In the Pink of Health - The Antiheroine in Contemporary Fiction
By Michelle Hui
Unknown, Portrait of a Young Woman in White, 1798. National Gallery of Art. Photograph taken from https://www.nga.gov/collection/art-object-page.46593.html.
The stepping down of Emily Weiss, face and founder of popular beauty brand Glossier, has spelt out a new turn of the decade for the ‘Girlboss’ movement. Following in the footsteps of Nasty Gal’s former CEO, Sophia Amoruso, the fall of the Girlboss and the increasingly mixed reactions to the term has left a vacuum for models of women’s empowerment. In contemporary fiction, the antiheroine emerges from the wings and rises to the occasion with apathy and disdain, with an attitude that reflects a growing disconnect from modern expectations for women.
With various shades of pink on their book covers, framed with provocative titles and narrated by jaded protagonists, the popularity of the modern antiheroine in recent times speaks to their relatability. Often aged between their 20s and 30s, the antiheroine finds a kindred spirit with the disillusioned woman attempting to navigate the tumultuous space of adulthood. Books like Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Eliza Clark’s Boy Parts and Melissa Broder’s Milk Fed are one of the many representatives of this recent trend. Typically set in a world facing off with the grind of capitalism, biological expectations, cost-of-living crises, and mental health, the antiheroine confronts a bleak reality with hedonism, self-destruction, and radical acts of rebellion that gestures desperately that she, in fact, is not okay.
The descendants to Amy Dunne, infamous and controversial antiheroine from Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, her heirs are less concerned with revenge, and focus on coping with an internal, all-encompassing malaise lurking ominously below the surface. As the title aptly suggests, Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation is a tale that follows an unnamed narrator drifting her way aimlessly through her twenties, resorting to illegal prescription drugs as an anaesthetic from her life. Pretty, privileged, and deathly unhappy, the narrator quits her job at an art gallery to look for ways to sleep through a year of her life, with the belief that she will emerge from her hibernation cleansed and freed from the loneliness that had followed her before. In her quest for hibernation, she attempts to alienate everyone in her life, leaving only her best friend Reva who remains doggedly in touch with her. Set up as each other’s foil, their friendship showcases how the two women of different social classes and upbringing respond to grief and trauma in different ways. While one seeks isolation, the other seeks interaction, and in My Year of Rest and Relaxation, we experience the complexities of the desire to detach from a world that only seems to inflict pain. In Boy Parts, Clark flips the coin on gender roles through a gritty inversion of the male gaze. Set in Newcastle, Irina is a part-time photographer placed on sabbatical from her bartending job, who sets out to take explicit and fetishistic photographs of men for a future exhibition in a London gallery. Violating boundaries and pushing the extremes of manipulation, Irina’s quest for her art upends the male gaze and traditional power dynamics, forcing a re-evaluation of power structures in the creation of art. In both books, the antiheroines are unlikeable, beautiful, and cruel, who resort to extreme measures to resolve a vulnerability that they cannot seem to access through conventional methods.
In a time where glittery slogans of woman empowerment on t-shirts and Girlboss hashtags seems to have been left in the dust, the new era of the modern woman is much more accepting of a reality where women’s vulnerabilities and mistakes are allowed to live and co-exist in the same sphere as them. Despite their morally grey actions and apathetic attitudes, literature’s new antiheroines provide a respite from unrealistic promises of perfection and a sanctuary where dialogues on mental health and gendered issues can come to the fore.