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The State of the Race: Will be the Year of the Female Anti Hero?

**Slight Spoiler Warning*** Women don’t get to be anti-heroes much, at least where Oscar wins are concerned, whether male or female, voters prefer good or admirable characters to dark ones.  Good girls usually suffer no pushback but bad girls? They don’t get off so easy. It can get a little sketchy nowadays when a female antihero presents herself. The notion that women ought to always be portrayed is a positive light severely limits both the opportunities for actresses but also for women in the full spectrum of the human experience. A similar problem afflicts minority actors when they get sick of being stuffed into stereotypes — like black maids or street thugs, Chinese laundry attendants, etc. Women are stuffed into stereotypes too and sadly many of these roles are often delivered in an effort to portray them in a good light.  Some of the best performances on screen have been actresses taking on dark or sometimes soulless characters. Some of those have won Oscars (Louise Fletcher in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and some of them haven’t (Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction or Dangerous Liaisons or Reversal of Fortune).

By my count, since 1970, good characters or heroines have accounted for 35 of the 44 Best Actress winners. Only 4 could be counted as flat-out bad (Louise Fletcher in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and 5 could be counted as “complicated,” like Helen Mirren in The Queen or Kate Winslet in The Reader — they are mostly good but they are allowed complexities.  Contrast that with Best Actor where I counted 9 “complicated” winners, 6 flat-out bad and 29 good, or heroes. There isn’t a dramatic disparity between the sexes — though men have a slight advantage removing themselves from the “good” category and still winning — but it isn’t really so big it makes much of a difference.

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This year, the likely Best Actress contenders range from flat-out bad to complicated, to good.  It’s still too early to tell how things might shake down in that regard — so it’s difficult to say which characteristic will dominate. In our poll, AwardsDaily readers have these five predicted:

Amy Adams, Big Eyes
Julianne Moore, Maps to the Stars
Reese Witherspoon, Wild
Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
Jessica Chastain, Eleanor Rigby

Close behind are a few others who may have a shot:
Hilary Swank, The Homesman
Meryl Streep, Into the Woods
Michelle Williams – Suite Française
Jessica Chastain – Miss Julie
Nicole Kidman – Queen of the Desert

Amy Adams, as I recall from the footage in Cannes, plays a “difficult” character. But in subsequent readings of early screenings of the film it doesn’t sound that way. So right now I’m just not sure where she fits. course, it’s just too soon to know. These five can be considered this way:

The Good
Reese Witherspoon, Wild
Jessica Chastain, Eleanor Rigby
Amy Adams, Big Eyes

The Bad:
Julianne Moore, Maps to the Stars
Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl

Both Julianne Moore in Maps to the Stars, and very likely Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl will represent this year’s anti-heroines. Both roles dwell in the 2014 zone of Kim Kardashian instagram devotion, the cancer of tabloid beatdowns of women on a daily basis, selfies, the incurable disease of self-improvement all pointing to what we women are afflicted with every day of our lives: the pressure to be all things: pretty, young, popular, thin, desired.  While we wait to see what writer Gillian Flynn, director David Fincher and actress Rosamund Pike do with the literary sylph “Amazing Amy” there is much we can glean from the character as written in Flynn’s book.

To my mind Amazing Amy from the book is the Frankenstein’s monster that the male gaze and the culture of overly-competitive women have created — and deserve. I dread the many articles that completely miss the point of the character Flynn wrote, a woman whose point of view must be taken into consideration when examining her character. The reason the book is so successful with women is that WE KNOW. We have grown up stuffing ourselves into the forms people want to see — what men want to see, what women want to see. We’ve been the object of bitchy middle-school girls snickering at our outdated jeans, we’ve been in on gossip clusters of girls talking about sluts. We’ve been watched by men who either lust after or reject our physical appearance. We’ve grown up shaping ourselves this way and Amazing Amy has MASTERED this shape-shifting. She has taken control of these requirements and delivered the “perfect” answer.

It is my hope that people, especially women, will get this and not fly off into the fascist notion that “all female characters have to be portrayed in a positive light.” If you think that’s true then talk to me about the tabloids. Cottage cheese thighs on women at the beach! So and so is cheating on so and so. Bad plastic surgery! Stars without makeup. Do we really think men are driving this disgusting industry? Sorry, ladies. I wish we could blame men for that one.

These fears and insecurities and mean-girl impulses weave cleverly throughout Flynn’s novel, all the while giving us a filter — what each character sees and how they interpret what they see.  It’s a magnificent novel written by a brilliant writer. The most famous passage in Gone Girl is the concept of the “cool girl,” a thing that will live on forever which is a description only we women understand.

“Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.

Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girl offended me. I used to see men – friends, coworkers, strangers – giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them. I’d want to grab the poor guy by his lapels or messenger bag and say: The bitch doesn’t really love chili dogs that much – no one loves chili dogs that much! And the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be. Oh, and if you’re not a Cool Girl, I beg you not to believe that your man doesn’t want the Cool Girl. It may be a slightly different version – maybe he’s a vegetarian, so Cool Girl loves seitan and is great with dogs; or maybe he’s a hipster artist, so Cool Girl is a tattooed, bespectacled nerd who loves comics. There are variations to the window dressing, but believe me, he wants Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain. (How do you know you’re not Cool Girl? Because he says things like: “I like strong women.” If he says that to you, he will at some point fuck someone else. Because “I like strong women” is code for “I hate strong women.”)”

When I first read this I was stunned that anyone could dig down that deep and be that observant to finally acknowledge in print what many of us girls have long known about fitting into very contradictory requirements of men.  They want you to eat but they don’t want you to be fat. They want you to be funny but not too smart. We all get it.  Another observer of this phenom is the funny and insightful Heather Harvilesky at The Awl. Check out this post.

Bruce Wagner does not pull punches where Julianne Moore’s character is concerned in Maps to the Stars — again, she is the sum total of our youth-obsessed culture  and the competition for Most Famous or Relevant person. But Wagner spreads the ugliness around to inevitably point the finger back where it belongs: squarely at us, the consumers.

In both cases, there will be some major pushback. Men could very well recoil in horror, while women might be inclined to take the “it’s misogynist” approach.  Either way, I suspect 2014 is going to get ugly.  So that brings us to the Oscar race.  After watching Maps to the Stars in Cannes, Pete Hammond said that it was a shame Julianne Moore was so unlikable in Maps to the Stars — she would win the Oscar otherwise.

Other potentially difficult female characters who dwell on the darker side would include Meryl Streep as the Witch in Into the Woods, Marion Cotillard as Lady MacBeth — if it’s released this year — and Anne Dorval in Mommy.  On the rest of the list, the women are admirable characters.

When I look back on Hollywood history, especially when actresses dominated, there was room for a full spectrum of types. Who can forget Anne Baxter and Bette Davis in All About Eve, for instance.   Would All About Eve get made today? Probably not. With so few films driven by female characters now is not the time to limit women to only those reflected in a good light. Well, at least not until tabloids disappear from supermarket shelves and gossip sites fade away.