The Problem Isn’t Unlikable Female Characters, It’s Uninteresting Female Characters

Now, this is an interesting woman.
Now, this is an interesting woman. What’s not to like?

We’ve entered that special time of year, when Girls think pieces dominate websites and the supposed behavioral disorders of the show’s characters get debated in the comment sections of many an article. And there is something vaguely unsettling about all this, not least because, no, Shoshanna is not a sociopath with Asperger’s, but also because it means that the viewing public is trying to find a way to make sense of these complicated characters, and trying to make what is superficially unlikable, if not likable exactly, at least understandable.

Of course, all this talk about the relative likability of Girls characters is not a new phenomenon in television criticism, particularly when it comes to women. How many words have been written about the the relative merits of (or lack thereof) Betty Draper? Or Sansa Stark? Or Amy Jellicoe? Probably millions! Well, maybe not about Amy Jellicoe, because Enlightened was a criminally under-watched show, but definitely the other two. And television isn’t the only cultural medium where the issue of female likability is debated; the relative personal accessibility of women characters is a big issue in contemporary literature as well. Attacks have been made on writers like Lionel Shriver and Claire Messud for writing the kind of characters with whom a reader might not necessarily want to, I don’t know, go with to yoga class (Messud has responded to these critics by saying, “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble.”). And so earlier this month, Roxane Gay wrote “Not Here to Make Friends,” in which she seeks to defend unlikable women characters, saying, “I want characters to do bad things and get away with their misdeeds. I want characters to think ugly thoughts and make ugly decisions. I want characters to make mistakes and put themselves first without apologizing for it…I want characters to be the most honest of all things—human.” Gay hits on all the points that many creators of unlikable characters have said before, namely that no human is perfect (except, duh, Beyoncé who woke up like this) and so why would readers expect anything different from female characters in a book? Especially when literature has a tradition of celebrating works that feature loathsome male characters like Humbert Humbert, Raskalnikov, and Patrick Bateman.

But Gay doesn’t stop at explaining why unlikable female characters are important not only to her, but to the culture at large; she goes on to write, “Frankly, I find ‘good,’ purportedly likable characters, rather unbearable.” She then dismisses Elizabeth Wakefield in favor of Jessica Wakefield in the Sweet Valley High series, May Welland for Countess Olenska in The Age of Innocence, and Laura Ingalls for Nellie Olsen in Little House on the Prairie. All choices which make a certain amount of sense (except, of course, that it was Lila Fowler who was the most interesting person in Sweet Valley, not Jessica Wakefield), but also serve to dismiss a certain kind of woman whom Gay might think of as “likable,” but who just as easily could be called insipid or, well, boring. Because, well, nobody really likes Elizabeth Wakefield. And in the Little House books, the real dichotomy is not between Nellie and Laura, but between Laura and her perfect sister Mary. Laura’s a rugged tomboy who is constantly getting in trouble. Mary is the good two-shoes. And no one likes Mary until she goes blind! The issue of likability isn’t, as it turns out, even an issue at all. The issue is more about well-written and well-developed female characters who might not be relatable to readers or viewers on the level of wanting to be friends with them, but who are relatable as complex human beings. Which, complexity does not negate likability. Think of Lily Bart, another Wharton creation. Bart is incredibly complex and might be far from perfect and make mistake after mistake, but she is an incredibly sympathetic and, yes, likable character.

And, of course, for as many people who are defending artists’ right to make unlikable characters without acknowledging that it isn’t unlikablity of a character that make her interesting, there are also those who miss the point in the other direction. When Rebecca Mead profiled author Jennifer Weiner in the New Yorker, the issue of likability was raised with regards to Weiner’s protagonists, and Weiner (who has long been vocal about being left outside the rarified circle of the literary elite, despite having published books which have spent a combined “two hundred and forty-nine weeks on the Times best-seller list”) said that she felt that “‘likable’ had become the ‘new code word’ for fiction previously disparaged as chick lit.” While there is a certain amount of truth to this, in that “chick lit” is identified as having a certain type of ultra-relatable, kind of woman you want to go with to yoga protagonist, it’s disingenuous to pretend that it is the lack of meanness in these characters that is what causes them to be dismissed by the literary establishment. Rather it is that many of these likable female characters have narrative objectives that are all variations on the same theme, and that theme usually revolves around finding a man.

But so, Girls. The ongoing conversation of likability that surrounds Girls has grown only more heated as the show enters its third season and the four main female characters (and secondary male characters) become more and more developed. From the very first episode, viewers and critics questioned whether or not we were supposed to like these people, who did horrible things occasionally, like steal money from a hotel maid or marry an investment banker who wears a fedora. The likability conversation always steered clear of the point though, which is that, as we got to know these women better, many of their behaviors made more sense. Of course Hannah is juvenile and irresponsible, she’s suffered from a sometimes crippling psychological disorder that probably led to her parents cosseting her far longer than was good for her. And, of course Jessa has a hard time making personal attachments and always seeks out the approval of older men, she has major paternal abandonment issues and apparently no relationship with her mother. These two characters are complex and compelling partially because of their humanizing, unlikable traits, but not wholly because of them. It’s not dissimilar to how much more appealing Mad Men‘s Betty Draper became when she ceased to become the one-dimensional suburban mother that we thought she was and developed an inner life, complete with a back story of a distant, disapproving mother and domineering father. Yes, Betty can still be a terrible human being, but she is also recognizable as a human being.

In contrast to Hannah and Jessa and even Betty Draper, the characters of Marnie and Shoshanna are less fully realized and behave in a way that is sometimes incomprehensibly terrible. They’ve both lost the elements of their characters that used to be humanizing. Shoshanna is still a jejune, celebrity-obsessed millennial, but she no longer seems to have the sense of what she’d need to accomplish in order to achieve anything more for herself than the same drifting life that her friends have. And Marnie went from being a Type-A, shit-together, but still flailing person to one who does crappy things to everyone around her, but is still liked for being, well, pretty. This is not an issue of likability though, but rather one of whether or not these characters can remain interesting, because their lack of complexity has made them boring. And it’s particularly noticeable on a show where every other character is multi-faceted, and even when those facets don’t add up to equal anything particularly likable, they are at least complex, and therefore interesting. Because, really, that’s what’s important in any character—female or male—that they have enough complexity that they are recognizably human, and not just an emoji-using facsimile of one.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen



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