What follows is a post in our ongoing collaborative series with the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. This is based on a new article by Adriana Clavel-Vazquez, “Sugar and spice, and everything nice: What rough heroines tell us about imaginative resistance.”
After five seasons of House of Cards, it was finally Claire Underwood’s turn to be a proper rough heroine. In seasons one to four we find an interesting contrast between the moral transgressions that make Claire and Frank Underwood rough heroes: she is a ruthless, selfish, and drunk-with-power woman who is uninterested in motherhood; he is a ruthless, selfish, drunk-with-power man who has murdered several people. But in season five, Claire (finally!) murders Tom Yates, her journalist lover who had been given full access to the Underwood’s in previous seasons, and who was ready to publish an incriminating tell-all book. After poisoning him, Claire gives herself a couple of minutes to spare a few tears before calmingly leaving dead Tom behind. 2017 was the year of the rough heroine in pop culture: in addition to Claire Underwood, appreciators were given Grace Marks in Netflix’s adaptation of Alias Grace, and Katherine Lester in Lady Macbeth. But why did it take so long? Rough heroes, like Walter White, Patrick Bateman, and A Clockwork Orange’s Alex, have been around since, like, forever.
Rough heroes are deeply morally flawed characters that demand appreciators’ allegiance. Following Anne Eaton, we can identify five features of rough heroes: (1) their flaws are grievous, (2) their flaws are an integral part of their personality, (3) they intentionally engage in immoral actions and their remorse is not a central part of the narrative, (4) the audience is not prescribed to forgive them or dismiss their actions as the result of misfortune, weakness or ignorance, and (5) their vices are not outweighed by other morally relevant features. Rough heroes are not antiheroes: antiheroes, like Han Solo in Star Wars or Jimmy McNulty in HBO’s The Wire, might be rough around the edges, but they ultimately possess other morally relevant redeeming features.
The moral flaws of rough heroes are not only a central part of their personality, but also a central part of the narrative: while they are presented as immoral, audiences are prescribed strong pro-attitudes toward them that are sustained throughout the engagement with the narrative. And these pro-attitudes are not simply a matter of sympathy, which can be short-term and shallow. Appreciators are prescribed to ally with rough heroes. Characterizing these sustained, strong pro-attitudes toward rough heroes as allegiance rather than mere sympathy allows us to make room for the fact that during our engagement with these narratives, we sometimes don’t sympathize with rough heroes: sometimes we despise them and sympathize with their victims; and yet, we remain invested in seeing them prevail. What this ‘prevail’ entails depends on the context of each narrative, but it does involve remaining invested in seeing rough heroes persist and take their vices to their last consequences.
This prescribed allegiance results in a tension: we initially refuse allegiance on the grounds of rough heroes’ moral flaws. But, at the same time, the narrative generates such strong pro-attitudes toward them that we overcome the original resistance, and ally with the morally flawed protagonist. And it is this tension, according to Eaton, that is the work’s greatest aesthetic achievement: “we are pulled in opposing directions without hope of relief and left to linger in a delicious state of irresolvable conflict with ourselves.”
But we can identify an asymmetry between rough heroes and rough heroines: we seem to ally with rough heroes relatively easily, but we resist allying with rough heroines. Resisting rough heroines doesn’t entail either that there aren’t or that there can’t be instances of morally flawed female protagonists. But we can point to a certain resistance by noting: (a) the few instances of rough heroines in narrative works, compared to the high numbers of rough heroes; (b) the greater effort needed to generate strong and sustained pro-attitudes toward female protagonists who transgress moral norms; and (c) the common failure of uptake from audiences: although the narrative might present a woman as a rough heroine, audiences often regard her as an antagonist.
It is interesting to note that we can find many instances of antiheroines. But if we examine them closely we can see that they often exploit gender norms and expectations in one way or another to secure narrative engagement. We have antiheroines with a strong motherly instinct, such as Beatrix Kiddo in Kill Bill or Geum-ja Lee in Lady Vengeance. We can find femmes fatales, like Marvel’s Black Widow or Nikita. More significantly, perhaps, we can find several instances of antiheroines who are survivors of sexual violence, like Lisbeth Salander or Jessica Jones. That is, it would seem that audiences display pro-attitudes toward flawed female characters inasmuch as they are carers, objects of the male gaze, or victims. But we can find very few instances of morally flawed female characters that fit the characteristics of rough protagonists; for example, Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne, House of Cards’ Claire Underwood, Natural Born Killers’ Mallory Knox. And even in these cases the asymmetry between male and female rough heroes becomes evident. David Fincher’s film adaptation of Gone Girl ended up positioning Amy as an antagonist, rather than a rough heroine; it took House of Cards five seasons to allow Claire to be as morally transgressive as her murderous husband; and Mallory Knox begins her life of crime by murdering her sexually abusive father and enabling mother after being saved by Mickey.
There’s some amount of resistance to both rough heroes and rough heroines. But why do we overcome it more easily for rough heroes than for rough heroines? Recent literature in aesthetics has noted the importance of narrative context in explaining why some fictional scenarios trigger resistance and others don’t. Some authors, like Bence Nanay, Jonathan Weinberg, and Shen-yi Liao have turned to genre to explain variability within resistance phenomena. Other authors, like Matthew Kieran, have turned to narratives’ aesthetic resources to explain why we might overlook immorality in fiction. Narrative context allows narratives to emphasize the immoral character of the hero, but at the same time it allows the narrative to generate pro-attitudes strong enough to ground allegiance. However, focusing on narrative context still fails to explain resistance to rough heroines. Narratives that feature rough heroines present the same features that ground allegiance to rough heroes, and yet they either fail or are more difficult to pull off.
I think we can explain resistance to rough heroines by attending to the violation of gender norms. Gender norms include sanctions and expectations that position individuals classified as women in a specific social relation. In particular, gender norms position individuals identified as women in a power relation in which men are dominant and women are subordinate. I think we resist allying with rough heroines because in being morally transgressive, they break with gender norms and expectations. In a way, men who are morally transgressive somehow fit with gender norms. After all, “boys will be boys.” We expect and socialize boys to be adventurous and dissenting, and we regard these features as valuable and endearing: boys are mavericks. But with the expectation that boys and men will break the rules comes the expectation that things might go wrong sometimes. Moral transgressions might not be actively encouraged, but they seem to be a (hopefully unwanted) consequence of a man’s transgressive character.
In the case of women, moral transgressions imply breaking with what we value in them. The radical transgressions that characterize rough heroines imply that they need to part with those features that have traditionally been regarded (and valued) as being womanly: tenderness, graciousness, selflessness, vulnerability, sensuality. Women are brought up to be likeable and accommodating, and rough heroines aspire to just the opposite. I think we often resist rough heroines because endorsing their moral transgressions would challenge power dynamics. While rough heroes are admirable because they take the direction of their lives into their own hands, rough heroines may be resisted precisely because they challenge women’s subordinate position. In challenging women’s role as passive, vulnerable, and docile beings, rough heroines highlight the social structures that keep women oppressed. Why wouldn’t appreciators feel uncomfortable?
Our resistance to rough heroines reveals that what we are willing to imagine and not imagine in fiction can’t be explained simply by attending to narrative context. Our narrative engagement is also partly constrained by our socio-historical context. We don’t approach fiction as empty vessels. Narrative engagement is historical in that we are socio-historically situated. Our interpretive horizons involve a range of conscious and unconscious attitudes that are partly affected by our socio-historical context, and that impact how we understand and relate to others. Interpretive horizons impact how we relate to others in fictional worlds as well. In the case of rough heroines, interpretive horizons impact our willingness to ally with morally flawed female characters due to how we understand gender identity. Gender norms and expectations bring with them additional obstacles in our imaginative engagement with morally flawed female characters in fiction. And this means narratives featuring rough heroines face additional challenges in prescribing allegiance to female characters that subvert gender norms.
Interpretive horizons seem to be particularly relevant in explaining why we fall for rough heroes but resist rough heroines. As gender norms and expectations continue to be challenged, we seem to finally be on the verge of embracing rough heroines. But given how these horizons impact the construction of other social identities, such as race, I think interpretive horizons also play a role in explaining how we engage with non-white characters in fiction; in particular how we engage with morally flawed non-white characters in fiction. The puzzle of rough heroines is really just part of a bigger puzzle that is not so puzzling after all: Why does it take so little for us to overlook the moral flaws of white men to proclaim our allegiance? Why indeed.
Notes on the Contributor
Adriana Clavel-Vazquez is currently a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Hull and an honorary research fellow at the University of Sheffield. Her research mainly focuses on appreciators’ imaginative engagement with immorality in fiction, the role embodiment plays in imaginative engagement, and the interaction of ethical and aesthetic value.