In Defense of Unlikable Women
June 1, 2016 11:52 AM   Subscribe

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. posted by Kitteh (94 comments total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
 


liz lemon? julia louis-dreyfus on veep?
posted by p3on at 11:59 AM on June 1, 2016 [2 favorites]


I had posted in that thread suggesting that Young Adult didn't gain traction because it was a bad movie.

I think there's a sympathy threshold for me where some acts and characters are hilarious/engaging and unlikable and others go too far. Selina Kyle is really funny to me, but Mavis's stalking and Ruth Wilson's dog murder in Luther make me uncomfortable.
posted by pxe2000 at 12:08 PM on June 1, 2016


I will say this for George R.R. Martin- he treats his female characters atrociously (and the TV series even moreso), but in Cersei Lannister, he has created one of the most compelling villains in fantasy literature. Lena Headey's portrayal is at least partly responsible (and her Ma-Ma in Dredd was also fantastic), but Cersei has become a character who, while thoroughly evil, is also believable, somewhat sympathetic, and has motivations that are at least partly relatable (other than the, you know, the whole sibling fucking thing).
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 12:11 PM on June 1, 2016 [13 favorites]


I'd say Liz Lemon and President Selena Meyer are more "flawed but likeable"

Skyler White on Breaking Bad, Cersei Lannister on Game of Thrones , and even Amy from Gone Girl seem like the sort of characters that would be rooted for more if they were men. Amy is totally like a Mark Millar anti-hero with a world-sized chip on her shoulder.
posted by JauntyFedora at 12:13 PM on June 1, 2016 [14 favorites]


If they abandon their spouses and children, they’d best end tragically, or make good.

Oh man, I was so angry when the protagonist in Ladder of Years went back to her husband and kids, instead of holding on to the beginnings of the life she'd made for herself.

In general, I prefer the unhappy/messed-up women protagonists, though I don't necessarily want them to end unhappily. I just don't want them to sink into sappy sweetness and lose what makes them interesting.
posted by emjaybee at 12:14 PM on June 1, 2016 [5 favorites]


Cersei is my favorite character.
posted by atoxyl at 12:17 PM on June 1, 2016 [5 favorites]


Lucille Bluth?
posted by wanderingmind at 12:17 PM on June 1, 2016 [23 favorites]


See also: most characters that Jane Krakowski has played.
posted by numaner at 12:18 PM on June 1, 2016 [3 favorites]


EDDY AND PATS
posted by bigstace at 12:19 PM on June 1, 2016 [21 favorites]


My hope is that this thread continues to become a longer list of characters who are awesome.
posted by ethansr at 12:20 PM on June 1, 2016 [9 favorites]


Baroness Elsa Schraeder from The Sound of Music! I've been obsessed with her since I was a little girl.
posted by mochapickle at 12:21 PM on June 1, 2016 [21 favorites]


I feel like there's something off about the thesis. It's true that (for example) Skyler White's worst tendencies make her unlikable to a lot of viewers. But I don't think Walter White is a role model to anyone who isn't sort of an asshole. Like, we may hold up flawed, narcissistic, arrogant men as role models more than we do similar women, but no one of any gender who has these attributes going on should be viewed as a role model. I agree that unlikability seems to be a cardinal sin for female characters and not male characters, but let's be clear about what that costs us. The cost is that we lose out on complex anti-heroines, not that women don't also get to be lionized jerkasses.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 12:25 PM on June 1, 2016 [6 favorites]


I agree that unlikability seems to be a cardinal sin for female characters and not male characters, but let's be clear about what that costs us.

Equality isn't when great women are lauded alongside great men -- equality is when flawed women aren't treated worse than flawed men.
posted by Etrigan at 12:31 PM on June 1, 2016 [51 favorites]


You could dig out The Last Seduction (1994), Linda Fiorentino's character is a bad 'un but will appeal I think.
posted by biffa at 12:31 PM on June 1, 2016 [10 favorites]


Hmmm...I found this reductive. I love difficult women, in fiction and in life. Women who are divas, or power-mad bosses, or revenge-driven Amazing Amys, or, like, evil queens (Anjelica Huston as the Grand High Witch; Patricia from Southern Charm).

But the feeling she describes of resentment, dislike, discomfort...I still have that. It's just about different women - women who devote their social awareness and privilege and abilities to gathering male attention, for example. The old coworker I had who followed our male boss around constantly to make sure he always had a pen. The Lean In crowd. An acquaintance who's always crying about her ex from 5 years ago. My friends who give their short-term boyfriends engagement ultimatums. Etc

For me the lesson is we feel free, still, to resent and blame women who do not fit our cultural boxes of what is acceptable. We police women's behavior. I may be policing very differently from, like, that asshole director who called out Kiera Knightly recently, or someone who is uncomfortable with Amy Schumer's comedy. But we still all feel this sense of ownership over women and women characters that is absent for men.

I guess I think there is a much more complicated, interesting essay in there somewhere. And, look, here I go policing another woman (the author)!
posted by sallybrown at 12:31 PM on June 1, 2016 [9 favorites]


Skyler should realistically be sympathetic but the telling of the story is kind of rigged for you to be on Walt's side until he goes too far. What's somewhat surprising is that a lot of people continued to root for Walt long after he'd clearly fucked everything up for everybody.
posted by atoxyl at 12:32 PM on June 1, 2016 [12 favorites]


Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada. I freaking love her. And pretty much every woman in Bridesmaids.
posted by the webmistress at 12:40 PM on June 1, 2016 [3 favorites]


It's a pretty gross double standard and the piece breaks it down nicely. One character that immediately came to mind for me is Lisbeth Salander (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). She's incredibly off-putting, does some pretty horrific things, and is written in sharp contrast to her amiable if depressive male counterpart, but is hugely and unambiguously sympathetic. I'm guessing the Swedish origin might have something to do with that though.
posted by OverlappingElvis at 12:43 PM on June 1, 2016 [11 favorites]


Lucille Bluth?

"I don't understand the question, and I won't respond to it."
posted by zombieflanders at 12:45 PM on June 1, 2016 [47 favorites]


I had posted in that thread suggesting that Young Adult didn't gain traction because it was a bad movie.

I would like to suggest that Sideways became popular in spite of it being a cliched garbage pile.

Young Adult grew on me in second watching, but "deeply flawed" character studies are usually just an artsy way to laugh at other people for being stupid useless idiots.
posted by Dmenet at 12:46 PM on June 1, 2016 [3 favorites]


Baroness Elsa Schraeder from The Sound of Music! I've been obsessed with her since I was a little girl.

Aside from the hilarious McSweeney's piece that I assume you've seen, I always felt that the Baroness dodged a bullet there. A big 'ol anti-birth-control, overly-controlling bullet.

A naive, sheltered barely-adult (fertile) girl was exactly the kind of woman the Captain would marry.
posted by emjaybee at 12:52 PM on June 1, 2016 [27 favorites]


I think with Hurley's work "we" doesn't mean "every reader." I suspect she means, "broadly generalized observations about communities of critics and fans." Not everyone hates Katniss Everdeen to use an example. But there's a remarkable number of critics and fans who hate-read Katniss Everdeen and tell everyone about how unlikable Katniss Everdeen is, instead of just moving on to the next book.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 12:54 PM on June 1, 2016 [1 favorite]


I've been re-watching House when I can't sleep, which is frequent. Gregory House is unkind, lies, cheats, steals, is an addict, and gets away with an absurd amount even for fiction. A female character anywhere near this would be stoned. with rocks. As a female person, I'm so fucking tired of dancing backwards, in stiletto heels, and still Fred gets all the credit. It's making me bitter as I recognize how deeply sexism is embedded in everything, everywhere. No wonder Mommy drinks.
posted by theora55 at 1:20 PM on June 1, 2016 [35 favorites]


The Amy Poehler story that Etrigan linked above is in my top 5 pop culture things I would like to see if I had a time machine and invisibility. (The rest involve the Match Game.)
posted by MCMikeNamara at 1:24 PM on June 1, 2016 [18 favorites]


II'd wager this depends entirely on screen time. Female characters are cheated of screen time, not just the villains.

It's true that Cersei is far more hypnotic than most male villains. And she gets plenty of internal monologue in the books. As a comparison, Littlefinger is a perfect storm of evil paired with boredom for zero hypnotic potential. And he gets no internal monologue in the books. You understand him through Sansa Stark's eyes and his actions towards her.

As soon as you give the female bad guy screen time then you get proper baddies : Sarah Michelle Gellar's Kathryn Merteuil was definitely hypnotic in Cruel Intentions. Helena Bonham Carter's Mrs. Lovett in Sweeny Todd. etc. A comment up thread about The Devil Wears Prada.

I like Katniss Everdeen just fine, but if you hate her then it's probably because you dislike the stories themselves. I dislike Harry Potter because I dislike the MacGuffin fest that makes up Rowling's work and I transpose that onto her main character. I'm fine with say Hermimie because she is not the nexus of all MacGuffin gifts. It's easy to dislike the Hunger Games for the same reason, including Katniss Everdeen, but I felt like the Hunger Games gave me some respite from the swarming MacGuffins.
posted by jeffburdges at 1:24 PM on June 1, 2016 [1 favorite]


Elaine Benes.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 1:24 PM on June 1, 2016 [3 favorites]


I don't know about HOUSE level unlikeable, but if you're interested in a show featuring multiple complex women (and men, but it's mostly about women) who are sometimes strong, sometimes weak, sometimes likable and sometimes not, try Happy Valley. It's on Netflix... only 12 episodes so far because BBC.
posted by Huck500 at 1:26 PM on June 1, 2016 [12 favorites]


I've tried to model my life after Aughra from the Dark Crystal.
posted by ikahime at 1:27 PM on June 1, 2016 [19 favorites]


If we're measuring these by Angry Beards and internet "beta" rage, then i'm totally throwing Captain Janeway into the mix.

She makes a lot of hard decisions, and holy crap do i remember the internet forum rage at the latter end of that show(and retrospectively at the early part).

A lot of hard decisions are made in the other shows in the series too, but i never remember them inciting that much impotent rage.
posted by emptythought at 1:27 PM on June 1, 2016 [7 favorites]


But Young Adult was much better than Sideways! I thought it was rather funny.
posted by mary8nne at 1:33 PM on June 1, 2016 [2 favorites]


A really big part of the reason people had an overblown hatred for Skyler White was that, for the first couple of seasons or so, her character was really badly written. She and Marie both were just fleshless caricatures of dull, provincial middle aged women. One-off, single episode characters got more back story than either of them did. They were both set up entirely as conflict objects, just there to screw things up for the relatable protagonist. I assume someone hired some more competent writers after that, because the writing improved later, but I guess the damage had already been done.

And I think that's a major factor in people hating female characters. There are a lot of formulaic stories featuring heterosexual male protagonists, so to add tension to a story, writers will just add some part where his wife or girlfriend interferes with his pursuit of his goal. That sort of story formula is set up to make people dislike female characters.

(Breaking Bad was extra weird, though, in the sheer volume of putative adult humans walking around in real life being legitimately mad at a television character.)

That doesn't take away from her premise, though. Women are held to much stricter standards than men are in general, and I'm sure that affects the way people respond to women in media as well.
posted by ernielundquist at 1:34 PM on June 1, 2016 [17 favorites]


Spotty-Handed Villainesses, from 1994.
posted by clew at 1:39 PM on June 1, 2016 [2 favorites]


I think story structures and expectations bind female characters. I write about these problems a lot, but I think the way we tell stories would give unusual and atypical female characters a chance to be better understood.
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 1:45 PM on June 1, 2016


On Curb Your Enthusiasm, Susie Green is supposed to be very unlikeable, but you would be too if you had to deal with your "fat-fuck husband and his four-eyed-fuck best friend (Very NSFW)." It's hard to say if she's really treated differently since so many people on the show are jerkasses and you kind of love/hate them. (Not unlike Larry David's other show, Seinfeld.) But I think she's popular with viewers, and she's my idol.

Skyler should realistically be sympathetic but the telling of the story is kind of rigged for you to be on Walt's side until he goes too far. What's somewhat surprising is that a lot of people continued to root for Walt long after he'd clearly fucked everything up for everybody.

She's almost an anti-Skylar, because Skylar should have been going full Susie on Walter's ass.
posted by Room 641-A at 1:48 PM on June 1, 2016 [4 favorites]


To expand on my Cersei fandom she works for me both as a "love to hate" scheming villain and a sympathetic, tragic villain. It's pretty rare to do both.
posted by atoxyl at 1:53 PM on June 1, 2016 [6 favorites]


A really big part of the reason people had an overblown hatred for Skyler White was that, for the first couple of seasons or so, her character was really badly written. She and Marie both were just fleshless caricatures of dull, provincial middle aged women. One-off, single episode characters got more back story than either of them did. They were both set up entirely as conflict objects, just there to screw things up for the relatable protagonist. I assume someone hired some more competent writers after that, because the writing improved later, but I guess the damage had already been done.

I've been called a huge misogynist for saying this. It totally became one of those things like the new ghostbusters where you either stridently defend her, or you're a bad guy.

I feel like she's one of the worst examples in all of this because of that though. Cersei, and almost all the others, were always compelling characters. Skyler was cardboard until midway through the show.
posted by emptythought at 2:05 PM on June 1, 2016 [7 favorites]


She put her finger on a glaring problem in fiction. And I think the underlying problem is that too often we confuse empathy with sympathy, in fiction (and in life). Empathy is just being able to recognize something human and true in a character, without having to approve or sympathize or elevate them to idols or heroes or "role models". They don’t have to be role models. Having all sorts of female characters including assholes only benefits the range of expression and individuality for women, for everyone, for our hugely varied and yet common humanity really.

if you're interested in a show featuring multiple complex women (and men, but it's mostly about women) who are sometimes strong, sometimes weak, sometimes likable and sometimes not, try Happy Valley

Yes, there seems to have been a series of varied and interesting female roles in British (and Nordic) tv series recently, especially in the police/crime genre, my favourite is Scott & Bailey, from the same writer as Happy Valley, same realistic style but different, more entertaining and less grim, they’re not exactly unlikeable or villainy women but one especially often does and says unlikeable things - imdb describes her as "emotionally immature", makes you wonder if they’d have used that description for the male character equivalent. And other less likeable minor characters in there are great too.

I like Katniss Everdeen just fine, but if you hate her then it's probably because you dislike the stories themselves.
Hmm I don’t know, I don’t hate personally, I enjoyed the movies but I can definitely see why the super strong + saintly female hero combination thing can get on people’s nerves after a while. At least super badass women like Jessica Jones or Lisbeth Salander are messier dirtier kind of rebels with a cause. But even they are still superheroes, literally or metaphorically, pulling impossible feats and fighting fearlessly against injustice and abuse, great fun and energizing but not that relatable to daily life. (And they’re not that unlikeable at all. They’re cool and sexy.)

I’m totally on board with wishing for more complex and varied and "unlikeable" female characters in general, and villains and caricatures too (and I think of characters like Mavis in Young Adult and Amy in Gone Girl as caricatures more than classic villains), but I’d be happier to see more of the realistic kind and more of the truly unpleasant kind too. The super strong sexy women trend can get a bit boring and limiting in itself.
posted by bitteschoen at 2:14 PM on June 1, 2016 [6 favorites]


This looks like an appropriate place to drop this The Last Airbender/Legend of Korra All Beifong All The Time vid to "Mama Said Knock You Out".

Because if we're talking grumpy unlikable women, we're talking Beifongs.
posted by Katemonkey at 2:15 PM on June 1, 2016 [15 favorites]


Speaking of Breaking Bad, Kim Wexler on Better Call Saul (Vince Gilligan's follow-up to Breaking Bad) is a great example of a flawed, but strong, confident woman who is not afraid to be disagreeable and tough and occasionally extra-legal and yet is highly respected and liked by everyone. I think viewers are just as captivated by, and invested in, her story as Saul or any other character.
posted by Room 641-A at 2:25 PM on June 1, 2016 [9 favorites]


She and Marie both were just fleshless caricatures of dull, provincial middle aged women.

"Provincial" may be a little unfair actually but yeah what I was getting at is that early on she's fundamentally given a stock, somewhat negative female role, whereas there's a lot of effort put into conveying how Walt is disappointed and downtrodden in life so even when he makes bad decisions you can sympathize. Later on they do try to get you to side with Skyler a little more. It would not be hard to write a show that sets up a character in her position as the protagonist from the beginning, the ordinary person who discovers that their mild-mannered spouse is secretly a drug kingpin. That's just a hero, not an anti-hero, and I can imagine a man or a woman in that role - though if it were a woman it would probably be seen as a show "for women." But what you definitely don't see are a lot of "nagging, boring husband of the female anti-hero" roles.
posted by atoxyl at 2:29 PM on June 1, 2016 [1 favorite]


Gregory House plows his car into his ex-ladyfriend's and boss's house at the end of the penultimate season, and apparently serves a short stay in prison or something for it. It was bizarre and horrifying. Then he goes off into the sunset with his best friend at the very end of the next and final season. But apparently few viewers paying attention then, except for people like me (and I backed out of almost all of the final season), who just wondered how the fuck the writers would get themselves out of this. They didn't.

Message: It was just a long-past-its-prime TV show that was somehow still being broadcast, that was still a weekly procedural, at least, and its writers were still picking up paychecks. The serial elements made no difference anymore. Maybe the writers were as depressed as the writer in "Young Adult," who knows?
posted by raysmj at 2:48 PM on June 1, 2016


For all the things that are tragically awful about The Big Bang Theory, I have a soft spot for supervillain Leslie "My Whiteboard Doesn't Have An Error On It" Winkle, whom the show could not quite bring itself to trash, but then gave up on writing. Dr. Mrs. Hofstader was great in her own way, too, until they decided to go for just the most wearisome cliched "harpy getting a divorce" storyline (why would you waste Christine Baranski and Judd Hirsch like that, why!!!).
posted by praemunire at 2:53 PM on June 1, 2016


See, this is why my favorite character on current television, by miles and miles, is Pam Poovey.

She's funny as hell, she's a pluricompitent badass, she's 100% comfortable in her unconventionally attractive skin, and while she cares about her people, she cares about herself more.

The only character who's even in the same league for me is Cookie Lyon.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 2:55 PM on June 1, 2016 [17 favorites]


Ctrl+F Scarlett O'Hara. ?? Leaving aside the problematic politics goddamn did I want to be her when I was little. The townspeople think she's a whore and a spoiled brat and a ruthless businesswoman? Even at 8 I could see she gave nary a fuck.
posted by billiebee at 2:57 PM on June 1, 2016 [9 favorites]


Susie Green isn't supposed to be unlikeable.
posted by michaelh at 3:08 PM on June 1, 2016 [1 favorite]


For me, Claire Underwood from House of Cards epitomizes the hypnotic, "unlikable" female character in television drama. Robin Wright (the actress who plays Underwood) recently demanded the same pay as Kevin Spacey for her role in the show and she deserves every penny of it. It's disappointing that there are people out there who think that she is less than deserving of equal pay. Kevin Spacey is a fantastic actor, but Robin Wright totally steals the show.
posted by TheCavorter at 3:12 PM on June 1, 2016 [11 favorites]


Bea Smith in Wentworth. She starts out fairly likable and then stuff happens and she gets more and more unlikable likable.

I'm so excited that season 4 is finally here. This show is well worth hunting down if you haven't seen it.

And ditto on Happy Valley. It's so good and the women characters in it are so damn refreshing to see on screen.
posted by Jalliah at 3:22 PM on June 1, 2016


Say what you will, there's no upside to calling out the asshole dudes. They just confuse things and use manipulative social tricks to turn it back around on you and make you out to be the asshole. But assholes are assholes. And we shouldn't be any more accepting of women being assholes than we are of men being assholes. We should stop celebrating assholes. It's the one thing we never get around to doing and there's always a million excuses for our favorite rascals but there have been shitty empires ruled over by women and they're no less shitty and no less empires. And I'd argue most of the toughness they're displaying is fundamentally no different than the kind of toughness feminism has rightly criticized in men as a product of male chauvinism and of a piece with what critics have historically criticized as patriarchy. It's a double standard to argue the traits we critique from a feminist perspective in men should be lauded when women adopt them. I respectfully disagree that there's anything laudable about anyone of any gender being a douche bro, though I can definitely understand that some people value the fighting spirit--and the mere desire to fight--more than I do. And there's no shame in doing what you have to to survive to a point. But I don't know. Feels like people are casting around for ways to give themselves moral wiggle room they won't grant others sometimes when these topics come up.
posted by saulgoodman at 4:39 PM on June 1, 2016 [3 favorites]


Liz Lemon is self deprecating and lacks confidence == unthreatening.

I'm thinking they mean the female equivalent of House - excellently skilled and callous.

Meryl Streep in Devil Wears Prada?
posted by St. Peepsburg at 4:44 PM on June 1, 2016 [2 favorites]


I think there's a grand tradition of the charismatic, magnetic, intelligent but evil and wildly unlikeable female character. There are tons of examples in this thread and I can think of many more off the top of my head: Bones from Bones, Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect is horrible to everyone, Gillian Andersons character in The Fall (I really dislike that character so much but she's compelling), the main character in Revenge is a straight up psycho, Eva Green's character on Penny Dreadful, Ruby from Supernatural, Miranda from the Devil Loves Prada, everyone on Sex and the City etc etc
posted by fshgrl at 5:01 PM on June 1, 2016 [5 favorites]


Speaking as someone whose favourite Mad Men character is PBetty Draper, I can't believe that the legitimately terrible Skyler White has become the face of unjustly maligned female characters. It's like they were so busy delicately tweaking and tuning Walter's character they forgot to make everyone else not completely unbearable. I guess I enjoyed Breaking Bad at the time, but when I think about basically any of the characters, I just don't understand why they weren't... better? Like, Marie and Hank? Were we seriously asked to sympathise with that pair of grating clowns?
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 5:01 PM on June 1, 2016 [3 favorites]


So here is where I tell everyone they have time to watch season 1 of Unreal before season 2 starts Monday.
posted by jeather at 5:03 PM on June 1, 2016 [6 favorites]


I like Katniss Everdeen just fine, but if you hate her then it's probably because you dislike the stories themselves.

I don't know about that. Some of the character hate is almost as if the character stepped out of the page/screen and personally pissed in the fan's cheerios.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 5:08 PM on June 1, 2016


The kind of people who write angry online screeds aren't representative though. They are the very visible yet crazy .05%
posted by fshgrl at 5:20 PM on June 1, 2016 [3 favorites]


You bring up an interesting point about celebrating assholes, saulgoodman, and I think it's something that a lot of people are unconscious of. But I don't have to like or identify with characters to enjoy a story. In fact, I often prefer stories about people I don't relate to initially.

And I don't seek out media with moral instruction, usually, either. I am A-OK with well crafted fiction about even heavily flawed characters, and with stories where nobody learns a lesson, becomes a better person, or gets their comeuppance. In fact, sometimes it strikes me as extra grim when media for adults depends so heavily on just world fantasies.

I haven't seen a lot of the shows people are talking about here, but in my experience, I'm mostly bothered by female characters not because they're flawed, but, like Skyler and Maria on Breaking Bad, because they're implausible and poorly written. That "Walt Jr. is on pot!" thing was so ridiculous I stopped watching for quite a while and had to be convinced to go back and watch the show again later.

(BTW, I also thought Betty Draper was a well written, sympathetic character, maybe the best written character and the most trenchant story arc on Mad Men.)
posted by ernielundquist at 5:38 PM on June 1, 2016 [1 favorite]


Wait - Is it a "forthcoming" book if I bought it in Barnes & Noble yesterday?
posted by Peach at 5:42 PM on June 1, 2016



If we're measuring these by Angry Beards and internet "beta" rage, then i'm totally throwing Captain Janeway into the mix.

She makes a lot of hard decisions, and holy crap do i remember the internet forum rage at the latter end of that show(and retrospectively at the early part).

A lot of hard decisions are made in the other shows in the series too, but i never remember them inciting that much impotent rage.


I think more of the problem with Janeway was that she was in a show that was overall poorly written. Voyager was a tell, not show storytelling mess, and that wiped off onto her. Compare her with Kira from DS9 who had some serious hard decision episodes that dealt with lots of personal compromises. Kira was a much more successful for a lot of reason, both in writing and acting. I don't know if that's any easier to swallow thing because she wasn't the captain but bad writing was a big problem in voyager.

Trek isn't great at female characters overall, I'd venture to say that only DS9 did any of it's main female leads justice. I'm really hoping that the new series has some high ranking deep female characters. Anything to get us away from the real gross male gaze shit that was the entirety of Enterprise.
posted by Ferreous at 5:58 PM on June 1, 2016 [3 favorites]


I'm not sure the evil "fun to hate" super-villain female characters are really great counter-examples, because they're playing right into the Wicked Witch/bitch trope, which is certainly well-established for women. I'm fairly sure the Claire Messud quotation was about The Emperor's Children (based on the fact that that the only novel of hers I've read, and I recognized the quotation, which means it was either in the book-club propaganda at the end of the novel or I looked up reviews after finishing it), and the characters weren't love-to-hate. They were awful, but they were awful in exactly the same way as many regular human beings are awful, and they were awful in a way that men often are in literature and women aren't, and they were also fully realized characters written sympathetically. Lionel Shriver's We Need To Talk About Kevin also comes to mind -- the criticism I've read on that one was very much along the lines of "She didn't act exactly as I would in that situation, so I couldn't sympathize" -- and definitely Gone Girl.

I actually see that from readers a lot, that the female protagonist didn't act in the societally sanctioned way the reader thinks she herself would act, so the book must not be any good. I don't see that as often about male protagonists.
posted by lazuli at 9:09 PM on June 1, 2016 [4 favorites]


The Women are Wonderful effect.
posted by Sebmojo at 9:30 PM on June 1, 2016


I'm thinking they mean the female equivalent of House - excellently skilled and callous.

She's not as stupidly over-the-top as House (the way his shenanigans went increasingly bullshit was the main reason I stopped watching that show) but Nurse Jackie had some of the same dynamics. Unethical/barely ethical but extremely competent medical professional handling a crazy job.

I liked the article, but I'm liking even more all the examples appearing in this thread of counterexamples.
posted by AdamCSnider at 9:34 PM on June 1, 2016 [3 favorites]


They were awful, but they were awful in exactly the same way as many regular human beings are awful, and they were awful in a way that men often are in literature and women aren't, and they were also fully realized characters written sympathetically.

The characters in The Emperor's Children (except for the protagonist's boyfriend) weren't awful so much as deeply, deeply mediocre in a way that the author doesn't seem to have intended. Now, thinking your characters are infinitely cooler and smarter than they actually are does tend to be the province of male authors writing about male characters, but that particular form of equality I could live without.
posted by praemunire at 9:58 PM on June 1, 2016


But assholes are assholes. And we shouldn't be any more accepting of women being assholes than we are of men being assholes. We should stop celebrating assholes.

But we’re talking fiction, and the point the article is trying to make is not that crass really.
Admittedly, there is a bit of potential confusion in speaking of characters as heroes and leaders, but I’m reading the general argument of the article/excerpt in a more neutral way, for more variety, rather than for acceptance as in absolute endorsement. Assholes, villains, and all degrees of flawed and complex and unconventional and possibly unlikeable characters are not just more entertaining and interesting to read about or watch, they do serve deeper functions in terms of broadening the scope of what we can comprehend as human, not necessarily celebrate or endorse or cheer or unquestionably approve.

The point is not that fiction should have more female assholes to celebrate as inspiring role models for real life. It’s the other way round, fiction should be representing and exploring more of the variety of human character traits and behaviours, including flawed and unlikeable ones, regardless of gender...

She’s talking of characters that can be "drunken, frumpy losers", with an "inability to connect to others", "deeply flawed ", "smoke too much and can’t hold down a steady relationship", with "occasional bouts of selfish whim", not "someone the reader wants to be friends with", "flawed and complex", "arrogant, self-absorbed, narcissistic", etc. – are those traits that only men have? Anyone can be any of those things in any moment in their lives. But we do "read the same behaviors so differently based on the presented sex of the person engaging in them", there are double standards even for non-asshole characters who are simply showing some human flaws, audiences and readers are biased to be less understanding towards flawed and unlikeable female characters, and that’s a restrictive view of fiction, and in turn a restrictive view of actual real life.

The two realms are distinct - because it can indeed be great to enjoy reading or watching the story of a character we wouldn’t exactly want to be friends with in real life! - but they also intersect, because narrowing the scope of what you’re exposed to in fiction and literature means having narrower and more rigid expectations about real humans too.
posted by bitteschoen at 10:18 PM on June 1, 2016 [3 favorites]


I'm fairly sure the Claire Messud quotation was about The Emperor's Children

It was actually from a Publisher's Weekly interview about The Woman Upstairs. It inspired me to read the book, which I found pretty disappointing. With all the talk of the anger and sense of betrayal of the middle aged woman I suppose I was expecting something more like the "cool girl" rant in Gone Girl, a pissed off woman letting loose on all the bullshit. Messud's protagonist was just a bit pathetic and dissatisfied and uncharming, rather like the male characters some male authors feel perfectly entitled to write about even though it's hard to see why they'd ever bother. Which is fine, but that sort of thing is exactly why I'm selective about books by male authors.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 10:30 PM on June 1, 2016


A really big part of the reason people had an overblown hatred for Skyler White was that, for the first couple of seasons or so, her character was really badly written. She and Marie both were just fleshless caricatures of dull, provincial middle aged women.

See, I never got the Skyler hate because I felt I got where she was coming from very early into the show. Everything seems to be going pretty steady, she's happy, her family's happy, and then suddenly her husband starts acting weird and secretive and crazy, followed by dropping the bomb that he's dying from cancer and he's been hiding the news from her. But instead of that clearing the air, he gets progressively more and more deceptive, erratic, selfish, and alienating. We see all the reasons behind his behavior, but from her point of view he's turned into a manipulative jackass. I'd be flipping out all the time too. I didn't always agree with the specific ways she reacted or how she dealt with the situation, but I understood the source of those emotions.

My biggest issue with Skyler-haters was with the type who seemed to believe she was an evil bitch for not sitting at home and playing the dutiful, infinitely patient dollwife who put up with whatever bullshit Walt threw at her. Sometimes it felt like a viewer's feelings about her were a Rorschach test for whether they were able to empathize with women, period.

However, I am also the type of person who spent the entirety of Ferris Bueller's Day Off hating Ferris and sympathizing with Jeanie, so whatever personality trait that indicates no doubt influences my opinion of Skyler too.
posted by schroedinger at 12:20 AM on June 2, 2016 [13 favorites]


It's always interesting to read that the guy from House is a 'likeable' unlikeable male, as I have this violent urge to reach into my tv screen and slap the smirk off his face whenever I see him - and I'm not a violent person.

Female heroes must act the part of the dutiful Wendy, while male heroes get to be Peter Pan.

I understand the point the author is making, but her example makes the geek in me sad. In the original Pan tries to turn Wendy into the "mother" of the Lost Boys ... but it's a creepy moment and the climactic scene is Wendy realizing this, rescuing her brothers, and escaping from Peter Pan.
posted by kanewai at 12:41 AM on June 2, 2016 [3 favorites]


Starbuck! Perhaps it's saying something that she is "confident, even arrogant, self-absorbed, narcissistic" and that she was in a science fiction show.
posted by naturesgreatestmiracle at 2:21 AM on June 2, 2016 [1 favorite]


A lot of the dynamics around Kira from DS9 are really fascinating, especially when it comes to Dukat.
I have read that from the very start Marc Alaimo (Gul Dukat) had decided that he was playing the hero of the piece, regardless of what the writers gave him, he was playing it like he was the hero.
Nana Visitor (Kira Nerys) conversely decided that Gul Dukat was literally Space Hitler to her, and played it that way.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 3:03 AM on June 2, 2016 [2 favorites]


I finally watched all the seasons of Gilmore Girls with my eldest daughter last year, and we bonded on absolutely loving Paris Geller. I mean, Paris is not a villain by any means but she is abrasive, fiercely competitive, ambitious and blunt, and one of the things I liked about the whole show was that the narrative wasn't structured around punishing her for that (even though it did cause her friction with other people). Her character wasn't brought down to her knees, softened up, mellowed down, and she wasn't made to learn to be nurturing and sweet. She didn't remain just an anti-Rory/foil/competitor/high school enemy either (which seemed to be the original set-up), but became her abrasive, competitive, ambitious and blunt friend. And we cheered her on and celebrated her every success.

My kid's 13, and we talked a lot about Paris and Rory, and it felt a lot like talking about what you're allowed to be like as a girl and woman, and what sort of sacrifices you're sometimes asked to make in order to be still considered loveable. I think it was really good for both of us.
posted by sively at 3:39 AM on June 2, 2016 [11 favorites]


Oh and guys, my all time favourite confident, single-minded, fearless, relentless and very difficult main character is Sarah Lund, from the original Danish version of The Killing. Seriously, I'm always telling people to watch the first season on Netflix (it's 20 great episodes long!) and it seems like nobody ever does - but really, if you want a female version of the hard-ass detective, who's also really good at what they do, doesn't give a flying fuck about anyone's opinions of her or whether she rubs people the wrong way, that's Sarah Lund. And she's nevertheless no villain or bad person, just dogged and flawed and a bit monomaniacal. And great.

I once read that the writers had decided to give her a romantic subplot just to please the viewers, and the actress (Sofie Grabol) stormed their office and declared: "I am Clint Eastwood! He doesn't have a girlfriend!" ...The romance got promptly deleted.

(Also, Sarah Lund wears wonderful Nordic woolly jumpers that look so warm, practical and comfortable that before you realize, you'll start to ask yourself if you might be able to learn to knit after all.)

So, how about a Harridans Club on fanfare?
posted by sively at 4:15 AM on June 2, 2016 [8 favorites]


I would like to suggest that Sideways became popular in spite of it being a cliched garbage pile.

Thank goodness, I thought I was the only one with that opinion.

I too am a big fan of Cersei in the love-to-hate plus sympathise with category. I was suspicious of Walter White from day 1 (reminded me of someone I know), and although Skylar wasn't well written at first I was still sympathetic towards her, esp after Walt's secrecy over his ex in season one. By the end I loved how she was written and played - she didn't grow to heights of heroism, she became bitter and determined. More realistic, if not a good example for the kiddies.

Another difficult woman I've loved is Nikki in Big Love. She is uptight and self-righteous and brave and competent in ways the other wives couldn't dream of. And by the end, when she's come to understand how much damage her family has done to her, she tries to be Nice for a little while. Finally she confesses to Barb that she just isn't a very nice person, that she will always be mean and narrow. And Barb hugs her and says that she knows, and it's okay, which is one of the things that makes Barb a nice person. She accepts people as they are. And we end with Nikki still being stern and strict Nikki, but putting her talents to use without any men around to get in her way.
posted by harriet vane at 5:01 AM on June 2, 2016 [2 favorites]


I'm thinking a lot about Cameron from Halt + Catch Fire right now. She's depicted as a tortured programming genius who's never gotten a break and suffers from anxiety. She's also socially awkward to the point that some in the fanbase have speculated that she's on the spectrum. At the same time, she's done some straight-up, cold blooded sociopathic shit, and one plot arc in the second season goes far beyond what I would normally find sympathetic in a character, male or female. I have a lot of sympathy with her because I pulled similar shenanigans when I was in my early 20s, and I recognize the thought process of a person who hasn't been treated for mental illness. At the same time, I'm terrified for Season 3 because I can see how the writers could turn her into a stereotypical "crazy bitch". Her more reprehensible acts haven't been put in the context of her mental illness. Yet.
posted by pxe2000 at 5:23 AM on June 2, 2016


The characters in The Emperor's Children (except for the protagonist's boyfriend) weren't awful so much as deeply, deeply mediocre in a way that the author doesn't seem to have intended.

I got the impression it was fully intentional, which is why I found it interesting.

It was actually from a Publisher's Weekly interview about The Woman Upstairs. It inspired me to read the book, which I found pretty disappointing. With all the talk of the anger and sense of betrayal of the middle aged woman I suppose I was expecting something more like the "cool girl" rant in Gone Girl, a pissed off woman letting loose on all the bullshit. Messud's protagonist was just a bit pathetic and dissatisfied and uncharming, rather like the male characters some male authors feel perfectly entitled to write about even though it's hard to see why they'd ever bother. Which is fine, but that sort of thing is exactly why I'm selective about books by male authors.

Thanks for the correction! And I think what you're saying is exactly what I was trying to get at -- "pathetic and dissatisfied and uncharming" vs. righteously angry. I think it is getting way more common to appreciate "righteously angry" bad-ass female characters, because they can still be aspirational, because they're fighting against patriarchal strictures. There are ways in which "pathetic and dissatisfied and uncharming" female characters are often more true to life, and can be more worth exploring, but I think are much more actually hated by readers.
posted by lazuli at 6:30 AM on June 2, 2016 [3 favorites]


ABBI AND ILANA MOTHERFUCKERS!
posted by Joseph Gurl at 6:57 AM on June 2, 2016 [3 favorites]


4 eva !
posted by Joseph Gurl at 7:02 AM on June 2, 2016 [1 favorite]


For me, Claire Underwood from House of Cards epitomizes the hypnotic, "unlikable" female character in television drama.

What I really like about HoC is how fans respond to Frank and Claire respectively, especially as they are written as more or less analogues of one another. In my own strictly anecdotal findings, Frank is adored as being entertainingly wicked, sexy, even fun, no matter what horrible stuff he does. With Claire, by contrast, all the negative superlatives get brought up with far greater frequency: evil, cold, inhuman, unfeeling, and so on. Granted, Claire isn't making homespun asides to the camera, but I think the contrast is still pretty telling.
posted by Aya Hirano on the Astral Plane at 7:42 AM on June 2, 2016 [2 favorites]


Evil Queen Regina!!!!!
posted by Jacqueline at 7:48 AM on June 2, 2016


“A fall-down drunk who’s terrible with relationships and makes some selfish, questionable choices goes in search of love, and fails at it.”
Also, isn't this sort of the plot of Jessica Jones?
posted by Jacqueline at 7:53 AM on June 2, 2016 [3 favorites]


In my own strictly anecdotal findings, Frank is adored as being entertainingly wicked, sexy, even fun, no matter what horrible stuff he does. With Claire, by contrast, all the negative superlatives get brought up with far greater frequency: evil, cold, inhuman, unfeeling, and so on. Granted, Claire isn't making homespun asides to the camera, but I think the contrast is still pretty telling.

Yes! And I think this goes straight to the author's point that there exists this underlying assumption that a woman's "presence should be redeeming. Women should know better." The audience can more easily dismiss or excuse Frank's shitty actions as a result of him being some sort of raging narcissist incapable of empathy, whereas with Claire, the audience is biased towards expecting her to possess the capacity to empathize. When Claire fails to meet those expectations, she is then judged much more harshly than Frank. Either she does know better and chooses otherwise (in which case she is more "evil" than Frank in some way) or else she doesn't know better and then is perceived as more evil based on her deviating more from expected/perceived gender norms.
posted by TheCavorter at 8:27 AM on June 2, 2016 [2 favorites]


See, this is why my favorite character on current television, by miles and miles, is Pam Poovey.

HOLY SHITSNACKS, YES!

Maybe they can get away with more on that show because it's animated, but I think they do a pretty good job of making all their female characters as flawed, yet compelling and interesting to watch, as their male counterparts.

I mean, Mallory is probably the worst mother and grandmother on TV (aside from obvious villains who get their comeuppance in the end), ethically and morally... interesting, selfish, emotionally distant, and manipulative - but damned if you could help rooting and cheering for her when she singlehandedly got out of her handcuffs, busted out of an underground bunker and carjacked a passing semi back to town.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:59 AM on June 2, 2016 [8 favorites]


ABBI AND ILANA MOTHERFUCKERS!

Nah, there's Seinfeld/It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia sitcom unlikable, and prestige serial drama unlikable.
posted by Apocryphon at 10:23 AM on June 2, 2016


See, I never got the Skyler hate because I felt I got where she was coming from very early into the show

I watched the show after all the furor had died down, and this was precisely the experience I had. My joke-synopsis of the show (which turned out to be pretty accurate at the end) was that Breaking Bad was the story of two sisters and the horrifically self-destructive men they surrounded themselves with. Walt was pretty clearly villainous to me from early on in Season 2, and Skyler was someone who went from a dupe to a survivor-at-all-costs, and it wasn't until she finally threw her lot in with Walt (and especially when she conspired with him to fuck over Marie and Hank) that she lost my goodwill. The fact she had "haters" before... Season 4 or 5? mystified me.
posted by psoas at 11:51 AM on June 2, 2016 [1 favorite]


I think about this in the context of October Daye, the protagonist of Seanan McGuire's Rosemary and Rue series. McGuire told a story once through one of the media I've enjoyed of hers that there was a scene in the second or third book where her beta readers objected; McGuire asked them if they would have objected if Toby had been male, and the moment stayed in. I think I know which moment it is, too - it's when the Love Interest shows up to help and is all but dismissed immediately because there's too much going on, something which would pass without notice if the protagonist was male and the love interest female, but which really stands out with those genders reversed.

Internalized misogyny can be such an issue, too. When I'm interacting with women (real and fictional) I often think about my assumptions and reactions and how those play into how I think women (and myself) should be. One of the advantages to stories is that it's a place where we can rewrite our assumptions about ourselves.
posted by Deoridhe at 4:24 PM on June 2, 2016 [2 favorites]


(Also can we talk about The Opposite of Sex? Breaking the rules in so many other ways - the main character disappears for almost an hour in the middle of the story - but truly, when Christina Ricci's beginning voiceover says, "I don't have a heart of gold, and I don't grown one later" it's pretty cool to see she means it.)
posted by psoas at 5:36 PM on June 2, 2016 [1 favorite]


I mean, Mallory is probably the worst mother and grandmother on TV

And Lucille Bluth was even worse. I think Mallory loves her son but Lucille didn't really care for GOB.
posted by Room 641-A at 6:09 PM on June 2, 2016 [2 favorites]


Nah, there's Seinfeld/It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia sitcom unlikable, and prestige serial drama unlikable.

I don't know what this here means.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 6:26 PM on June 2, 2016


I think Mallory loves her son but Lucille didn't really care for GOB.

Mallory loves Archer to the exact extent that he reflects herself (or at least, the way she thinks of herself) -- recall that his middle name is "Mallory". Lucille at least has the capability to understand that GOB is as loathsome as she is and react to that, if only subconsciously.

So it's more or less a tie as to who's worse.
posted by Etrigan at 6:41 PM on June 2, 2016 [2 favorites]


Heard this on the drive home and thought of this thread:

Women Held To Higher Ethical Standard Than Men, Study Shows
VEDANTAM: We do have some evidence this happens in real life. The researchers went back to McDonnell's interest in the law. They tracked down disciplinary punishments handed out by the American Bar Association, Ari. They analyzed 500 cases in 33 states where a lawyer was pulled up before the Bar Association. The association has very detailed rules and codes of conduct, and during these cases, attorneys are charged with very, very specific violations.

So pooling money assigned to one client with money assigned to another client is one violation. Sleeping with a client would be another kind of violation. The researchers then analyzed the punishments handed down to lawyers who had committed identical infractions, and the punishments could be anything from an admonishment to suspension to disbarment. Here's McDonnell.

MCDONNELL: Women had a 35 percent chance of being disbarred in any given case, and men had a 17 percent chance. So that suggests that females had a 106 percent higher likelihood of being disbarred than males.

SHAPIRO: Shankar, this sounds really disheartening - that women are going to be punished more severely for the same offenses as men.

VEDANTAM: I think that's right, Ari. And it really speaks to this larger implication that even though it can seem that a positive stereotype can only have positive effects, this isn't the case. Sometimes when you put a group on a pedestal and say women in general are likely to be more ethical than the men, it can produce unintended consequences.
posted by lazuli at 8:22 PM on June 2, 2016 [11 favorites]


Here’s an interesting reference to research on stereotypes in fiction that I stumbled on in an article about a tv series:
Research conducted by social scientists in the 1990s in the US examined how exposure to fictional portrayals of both stereotypes and counter-stereotypes influenced how credibly a study group of 400 students believed real and high-profile cases then in the news.

"[Exposure] to a stereotypic portrayal of a female," wrote researcher Sheila Murphy in The Impact of Factual Versus Fictional Media Portrayals on Cultural Stereotypes, "led individuals to doubt the credibility of Anita Hill (the woman who accused supreme court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment) and Patricia Bowman (the woman who accused William Kennedy Smith of rape), whereas exposure to a counter-stereotypical portrayal increased the perceived credibility of these women".
Here’s the abstract of that study (and the full text in PDF), another interesting bit:
...men were equally harsh in the wake of a stereotypic female portrayal regardless of whether they believed it to be factual or fictitious. Moreover, men tended to discount a fictitious counterstereotypic portrayal of a female, whereas women were more likely to dismiss a fictitious stereotypic portrayal.
And interesting conclusions/recommendations too, these seem especially relevant here:
2. Avoid the temptation to focus on the so-called positive elements of racial and gender stereotypes.
...Well-meaning individuals sometimes attempt to combat racism and sexism by drawing attention to the so-called positive elements of cultural stereotypes. It is important to realize that these elements comfortably coexist with their more negative counterparts. For instance, suggesting that women are nurturing is not incompatible with women also being overemotional. ... Consequently, attempting to cast a particular group in a more favorable light by focusing on the so-called positive elements of a cultural stereotype may do more harm than good by making accessible (Tversky and Kahneman 1973) and lending credence to the overall stereotype.

4. Avoid counterstereotypic exemplars that are too atypical.
... For instance, a study by Murphy and Power (1997) evaluated the impact of a television series titled Discovering Women that profiled successful women scientists. They found that the more impressive the achievements of the woman featured, the less likely audience members were to consider her a typical woman. This perceived atypicality had a dramatic impact on the extent to which audience members felt that the female scientist's accomplishments could be replicated by another woman. In short, extremely atypical or deviant examples may be excluded from the relevant category and have no impact on the cultural stereotype or, worse yet, provoke boomerang effects that bolster the very stereotype they violate.
(that’s pretty much the problem I have with the super badass/superhero female characters)
posted by bitteschoen at 12:53 AM on June 3, 2016 [6 favorites]


  Also can we talk about The Opposite of Sex?

Yes, we should. It also featured Lisa Kudrow doing her utmost to expunge the ditziness charm of Friends as the mean, uptight but also very lonely Lucia.
posted by scruss at 3:30 PM on June 5, 2016


Oh, I didn't even think of her! It's interesting, though: Dede and Lucia are both unlikable to some degree, but Lucia feels more sympathetic in a way I can't really articulate... I guess because she tries to be a Good Person, no matter how exasperated she feels.
posted by psoas at 12:58 PM on June 6, 2016


It's always interesting to read that the guy from House is a 'likeable' unlikeable male

People like House? He's a complete dick. If he was my doctor I'd walk out. I think that whole show is an interesting commentary on the medical profession and other professions where people are forced to put up with complete dicks.
posted by fshgrl at 6:12 PM on June 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


House is a funny jerk. Cynicism and snark galore, and the writers feed him great lines that he delivers with charisma.

But yeah, he's an antihero.

I feel a bit similarly about Ilana from Broad City--she's a trainwreck who fucks over her coworkers and lots of other people, but she's also super charismatic and awesome.

They're both the kind of people I'd be "arm's length" friends with--hang out in specific contexts but not get too close to.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 8:20 PM on June 6, 2016


  Lucia … tries to be a Good Person

Her intentions may be good, but her outcomes are pretty terrible and she doesn't seem particularly inclined to change the way she works.
posted by scruss at 11:28 AM on June 7, 2016


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