In Hollywood, likability – that nebulous, smile-pretty-for-the-camera mandate – is essential in our ladies. But in literature, there exists a long-standing tradition of female protagonists we love to hate – women whose constellation of sins are glorious tabula rasas onto which we project our issues, demons who entice us to embrace our own. The naughty list may be endless, but these bad girls are our favorites.
Medea That divine former princess of Greek mythology can be extra-enchanting, but in Euripides’ titular play, she also has a nasty habit of extinguishing anyone inconvenient, including her own kids. No other cuckolded woman in history holds a candle to the Big M.
Lady Macbeth As the woman who convinces her husband to murder and manipulate his way to the throne, she’s one of Shakespeare’s most nefarious villians. But her line “Come you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, and fill me from the crown to the toe top full of direst cruelty” distills the rage women throughout the ages have felt about being limited by their gender.
Lady Susan Jane Austen’s least-revered heroine is also, to my mind, her most charismatic and liberated. Gorgeous in her forties, Susan lies, trash-talks, and sleeps with other women’s husbands, all while dropping a bevy of long-lashed demurrals and witty rejoinders.
Emma Bovary Everyone dissatisfied by life in the suburbs can empathize with Emma even if they judge her avariciousness. Stuck in Flaubert’s French provinces, she lives beyond her means in every sense of that term, and pays dearly for it
Anna Karenina In modern parlance, Anna K would be dubbed a love addict, and prescribed meditation, medication, and twelve step groups. But in Tolstoy’s most spectacular novel, she’s a lady whose dedication to one undeserving man costs her everything–social standing, motherhood, even her own life–and wins our eternal admiration.
Harriet M. Welch The heroine of Louise Fitzhugh’s beloved young adult novel Harriet the Spy eavesdrops, stalks, and considers all but her two best friends a fink or a phony. But she’s a terrifically honest soul who makes the world more charismatic one capital letter at a time.
Connie Ramos The protagonist of Marge Piercy’s brilliantly prescient Woman on the Edge of Time has a history of violence, drug abuse, and child neglect. But this resident of 1970s Spanish Harlem also fights the good fight in at least different eras, and takes us with her as she opens her heart and mind.
Eva Khatchadourian The protagonist of Lionel Shriner’s We Need to Talk about Kevin is almost as misanthropic as her mass murderer of a son, but any woman who’s ambivalent about child-rearing can’t help relating to her, if only in a “there by the grace of goddess go I” capacity.
Ruth Patchett Unhappy, unbecoming, ungenteel, the housewife of Fay Weldon’s The Life and Loves of a She-Devil doesn’t have much to recommend her. But when her husband leaves her for a famous romance novelist, she exacts a revenge so delicious that it satiates everyone who’s felt like yesterday’s lunch.
Amy Dunne Warning: Messing with the anti-heroine of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s bestselling crime thriller, can be dangerous to your career, reputation, and, oh yes, life. Does she goes too far? Definitely, but such cold calculation can be read as a corrective to bland male privilege.