Film and literature are full of villains and baddies, the perfect foil for the heroes and heroines, but what about the so-called “anti-hero”, fictional characters in the role of protagonist who aren’t necessarily heroic or even nice, the ones we love to hate? Because I write women’s fiction, here I’ll be talking about my 3 favourite wicked women (or 4).
The raven-haired, green-eyed, and manipulative beauty from Gone With the Wind is the kind of heroine who makes people’s fingers twitch because they long to give her a jolly good slap. The trouble with Scarlett is that she’ll slap you right back. “Sir, you are no gentleman”, she says to Rhett Butler, to which he counters, “And you, Miss, are no lady”, thus hitting the nail on the head. Not only is she a fighter, she fights dirty. She steals her sister’s fiancé, romances the broken and weak-willed Ashley behind her friend Melanie’s back, drives her second husband to an early grave, and continues to use slave labour after the emancipation, substituting black slaves for unpaid convicts.
Why do I like her? Exactly because she’s a fighter, and because she, in her youthfulness, believes it’s for love, but as the novel progresses, it’s becomes clear the fight is for her very essence. Scarlett is inextricably bound up with the family plantation, Tara. The men in her life – her father, Ahsley, Rhett – know this before she does, and many of her selfish, and occasionally cruel actions are centred around preserving Tara and her family’s heritage. For that she pays the ultimate price: losing the people who truly love her despite herself.
Marquise de Merteuil
You may wonder why I have chosen the scheming scandal-mongerer from Dangerous Liaisons (played brilliant by the actress Glenn Close in the 1988 film btw., with just a hint of bunny-boiler madness about her) as my next anti-heroine. What is there to like about her? Clever, indolent, and bored, she’s a far more dangerous creature than Scarlett, and together with the cynical and jaded Vicomte de Valmont she orchestrates not only the downfall of an innocent young girl, but also the seduction of the sweet and faithful Madame the Tourvel, for nothing more than a bet. The prize? The Marquise will give herself to the Vicomte if he succeeds.
This lady’s come-uppance comes in the form of being hoisted by her own petard. Valmont seduces the faithful wife, but when he rejects her, as part of the bet, he breaks her heart and his own too in the process. Wretched, he tries to collect his prize, but the Marquise refuses to honour the bet because she has fallen in love with the him and cannot give herself to him as he loves another. Later she suffers a nervous breakdown.
What I like about her character is that despite proclaiming herself a cynic when it comes to romantic love, her weakness is that she cannot guard herself against it. She has committed hubris, laughing at the gods of love only to be struck by Cupid’s arrow herself.
Cinderella’s ugly sisters
Although this pair of anti-heroines aren’t exactly protagonists, they’re certainly show-stealers because they’re so deliciously wicked, both in the original fairy tale, but also in the delightful Disney cartoon. The reader/audience cheer when they get their come-uppance. In the
Disney film they’re not as mean as in the book, and payback is a little less harsh, sanitised, perhaps, for the benefit of a very young audience (i.e. they don’t get to marry the prince), but in the story they willingly cripple themselves in order to fit into the fabled glass slipper. One cuts her toe off, the other her heel.
I also like them because a deeper interpretation of the story reveals that more is at play – only by being true to yourself (as Cinderella is), will you win the greatest prize of all. For others to love you as you are without the need to alter yourself, either physically or with regards to your personality. An important message to us all maybe – every day we’re bombarded with images of supposed perfection, in glossy magazines, on TV and billboards etc., and it takes a certain degree of self-assuredness to stem up against such onslaught.
Having said that, I’d give anything to own, let alone fit into the shoes in the picture on the left