The Unlikable Woman.

Last night, when I should have been sleeping, I was catching up on Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist – in particular her chapter “Not here to make friends.” The chapter title comes from that inevitable quip from every ‘difficult’ (usually female) member of any competitive reality show, when it turns out she’s not here for pedicures and pillow fights with her teammates. Because if a woman isn’t kind, agreeable, and making all the right decisions – she must be a bitch or a loser right?

I drifted off amidst musings about why it is that we’re (as a society) so concerned with women being ‘likable’, and how that expectation is pressed upon us as women in our every day lives. This morning, I opened up to read her morning intros – always well-written, insightful, and razor sharp – and behold: she was talking about the Unlikable Woman too, and how we must challenge the idea that the story of the ‘unlikable woman’ is not worth telling. She reminds us of Elena Ferrante’s reaction when asked in an interview with Sheila Heti about the justification for her characters’ narcissism (particularly why it’s so offensive in women and yet accepted for men) in her Neopolitan Quartet novels:

Elena Ferrante’s reply:

“I’ve never felt narcissism to be a sin. It seems, rather, a cognitive tool that, like all cognitive tools, can be used in a distorted way. No, I think it’s necessary to be absolutely in love with ourselves. It’s only by reflecting on myself with attention and care that I can reflect on the world. It’s only by turning my gaze on myself that I can understand others, feel them as my kin. On the other hand it’s only by assiduously watching myself that I can take control and train myself to give the best of myself. The woman who practises surveillance on herself without letting herself be the object of surveillance is the great innovation of our times.”

In my interpretation of her response, Ferrante insists that narcissism is a valuable tool of control for women to break through the performance of gender that insists women be ‘gentle’, ‘beautiful’, and always make the right decisions. We need to take charge of our own narrative, and allow ourselves to make mistakes, be ‘bitches’/have strong opinions, and demand more in our careers and personal lives.

Roxane Gay uses the film Young Adult, as an example of the reaction against the Unlikable Woman in film amongst critics. It seems that when examining Unlikable Women in film – and literature – many critics tend to consider the quality of writing to be lacking, in stories that contain unlikable female protagonists. Charlize Theron’s character in the film was panned by critics for being ‘unlikable’, as if it were a fault in Diablo Cody’s writing skills rather than a purposeful development of character. Also interesting is how critics talked about Charlize Theron’s character (as noted by Roxane Gay): “In review, Roger Ebert lauds Young Adult screenwriter Diablo Cody for making Mavis an alcoholic because ‘without such a context, Mavis would simply be insane.’ “ So, not only did critics find fault with the character, but they found her ‘faults’ so distasteful that they needed an actual clinical diagnosis for her character’s unlikability in order to tolerate her.

This reminded me of the character of Rachel in Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, who also struggled with alcohol, and cringe-worthy decision-making. (Spoiler alert!) She was only redeemed when it turned out she had been psychologically manipulated by her ex-husband, and therefore, hadn’t been as ‘terrible’ as the reader previously thought. But what if she hadn’t been? What if she had been an Unlikable Woman. Would it have meant the story was not well-written? Would it have made her less interesting? Would her story have been any less worthy of telling? Would the book have been made into a film if she hadn’t been redeemed at the end?

Well, perhaps if Rachel had been a man…

Because it’s alright for a man to make mistakes and be complicated. In response to this contrast between male and female protagonists, Roxane Gay uses the Publisher’s Weekly interview with Claire Messud about her novel The Woman Upstairs, as an example of this exception. The Woman Upstairs has an ‘unlikable’ female protagonist, Nora – I haven’t read this novel yet, so please do let me know your reactions if you have. I particularly like this quote, so bear with me on another long chunk. When the interviewer states: “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you?” the author Claire Messud responds with:

“For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble.”

Are you exhausted yet by this too? It’s the same old tired story that is still living strong: men get to be flawed, men get to make bad decisions, men leave their children-families-responsibilities behind and get into alcohol-fueled fights. They get to go on hard journeys of self-discovery that they come out of stronger, better, nobler, and return to their children-families-responsibilities who were just waiting patiently all along for him to ‘sober-up’ and grace them with his heroic presence. Do women get to do these things? Are we as readers and watchers of film, are we more rigid on women than we are on men? Do we ‘expect more’ from female writers than male writers? Or do we expect different things from women writers than from male ones?


Let’s continue this conversation – what are your thoughts on female protagonists in film/novels? How does the way they’re presented reflect our every day lives, and how does it not?

Go grab a drink and let’s discuss.

 – image of Charlize Theron, from Young Adult

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