Earlier in the week I reviewed Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion. It was one of those novels that I couldn’t help but feel had waited for me until it knew that it was the right time, that I was in the right head space. That I needed it.
But the truth is, the book had me riled before I even started reading. In his introductory essay, Something About Maria, David Thompson spends some time dwelling on the question of Maria, the protagonist of Play It As It Lays, and her likeability.
Even with no knowledge of her at that point, I could only engage with the debate in the form of some serious side eye.
Are we REALLY still talking about this?
FYI, this blog post is about gender equality in being shitty.
Let me explain myself.
When a male character acts like an asshole, but as the protagonist of the story we are drawn to him anyway, he is called an anti-hero. A Don Draper. Logan from Veronica Mars. Every male lead in every detective show ever. He’s awful, but sexy. Shitty, but funny. We want nothing more than to bury our heads inside of his chest in the hope we might find some answers in the heart beating there.
(But we never will. But we’ll never stop).
What we DON’T do is spend endless hours, think pieces, youtube videos (youtube comment sections) talking about whether he’s ‘likeable’.
Nah, only female characters get that treatment. Female characters like Maria.
Because, as a female lead character, she breaks the rules. She isn’t concerned with whether or not the reader ‘likes’ her. She isn’t quirky and relatable.
We don’t use anti-hero so much when talking about women. We have other words: Bitch. Crazy. Slut.
An anti-hero can be all these things. But in a female character? Rather than a study of human character we find it kind of… icky.
Alida Nugent talks about this a lot in her essays on feminism, You Don’t Have To Like Me. She writes that:
‘As women, we place a lot of stock into being liked. We are supposed to be liked, to be agreeable, to be demure. We aren’t supposed to be disruptive. Saying you’re a feminist means you want more. Women and Oliver Twist should never want more! It’s not ladylike (or orphanlike). We are supposed to be happy. Say yes. Nod Along.’
We aren’t supposed to be disruptive. I think that’s the central problem. When we encounter these women, these unlikeable women, something feels wrong.
Rather than engage, we turn away in the hope such action will put those women back in their boxes.
The truth is this: female characters don’t have to be likeable. They don’t owe that to you.
Women can be cute and smart and funny and dark and damaged and terrible. They can contain as many multitudes as a man.
And we should read about all of them.
So can we PLEASE stop discussing whether or not female characters are likeable? There are so many more interesting questions.