In defence of ‘unlikeable’ female characters

I’ve recently watched the Netflix series ‘The End of the F**** World’, and I loved it. I loved it for its writing, the acting, it’s Wes Anderson-esque cinematography, but mostly because it dared to show a teen female protagonist who was spiky, angry, sweary and complex. Alyssa behaves in a way that isn’t traditionally ‘nice’ and in way that is too often dismissed as ‘unlikeable’ – especially in YA. And I hate that term ‘unlikeable’. Because I liked Alyssa very much, even before she ‘redeemed’ herself by letting her guard down.

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Writer and agent Danielle Binks expressed it best when she tweeted “YA observation: I am always a little … disappointed when I read low-star reviews, that cite a female protagonist being unlikeable and her actions immoral as the reasons for hating the whole book.””I often think it’s an echo of a society that thinks women have to be “nice” and uncomplicated, all smooth-edges and purity. But that’s not necessarily interesting. It’s certainly not where conflict lies.” “So I’m especially concerned when young female teen characters are chastised for their imperfections too. For not being 100% likeable for all 350 pages or so – really, they’re “marked down” for making mistakes, fucking up and being messy and just HUMAN.”

Can I have a HELL YEAH?

I get how people sometimes don’t like certain types of people. I for one, can’t stand people who can’t make decisions. Just pick a damned ice cream flavour, Linda! Dave, do you really have to make a pros and cons spreadsheet when deciding where to holiday? Just pick one!

However, even though I don’t personally gel with that personality type, some people do, and so I wouldn’t automatically label every single person who acted like that as ‘unlikeable’. They’re just people I wouldn’t personally choose to be my BFF because we’d drive each other bonkers. And that distinction is important. Because when you’re labelling a whole set of personality types that make up a person’s nature as ‘unlikeable’, you’re saying to readers who might resonate with that character that nobody is ever able to like them. That they are innately flawed. And I think that’s problematic.

But, first and foremost, why do protagonists need to be ‘likeable’, and especially female protagonists? Author Claire Messed expressed it best when her interviewer described her female protagonist as ‘unbearably grim’, and ‘isn’t Messud concerned that the protagonist isn’t someone the reader wants to be friends with?’ Messud responded:

“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.”

I feel like the depictions of girls and women are constantly constrained by the societal expectations of being ‘likeable’ in ways male protagonist just aren’t. When male characters expose their flaws they’re seen as ‘complex’ whereas female characters are seen as ‘unlikeable’ or at worst ‘bitchy’ and I’d really like to think we’ve gone beyond that. Holden Caulfield isn’t ‘likeable’ but gosh he’s interesting. Why can’t female characters be judged by the same standards?

Girls should be allowed to express anger, because females feel anger just as much as males. Girls should be allowed to react to traumatic experiences in ways that aren’t what society deems as ‘nice’. Sometimes girls have tough exteriors. Sometimes girls are sarcastic. These are all valid ways to be. It’s how humans react.

I hate the way girls are straight-jacketed by societal expectations of how they should behave. Boys are allowed to act out, you understand why boys sometimes act out, but girls aren’t often given that same freedom or forgiveness. My character Ily in my book ‘The Build-Up Season’ has a defensive shield, she uses thorny words and doesn’t let anyone close, but I think she’s likeable, because despite not acting in a ‘nice’ or in a traditionally ‘feminine’ way – if you just judged her by her actions, nearly every choice she makes is defined by her need to help somebody else. She portrays herself as someone who doesn’t give a damn about anyone, but that’s her defence mechanism, and her actions speak otherwise.

I based her character on my favourite protagonist, Rick Blaine from Casablanca. He’s abrasive and he has walls and he tells the world ‘I stick my neck out for nobody’ – but through his actions you see he actually does stick his neck out, on multiple occasions. Nobody defines him as ‘unlilkeable,’ and as much as I hate to believe it, I think he gets away with it because his character is male. It would have been easy to make Ily sweet and understanding and ‘likeable’, but she was raised in an abusive household. There is so much trauma there, and maybe Ily isn’t ‘likeable’ but I’d like to think her reactions are understandable, they’re truthful, and that’s the most important thing.

Much in the same way it’s problematic for white, middle class audiences to only seek out protagonists who have the same skin colour or cultural or socio-economic background as themselves, I also think it’s problematic for audiences to expect characters to react in the same ways that they themselves might react, with their own temperaments which are coloured by their own personal upbringing or their own frames of references. The beauty in storytelling is that you’re able to gain insight into personalities and experiences that aren’t your own, and through stories you’re able to gain empathy and understanding. Ily is so unlike me, I wouldn’t behave in the way she behaves, but maybe, if I was raised in the environment she was raised in, I would.

I’ve had a few people write me to tell me that they saw so much of themselves in Ily, and that they felt the same anger and hurt that she felt, and she really resonated with them. I totally get that some people might not connect with her, that they might even hate her. And that’s cool! I love Snape, but I get why people might hate him #slytherinpride. But the term ‘unlikeable’ is really problematic, because you’re saying to those people who saw themselves in Ily, and characters like Ily – girls with anger and flaws and messy, human complexities, that they’re unlikeable too.

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I’d really like to change the language around the way we speak about female protagonists. Yeah, lots of people don’t like lots of characters. And that’s ok! That’s more than ok! The world is a wonderful and diverse place and I LOVE THAT. But maybe, instead of saying a female character is ‘unlikeable’, just say ‘I, personally, didn’t like them’.

Because language affects the way people see themselves. Language can make girls feel like they have to hide parts of themselves, to hide their anger or their flaws, because those female characters that might resonate with those parts of themselves are described as ‘unlikeable’. It’s saying to impressionable girls who have normal human emotions and flaws that they’re fundamentally, innately, unable to be liked.. and that’s something I don’t like. At all.

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12 thoughts on “In defence of ‘unlikeable’ female characters

    1. The best thing is that all our teen selves always still live inside ourselves, so it’s always possible to give that person a hug even still, and kind of reflect on how everything turned out ok. I do it quite often! I’m so glad you liked the book, and that your teen self grew up into a strong woman. Thank you for commenting xx

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Great article, Megan! I love these characters because they express the angry side of me that hides away (most of the time!) – but also because they remind me of the tough girls at school. I admired them but was always too much a nerd to be friends – reading their fictionalised versions was like getting to know them 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks Carolyn! I agree, I adore the anti-heroes, and I was fascinated by the tough girls at school too – they were so bad ass! I love how, with reading and writing, you get to wear all these different skins and walk around all these different worlds without even leaving your room 🙂

    Like

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