Unlikeable Women Matter
A few weeks ago, I was Skyping with a friend from high school and she told me she had recently watched the film Lady Bird (2017) with a few people in her dorm. If you haven't seen the film, it's a coming of age story starring Saoirse Ronan written and directed by Greta Gerwig. Ronan portrays a teenage girl nicknamed Lady Bird who's finishing up her senior year of high school in Sacramento, California. The film's pivotal points all revolve around conflicts between Lady Bird and her mother (played by Laurie Metcalf), as the two leading women don't see eye to eye on where Lady Bird's future should take her. I asked my friend if the people in her dorm liked it, and she mentioned that although one of her friends enjoyed it, he hated the mother figure. She and I both found this bizarre, since we never really viewed her as a particularly despicable character. As we got to talking, we both realized how few men we knew who actually liked the movie, and we wondered why.
In retrospect, it's not necessarily hard to understand why certain people in our lives didn't enjoy the movie. None of the female characters are especially likeable and they're not supposed to be. Their real, human weaknesses aren't concealed and they're given the space to be flawed. Lady Bird herself is extremely selfish and inconsiderate, but the film does nothing to disguise it as a cute quirk or a little flaw in her otherwise perfect character. It simply gives her room to exist as a real teenage girl. Similarly, her mother is cold, critical, and aloof: she picks apart her daughter's flaws and doesn't shy away from piercing remarks. Though she's also kind and thoughtful, her character's qualities don't compensate for her shortcomings. Rather, she's a balance of both good and bad, just like everyone else.
This kind of accurate female representation is so rare in media, which is why I think certain audiences may react negatively to unlikeable women. Zooey Deschanel's Jessica Day in the series New Girl, for instance, cares too much and anxiously overthinks everything, but these flaws only exist as fun quirks rather than simple human weaknesses. In Parks and Recreation, Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope is a surprisingly well-rounded character, but the series still doesn't allow her much room for failure or even sulking. Both of these characters are well-loved, in part because the writers don't give them much nuance regarding their personalities. Admittedly, lighthearted sitcoms aren't going to work out the complexities of their characters as much as a coming of age movie about identity, but I still think it's a valid comparison considering how pervasive both forms of media are in pop culture. Essentially, female characters whose qualities and quirks completely compensate for their flaws are considered "likeable," whereas well-rounded female characters who exhibit a balance of weaknesses and strengths can prevent certain audiences from enjoying the content altogether.
Why does likeability matter to audiences? Personally, I believe that writers who make women characters likeable do so to shut out their characters' flaws and make them more digestible, whether knowingly or unknowingly. Many audiences have a hard time relating to women who are more complex simply because they're not used to watching women act on their anger, passion, or impulses. These real human emotions are then dismissed as "unlikeable" when they appear in women, which is why many people (specifically men in my own experience) may reject the women of Lady Bird or other movies with questionable female roles (Gone Girl comes to mind, although it's a more extreme example). The traits that make a woman unlikeable are the same traits that make a man complex and nuanced, and I think that explains our discomfort with women who are as troubling as they are wholesome. If Mad Men's mysterious, conniving, and ambitious Don Draper were a woman, viewers would immediately pick apart his negative attributes rather than appreciating the complexity of his character.
This double standard leads me to my final point: women don't need to be likeable or even relatable in order to be worthy of representation. So many funny, touching, or infuriating moments in Lady Bird happen because Greta Gerwig grants her female characters the space to be selfish, bitter, or just sad. Perhaps you don't like Lady Bird's self-absorption, but this trait gives the film heart and humor, like when she confidently announces to a guidance counselor that she wants to apply to Ivy League colleges only to be scoffed at. The childish conflict between her and her best friend also gives us the wholesome, vulnerably innocent scene where they make up and get ready for their senior prom. Lady Bird's mother's nuanced complexity is revealed through the contrast between her kindness toward the patients she cares for as a nurse and her harsh judgments of her daughter. The spirit of the film comes to life through different characters learning to navigate other people's flaws all while confronting their own, which simply wouldn't be possible without Gerwig's insistence on writing human women instead of likeable women.
Ultimately, I find likeable female characters fun and enjoyable like anyone would, but writers often stop short of finding a balance between flaws and strengths. This is unfortunate, because there's so much potential for humor, anger, or even passion in so many female characters that are too often ignored or set aside. The lack of unlikeable women in media likely explains why many men in my life and my friend's had a hard time engaging with Lady Bird, and that's a problem. I think it's time for TV writers and filmmakers to rise to Greta Gerwig's level and make unlikeable, human women visible.