. Honestly, I think these women are often punished merely for *surviving* in a world which gave them little choice."

Sharon added "There’s another trait that I think many anti-heroines share: they are ahead of their times. In another time and place, they would be perfectly admirable women. For me there are differences between an anti-heroine and a villainess. The 'crimes' of an anti-heroine are against societal stricture, not humanity. She has a conscience and would suffer from remorse if she committed a crime against humanity. In this regard, I think Milady starts out as an anti-heroine and ends up a villainess.

"By the way, I think what is pure-and-sweet depends on one’s definition. I saw the movie although I never read The Age of Innocence. At the end, I think the countess purer and sweeter than the Winona Ryder character. Now who are the heroine, the anti-heroine, and the villainess?"

The Age of Innocence is a fascinating example in this context. I’ve seen the movie (several times) and read the book. Ellen, the countess (the Michelle Pfeiffer character), starts off with a lot of the trappings of the anti-heroine–sophisticated, glamorous, a bit jaded, mysterious, possessed of a past. Whereas May (the Winona Ryder character) is innocent and pure and starry-eyed and very much a conventional heroine. Yet in the end, it is May who manipulates the situation (I think Winona Ryder is brilliant in those scenes) and Ellen who makes a choice based on what she thinks is right. I don’t think the story has a villainess, but I think I’d call Ellen the heroine and May the anti-heroine.

Sarah wrote that “another literary ‘black hat’ is of course Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair – I couldn’t quite finish that novel, but I did admire her determination and guile!” I would definitely call Becky an anti-heroine. Unlike Milady she is the protagonist of the story rather than the antagonist, but she schemes her way throughout the novel, managing to make her friend Amelia, a more “typical” heroine, look distinctly dull in comparison. Catherine, Robert Goolrick's A Reliable Wife, which Kathrynn wrote such an intriguing blog about, crosses all sorts of moral lines in classic anti-heroine fashion, as do the book's other major characters. Though part of what fascinated me about the book was that I felt a great deal of empathy for her and for her husband and to a lesser extent for the third major character.

Troubled, spoiled Barbara Childe in Georgette Heyer’s An Infamous Army perhaps might also be called an anti-heroine. Certainly her prospective sister-in-law Judith sees her as an undesirable wife for the hero. Judith would prefer him to marry sweet Lucy Devenish, like Amelia more typical heroine material. But Lucy proves to be not precisely what she seems on the surface. And Barbara grows and changes in the course of the novel and ends up with a quite believable happy ending. Scarlet O’Hara also grows and changes in the course of Gone with the Wind, though the end of the novel is more up in the air. And then there’s Emma in Jane Austen’s novel of the same name. I don’t think I’ve ever heard Emma described as an anti-heroine, but a friend said that much as she loved Austen’s novels, she just couldn’t sympathize with Emma. Emma is arguably more flawed than the heroines of Austen’s other novels. Given my fondness for flawed and imperfect characters perhaps it’s not surprising that she’s tied with Elizabeth Bennet as my favorite Austen heroine :-) .

What makes anti-heroines so intriguing? Well, for one thing (as I noticed as a child) they usually get to wear the best clothes :-) (only compare Emma with Jane Fairfax or Becky Sharp with Amelia or Milady with Constance). But more seriously, I think it’s in large part that they often are characters who break rules and defy conventions. That’s part of the appeal of anti-heroes as well, but I think there’s something particularly interesting about women who defy conventions in an historical setting in which there are so many restrictions on a woman’s role. Becky Sharp has nothing but her wits to rely on (unlike Amelia, who is protected by fortune and family, at least in the beginning). I’ve always seen Barbara and Emma both as bright women who have trouble finding an outlet for their intelligence.

As a child of seven, I liked Milady because she got to *do* things, instead of waiting to be rescued. She plays the game with (and against) men and sometimes wins. Going back to the Dear Author post on the the double standard, it always bothered me that such a big deal is made about Milady's adultery, and yet heroic d'Artagnan sleeps with her while supposedly madly in love with Constance. And sweet, pure Constance is in fact involved in an adulterous relationship. She’s betraying her husband, even as Milady betrayed Athos. For that matter, the musketeers spend a large part of the book preventing Queen Anne’s adultery from being revealed to her husband. I have no problem with this in context or with Constance’s relationship with d’Artagnan, but it makes Athos treatment of Milady even more infuriating. Fascinating irony, but from what I can tell from reading the novel, the irony was lost on Dumas.

JMM pointed out on my website that "I think it’s telling that in the Disney 'Three Musketeers', Athos begs Milady’s forgiveness and tries to save her." I would have ended Milady’s story quite differently had I written it. Sarah asked “Is it necessary to believe that an anti-heroine can be ‘redeemed’? In a previous topic, you mentioned that you would have written Milady with a ‘heart’, but what would that mean for her? Should she have spared Constance? …I think this is what intrigues me – the concept that ’strong’ women must be caring and forgiving at heart, or face their own destruction, as ‘independent’ heroines are really only awkward, plain creatures searching for a husband!’”

I certainly don’t think anti-heroines need to be redeemed or even redeemable. I would have written a Milady with a bit more compassion (I wouldn’t have had her kill Constance) because that’s the way my mind works and the sort of story I write. I would have wanted to give her a happy ending with Athos–which would have necessitated changing Athos’s character a great deal (more than Milady’s, I think). That’s me, and the stories I tend to tell. My heroes and heroines (and even a number of my villains) tend to have a fair amount of compassion and empathy (when my mom’s and I attempted to write a hero who began the book as amoral–in A Touch of Scandal–he didn’t turn out nearly as amoral we intended). But I too dislike the idea that heroines or anti-heroines need to give way to softer impulses. Mélanie has her share of compassion (though not as much, I think, as Charles), but she puts her loyalty to her cause before her loyalty to her husband, and if she had to do it again, I don’t think she’d make a different choice.

Do you like anti-heroines or do they simply lose your sympathy? Any thoughts on the characters discussed above or any other anti-heroines to suggest? If you’ve read The Three Musketeers (or seen any of the film versions) what did you think of Milady? Do you think Mélanie is an anti-heroine? What about Ellen Olenska? Or Emma? (I suspect Pam may have something to say here). What makes a character likable or unlikable for you? Do you think your standards differ for female or male characters?

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20 Comments:

Anonymous Jane O said...

Milady never had much appeal for me, partly because my first introduction to her was the movie version with Gene Kelly as D'Artagnon. Milady was played by Lana Turner, and she was just plain dull.
On the other hand, Becky Sharp has been one of my favorite characters ever since I read Vanity Fair back in high school. I've always mentally provided her with an alternate ending, in which she comes back rich and powerful enough to tell everybody to go to hell, like the Countess in Deurrenmatt's THE VISIT. I have always treasured a comment I came across once to the effect that Thackery was afraid women would resent his portrayal of Becky Sharp and could never understand that what women resented was being expected to admire Amelia Sedley.

5:45 AM  
Blogger Katharine Ashe said...

Tracy, I agree with you (and Dear Author's Jane) that heroines must typically meet higher standards than heroes to be likable to readers, especially in the realm of sexuality. A hero can be a veritable ho-man yet still appealing (in fact, his rakish ways often make him more appealing), but a heroine who shares her favors freely and eagerly often gets thrashed. Not fair, certainly, but perhaps we're harder on our own? Or perhaps when we read historical romance we adopt the mores of the folks of that historical era and judge heroines accordingly? It's a tangled issue! :)

My intro to the Three Musketeers was the Michael York film, which I adore. Milady does not appeal to me in that. But as a foil to that version's ditzy Constance, she worked well. The book made Milady more sympathetic.

Anti-heroines are marvelously fun, I think, because of their complexity and oftentimes tragic ending that confuses our feelings. Like Barbossa in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, when a villain's defeat is a tragedy as well as a victory, the whole story is richer. When Gregory Rush utters, "I feel... cold" and the apple tumbles from his fingers, that is a sheer triumph of acting and story telling. Glen Close's defeat in Dangerous Liasons is similar, so heartbreaking and horrible even as it satisfies. The trouble with really good anti-heroine/villainesses, is that the heroine must oftentimes be milquetoast (like Michelle Pfeiffer in DL) so as not to steal the anti-heroine/villainess' thunder. A delicate dance, indeed.

6:39 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Jane, I love the comment about Thackery not understanding women resenting being expected to admire Amelia! That's precisely. Actually, I've never been entirely sure Thackery completely admired Amelia. She's quite self-absorbed in her devotion to the worthless George, she doesn't treat poor Dobbin (who is probably the most sympathetic character in the book) very well.

10:43 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Katherine, I so agree, the double standard seems to be particularly present regarding sex. It does reflect historical mores--speaking of Dangerous Liaisons (which has a fascinating anti-heroine and also a fascinating anti-hero), Merteuil (the Glenn Close character) has that wonderful speech about how Valmont can flaunt his conquests but she has to preserve a respectable veneer, which makes her game -playing all the more difficult and the stakes higher. I'm an historical advisor on a production of the play right now--such fascinating characters.

I actually liked Milady in the Michael York films (which were also the first film versions I saw), but I'd already read the book, so that probably colored my interpretation of her.

And I love this that you said "when a villain's defeat is a tragedy as well as a victory, the whole story is richer." So true, I think. Barbarossa's death in the first Pirates movie is a great example. In the writers' commentary for the second movie, they talk about how Barbarossa's appearance at the end is what gives the audience hope at the end of a rather dark story. Quite telling that the "hopeful" bit at the end, is the reappearance of the villain from the previous story :-).

10:55 AM  
Anonymous Jules said...

What a timely post! I'm actually reading Lauren Willig's "The Seduction of the Crimson Rose" right now which features it's very own anti-heroine in the form of Mary Alsworthy. I literally put my book down and went to check my blogs when this came up.

I actually enjoy reading a good novel starring an anti-heroine because in order to make them work they need to be fully fleshed out characters. The heroine in a romance always makes or breaks the book for me. If I can't connect with her than I might as well put the book down. The anti-heroine might be tricky to sympathize with at first, but I feel that author's need to work harder to make sure that she has sympathetic characteristics so that a reader can connect with her. If she is written well, she can be incredibly compelling.

That being said, I absolutely believe that there is a double standard for heroines. Heroes aren't subjected to nearly as much scrutiny as their counterparts. I do read a lot of historicals, so the dominant gender roles at the time might be part of the issue. However, I blame a lot of the double standard on the fact that as a woman reading these books I can more easily place myself in the heroine's shoes. I measure the heroine's actions based on how I would personally act. My not having the same connection to the hero allows me to forgive a lot of his actions. It isn't necessarily right, but it happens.

4:08 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I loved "Seduction of the Crimson Rose", Jules! I love all Lauren's books, but that one has a special place in my affections, and I think Mary is my favorite of her heroes. I also think it's interesting that while many harder-edged heroines are married with quieter heroes, Vaughn is every bit as cynical and hard-edged as Mary. At least on the surface. They're a great couple.

I think if anything I'm harder on male characters in historical fiction. That fact that the conventions of the day limit women's options and stack the deck against them in so many ways makes me more likely to understand why they step outside conventional moral boundaries.

4:24 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Emma? (I suspect Pam may have something to say here)

Thanks for the challenge to try to discuss this, Tracy.

Emma is an anti-heroine, but a very different sort than the other ladies you mentioned, with none of their thrilling, go-for-broke toughness.

Emma is safe -- all too safe, over-protected by her 30,000 pounds, the undue responsibilities her father has put upon her, her lack of self-knowledge, and her excessive sense of her own importance.

Austen means us to laugh, or at least smile ironically, at Emma's outsize view of her own social standing: "The Woodhouses," as Emma thinks petulantly when Mr. Elton dares approach her, "had been settled for several generations at Hartfield, the younger branch of a very ancient family." In a society where the only true sources of value are title, land, and maybe the church, those several generations are nothing -- "younger branch of a very ancient family" is like calling yourself "chief assistant to the assistant chief." The Woodhouse money comes from trade or speculation. Hartfield has only lawn, no real landed relationship to the economy -- it's a little "notch" cut out of Donwell Abbey -- which is ancient, going back to Henry VIII's appropriation of church property.

The Woodhouses are less different from the Coles than Emma would like to think (and as we are to know that Mrs. Cole thinks). If Emma hadn't married Mr. Knightley by the end of the book, she'd be in for a lifetime of social snubs from Mrs. Cole as Mr. Cole rises in Highbury's economic hierarchy.

Unlike Becky Sharp, say, Emma moves very little (she rarely makes the 16-mile trip to London and until her honeymoon she's never even seen the sea -- no mean feat for a resident of her small island nation). By the end of the book, Hartfield has reverted to its original ownership (anybody who thinks Mr. Knightley is giving up anything by moving in has missed something in their reading).

Emma does make a moral journey, from fancying herself the leader of her community to marrying its true leader and learning to share his responsibilities. But she's quite as immobile as her father. This is a profoundly ironic novel -- perhaps the chief irony being that because it so respects the boundaries of Highbury -- geographic and social, it stretches the boundaries of romance almost to the breaking point.

4:42 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks for the wonderful comments, Pam! I love the way you describe Emma as "safe." She may be an anti-heroine to some readers, but unlike most of the other women mentioned she doesn't cross the conventions of her day. Pretty much all the other women are social outsiders in some way--birth, scandal, lack of fortune, bad marriages. They need their "thrilling, go-for broke toughness" to survive or at least as a defense mechanism.

9:30 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Brilliant post, Tracy! Milady de Winter is one of my favorite anti-heroines and she was one of my favorite roles to play in a stage adaptation of the novel. She was brilliant, beautiful, guarded, lethal -- and all of her problems (and that fleur-de-lys branded on her upper arm) stemmed from a big backstory.

Another thing to remember about Milady de Winter, which colors some of her actions: she was an abused spouse at the hands of her ex -- Athos.

Kate in "The Taming of the Shrew" is another misunderstood anti-heroine and also a favorite of mine.

I love getting under the skin and into the heads of these women. And in my historical fiction I tend to gravitate to anti-heroines as well. Helen of Troy, Emma Hamilton, and Mary Robinson were no Pollyannas -- but I find them infinitely more intriguing than the "good" girls, particularly when the anti-heroine was a real person with justifiable explanations for her actions.

11:53 AM  
Anonymous Rose Lerner said...

Yes to the comments about Becky Sharp! What I find fascinating about her portrayal is that it seems as if Thackeray himself likes her better than Amelia, and sympathizes with her pretty deeply in some ways even though in other ways he condemns and despises her...and yet he CANNOT make the leap (in ANY of his books that I've read: History of Henry Esmond has the same problem, I think) between finding his own "good women" sort of unappealing and boring and thinking "Hey, maybe that's NOT how women should have to behave."

12:38 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Leslie, I would have loved to see you play Milady! Do you mean she's an abused spouse because Athos tries to kill her (which certainly qualifies as abuse!) or is there further evidence that he abuses her? I can't think of a lot of real historical "good" girls who've been the subjects of historical fiction. A lot of the time it's the rule-breakers who've led interesting lives and made a mark in the historical record.

11:29 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Rose, you've beautifully elucidated why I always have a bit of a problem with Thackery's books. He seems at once bored with his heroines and critical of his anti-heroines. Of course in Thackery no one tends to come off looking entirely admirable.

11:45 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Tracy, it's been a long time since I read the novel, in preparation for playing Milady de Winter, but somewhere in the dim recesses of my mind I seem to recall that her marriage with Athos became tempestuous before he tried to kill her. I also seem to remember some incident from her adolescent years (not of her making) that formed her character as well.

I've always viewed "Vanity Fair" as intentional satire; consequently Thackeray was deliberately manipulating our view of his characters in order to make a statement about society. It's not straightforward novel writing and I think that to read it straight might result in missing some of his intentions.

4:24 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I agree with Leslie for the most part re VANITY FAIR, but I am always astonished by the brief, wonderful part at the end -- Becky in that seedy, disreputable rooming house at the German gambling spa, surrounded by wonderfully rendered second-raters and down-and-outers and genuinely happy to be living by her wits in such a straightforward, unvarnished fashion. It seems to me to be a rare and touching moment of sympathy, an oddly romantic/existential statement of freedom, though freedom from love, I suppose -- well, that's perhaps the catch (poor dumb, loving Rawden Crawley). In some ways it's a pity Becky's direct descendant Scarlett O'Hara was never given the chance for such freedom.

7:13 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

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12:07 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

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12:08 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

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12:20 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

For some reason, Blogger kept giving me error messages, and then my comments showed up multiple times. I deleted all the repeats. Sorry!

12:23 PM  
Blogger Chiara Keren Button said...

This was a very interesting post to stumble across! I read The Three Musketeers in my early teens, and actually found that Athos was my favourite character (with Porthos very close behind!) I hated Milady so much I was screaming at her in the seduction-of-Felton scenes. I think the reason Athos tried to hang her was not so much her past being kept from him as the fact that she was a criminal and he, with his lofty ideas about right and wrong (which seem to apply more to a man's duty to the King etc. than with his private intrigues with women) couldn't marry a criminal. One thing that did annoy me in the book was Constance and d'Artagnan's relationship--exactly that question of how can Constance be good when she's cheating on her husband? She was certainly not my idea of a heroine, however much Miladi is to me more villainess than anti-heroine.

3:04 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Glad you found the post, Chiara! I definitely agree that the way the novel is structured Milady is more a villainess than an anti-heorine, since the story isn't told from her POV (unlike Becky Sharpe or Scarlett O'Hara). The odd thing is, Athos is probably my favorite of the Musketeers. I find both him and Milady sympathetic in different ways (which doesn't mean I'm in sympathy with all of either of their actions).

12:21 PM  

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