The Likability Trap: We Like to Root for the Antihero, But Not the Antiheroine


On TV, there’s a new guard of heroines calling the shots. From chipper Leslie Knope on Parks and Recreation to fractured Carrie Mathison on Homeland to narcissistic Amy Jellicoe on Enlightened, we see women anchoring our favorite shows. So what makes these characters so often cringe-worthy?

In The New Yorker, TV critic Emily Nussbaum took note of this new small screen female archetype, the Hummingbird:

They’re different ages; some are more manic, some sweeter or more sour…But they do share traits: they’re idealistic feminine dreamers whose personalities are irritants. They are not merely spunky, but downright obsessive. And most crucially, these are not minor characters. On each show, the Hummingbird is a protagonist—an alienating-yet-sympathetic figure whose struggles are taken seriously and considered meaningful.

At first glance, this seems like a mere gender shift from the lauded male antiheroes whom TV audiences have embraced. Think Tony Soprano, Dexter, Don Draper, and Walter “Heisenberg” White. And to some extent, it’s true: Contemporary audiences love to root for the bad guy, so why not the overwhelmingly eager woman?

Because—sigh—gender roles. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO and author of Lean In, said in her 2010 TED talk, “Success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women.” (To wit, the March 18th issue of Time posits that Sandberg’s success, rather than her problematic trickle-down feminism approach, is to blame for Sandberg’s own unlikability.) Feministing founder Jessica Valenti wrote in The Nation that the likability factor presents a problem for ambitious women:

Women adjust their behavior to be likable and as a result have less power in the world. And this desire to be liked and accepted goes beyond the boardroom—it’s an issue that comes up for women in their personal lives as well, especially as they become more opinionated and outspoken.

So because patriarchal culture emphasizes that women must be likable, our bold and sometimes morally ambiguous TV heroines often face more scrutiny than their male counterparts. Audiences bristle over characters like Enlightened’s Amy (Laura Dern); she’s both idealistic in her activism against corporate overlord Abaddonn Industries and narcissistic in her pursuit of being featured on the front page of the L.A. Times. This has translated into low viewership for the HBO drama, which just wrapped up its second season and may not get a third.

But I wonder whether it’s audiences’ sexist distaste for a complex female lead, not just her so-called unlikability, that caused poor numbers for the show. Enlightened’s showrunner Mike White said the following to The Huffington Post:

It was interesting how there was this real strong aversion from certain quarters to [Amy’s] character….It feels like, unless there’s a sort of normative male voice or a normative male centerpiece to a show—even if the guy’s a murderer or whatever—[a show is] taken a little less taken seriously.

So it’s not just the Hummingbird’s limitless energy and eagerness that garners criticism. It’s female characters, period.

128990_0161I think this is particularly true for heroines of color such as Scandal’s Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington). On xoJane, Scandal fan Christiana Mbakwe said that her peers fumed at her for liking a show about a “glorified mistress.” However, she disagreed with that assessment and with the underlying assumption that ambivalent characters make for corrupt TV:

I do not believe it’s Olivia Pope’s job to be our moral compass or the beacon of hope for (black) women everywhere. Ultimately, she is a television character. Do I condone Olivia’s behavior? No. But I do not believe her imperfections mean her story isn’t worth exploring.

It’s true that Olivia bears the heavy burden of representation—she’s the first black female lead character in a TV network drama since 1974. But she shouldn’t have to be a paragon. In fact, the best characters on TV rarely are.

I wonder, then, precisely how much hostility toward women on TV and women in real life is due to the sexist expectation of likability, and how much is due to the sexist expectation of having women in the background, period. Despite these patriarchal setbacks, Jessica Valenti emphasized the need to press on: “What’s better than being roundly liked is being fully known—an impossibility both professionally and personally if you’re so busy being likable that you forget to be yourself.”


Read more of this guest blog Women’s Work, which explores TV portrayals of young women in the workforce.

by Grace Bello
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4 Comments Have Been Posted

Absolutely right

Good article. The likeability issue is a double bind in life as well as on TV. Be likeable, and be allowed in the room but not taken seriously. Be strong and firm, and never make it into the room. The things that make men heroes make women invisible. I can't count the number of times I've been told to modify my behaviour to accommodate a man who is, let's be blunt, a prick, or to "tone it down" when I state my honest opinion.

Characters like Patricia Arquette's Allison Dubois, Rose Byrne and Glenn Close in Damages, and many of the characters in the Law & Order series are so undeniably human that they draw no real criticism; we accept them because they are complex and real. When writers either fall into stereotypes or a political agenda of "writing strong female characters," they sometimes miss the point of creating a fully-fleshed human being in the process.

Much better to be roundly developed than roundly liked!

Temperance Brennan

I like what has been said so far and I pretty much agree with it. I was wondering if you could respond to Temperance Brennan's character in Bones? She isn't supposed to be likable, and she doesn't try either - much in the same way House doesn't try. What do you think of that? Or Miranda Baley in Grey's Anatomy or Cristina Yang? And what about Max Black from Two Broke Girls? I'd just like to hear what you think about those characters and how they fit into gender stereotypes, or don't. Thanks!

I think the thing that pops

I think the thing that pops out to me about the people you've listed is that they are on more ensemble shows. I know that Temperance is the main character on the show technically, but the show is more about her relationship with Booth, as well as the other "squints" and their relationships and solving crimes! I think pretty much everyone on the show gets semi-equal screen time. I've never watched Grey's Anatomy but from what I gather that show seems to be similar. And Max seems to have the other Broke Girl to balance her out. They aren't characters that are interested in being likable but the characters around them seem to have enough likability to even it out.

There's criticism, then there's erasure

This article makes good points, but I think the age of the main character was also a factor in Enlightenment's cancelation and maybe lack of viewership. See also: The Comeback. There are quite a few shows (Girls, ahem, but not just) - including many mentioned above - that have unlikable female leads and regularly induce cringing but aren't being canceled (or lasted a long time before they were axed). I suspect women's midlife crises (even those of super-hot Laura Dern-looking women) are just too icky for a lot of network execs. (See also Tina Fey's New Yorker article about Hollywood's having no use for women after they are no longer deemed fuckable. Laura Dern might still be that, but her interestingly messed-up character is probably more scary than pursuable to most.) I don't think this is surprising - certainly, it wasn't to me.

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