“A fall-down drunk who’s terrible with relationships and makes some selfish, questionable choices goes in search of love, and fails at it.”
This is actually the general plot to two films—the well-received, critically applauded film Sideways and the much maligned, controversial film Young Adult.
One follows a drunken, frumpy loser who steals money from his mother to enable his soon-to-be-married best friend to cheat on his soon-to-be-spouse; the other follows a drunken, frumpy loser who drives to small-town Minnesota to try to hook up with her happily married ex. Both films create stark, harrowing portraits of their protagonists’ pathology and inability to connect to others. Both protagonists are even writers! The biggest difference in the reception of these films, I’d argue, is that one featured a male protagonist—and thus was critically celebrated. The other told the story of a deeply flawed woman, and became instantly “controversial” because of its “thoroughly unlikable” heroine.
I see this double standard pop up all the time in novels, too. We forgive our heroes even when they’re drunken, aimless brutes or flawed noir figures who smoke too much and can’t hold down a steady relationship. In truth, we both sympathize with and celebrate these heroes; Conan is loved for his raw emotions, his gut instincts, his tendency to solve problems through sheer force of will. But the traits we love in many male heroes—their complexity, their confidence, their occasional bouts of selfish whim—become, in female heroes, marks of the dreaded “unlikable character.”
Arnold Schwarzenegger as Conan in Conan the Barbarian (Photo credit: Universal Pictures)
Author Claire Messud takes this issue head-on in an interview when a Publisher’s Weekly interviewer says her female protagonist is unbearably grim, and isn’t Messud concerned that the protagonist isn’t someone the reader wants to be friends with? Messud responds:
“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.”
Male writers, and their male protagonists, are expected to be flawed and complex, but reader expectations for women writers and their characters tend to be far more rigid. Women may stray, but only so far. If they go on deep, alcoholic benders, they’d best repent and sober up at the end. If they abandon their spouses and children, they’d best end tragically, or make good. Women must, above all, show kindness. Women may be strong—but they must also, importantly, be vulnerable. If they are not, readers are more likely to push back and label them unlikable.
I wrote an article where I noted that in grad school, I sometimes drank two bottles of wine in a sitting and smoked cigarettes. A couple of commenters on another forum said I must be an irresponsible alcoholic. I couldn’t help wondering what their reaction would be on hearing a twenty-three-year-old male college student occasionally drank two bottles of wine in a sitting.
Boys will be boys, right? But women are alcoholics.
And so it goes.
But why is this? Why do we read the same behaviors so differently based on the presented sex of the person engaging in them?
A scene from Sideways (Photo credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures)
I’d argue it’s because women have been so often cast as mothers, potential mothers, caretakers, and servants, assistants, and handmaidens of all sorts that’s it’s become a conscious but also unconscious expectation that anyone who isn’t—at least some of the time—must be inherently unnatural. And when we find a woman who doesn’t fit this mold, we work hard to sweep her back into her box, because if she gets out, well … it might mean she has the ability to take on a multitude of roles.
Let’s be real: if women were “naturally” anything, societies wouldn’t spend so much time trying to police every aspect of their lives.
I like writing about complex people. I like writing about women. Hence, the women and men I write are flawed and complex. They have their own messed-up motivations. They don’t always do the right thing. There’s not generally a rousing ending where everyone realizes they were a jerk and has a big hug. Life is messier than that, and so are women. We’re not any better or worse than anyone else. I’m flawed. I often make poor choices. I’m very often selfish.
So are many of the people I put on the page. And to be dead honest, I like them a whole lot better that way. Roxane Gay gives several examples of successfully unlikable heroines in fiction in her article “Not Here to Make Friends.” As Gay writes:
“This is what is so rarely said about unlikable women in fiction— that they aren’t pretending, that they won’t or can’t pretend to be someone they are not. They have neither the energy for it, nor the desire… Unlikable women refuse to give in to that temptation. They are, instead, themselves. They accept the consequences of their choices and those consequences become stories worth reading.”
There is something hypnotic in unlikable male characters that we don’t allow in women, and it’s this: we allow men to be confident, even arrogant, self-absorbed, narcissistic. But in our everyday lives, we do not hold up such women as leaders and role models. We call them out as selfish harridans. They are wicked stepmothers. Seeing these same women bashing their way through the pages of our fiction elicits the same reaction. Women should be nurturing. Their presence should be redeeming. Women should know better.
Jeremy Sumpter as Peter Pan and Rachel Hurd-Wood as Wendy Darling in Peter Pan (Photo credit: Universal Pictures)
Female heroes must act the part of the dutiful Wendy, while male heroes get to be Peter Pan.
Pointing out this narrative, of course, isn’t going to fix it. But I do hope that it makes people more aware of it. When you find yourself reading about a gun-slinging, whisky-drinking, Mad Max apocalypse hero who you’d love if it was a guy but find profoundly uncomfortable to read about when you learn it’s a woman, take a step back and ask why that is. Is it because this is truly a person you can’t empathize with, or because somebody told you she was supposed to be back home playing mom to the Lost Boys, not stabbing her landlord, stealing a motorcycle, and saving the world?
Stories teach us empathy, and limiting the expression of humanity in our heroes entirely based on sex or gender does us all a disservice. It places restrictions on what we consider human, which dehumanizes the people we see who do not express traits that fit our narrow definition of what’s acceptable.
Like it or not, failure of empathy in the face of unlikable women in fiction can often lead to a failure to empathize with women who don’t follow all the rules in real life, too. I see this all the time in conversations with men and women alike. It’s these same questions that get brought up when women who have been assaulted dare to report abuse. What was she wearing? Did she provoke him by talking back? Was she a bad wife? A bad girlfriend? Was she a good woman, or a bad woman? This line of questioning, and the assumptions that prompt it, is one we would never apply to their male counter parts—unless they are men of color. Was he wearing shorts when he was robbed? Did he yell at his neighbor before he was shot? Did he smoke pot at any time in his life before he was shot by a police officer in the street? Was he a good man, or a bad man?
This justification of violence against those who step outside of the roles the dominant culture puts them into can be reinforced or challenged by the stories we tell. Stories tell us not only who we are, but who we can be. They paint the narrow behavioral boxes within which we put ourselves and those we know. They can encourage compassion and kindness and acceptance, or violence and intolerance and reprisal. It all bleeds from the page or the screen into the real world. Who deserves forgiveness? I’d hope we all do.