In a world where female characters are often one-dimensional props that add to a narrative centered around male characters, complex female characters are pretty revolutionary. What’s even more revolutionary is when these female characters aren’t super palatable and likable.
I think unpalatable non-binary characters would also be pretty revolutionary, but since non-binary representation is few and far between, I’m only going to speak about female characters – for now.
‘Dislikeable’ female characters force us to ask ourselves why we don’t like them. More often than not, dislikeable female characters unpack potentially problematic beliefs in ourselves. This introspection is valuable because it makes us realize whether we have attitudes or actions that we need to change.More often than not, dislikeable female characters unpack potentially problematic beliefs in ourselves. Click To Tweet
When I first watched Thirteen, for example, I couldn’t stand Tracy and Evie because they engaged in a lot of self-destructive behavior. I struggled to sympathize with them, despite the fact that they both needed help, compassion, and stability. I didn’t think that they deserved to be central characters at all. Eventually, I realized the reason I didn’t like them is that I was so shocked by their perceived promiscuity. In other words, I was slut-shaming them. I realized I’d have liked them more if they were boys, which taught me that I had a lot of internalized misogyny to work through.
We often think female characters only deserve to be main characters when they’re palatable. They have to fit into our gendered ideas of what a good, ‘moral’ woman should do. Male characters get to be assholes and antiheroes, and they get to learn and be complicated during their coming-of-age narratives. Women, on the other hand, don’t have that luxury. Women can’t mess up. We forgive men and ostracize women for the same behavior. Female anti-heroes annoy us; A Clockwork Orange is a cult hit.
Dislikeable female characters are important, indeed – but this doesn’t necessarily mean we could call them all ‘feminist’. Recently, dislikeable female characters from Netflix’s original series like Alyssa from The End of the F***ing World and Sophia from #Girlboss have been called feminist, badass, and even role models. The implication is that dislikeable female characters are inherently feminist. This analysis is a little thin, and a little wrong. Being dislikeable doesn’t automatically make a character a feminist.The implication is that dislikeable female characters are inherently feminist. This analysis is a little thin, and a little wrong. Click To Tweet
Alyssa from The End of the F***ing World is not cool. She mistreats service people, and she implies that her friend was molested because of his own actions. She never seems remotely aware that her actions are hurtful. For all her good characteristics, these aren’t very ‘feminist’ things to do.
Similarly, Sophia from #Girlboss is not cool. In the first episode, she steals a carpet from a street vendor for no good reason – it’s not like she was stealing out of survival, but rather out of meanness. Later in the series, she mistreats her friend badly by expecting her friend to work for her business for free. She’s an asshole. We would probably have seen her grow if #Girlboss wasn’t canceled after the first season.
Feminists might come off as dislikeable sometimes, but being dislikeable isn’t the same as being feminist. Sophia and Alyssa are dislikeable, but they’re also shitty people who lack introspection and compassion. They hurt others unashamedly. They aren’t feminists – not as far as their actions show in their respective series, anyway. This doesn’t mean that The End of the F***ing World and #Girlboss doesn’t have useful, positive, and even feminist messages.Being dislikeable, being badass, and being feminist are three different things that shouldn’t be conflated. Click To Tweet
There’s a difference between having characters that are feminist and telling a story that’s informed by feminist beliefs. Sometimes ‘bad’ characters – those with awful beliefs and behavior – are good for society because they give us examples of how we shouldn’t act or think. It’s possible to show abusive and problematic characters without endorsing their behavior. Even characters who subscribe to feminism can mess up and make mistakes, just as real-life humans do.
Perhaps when we label characters as ‘feminist’ or ‘unfeminist’ we miss the point. We should instead ask ourselves: What does this character make me feel? Why does it make me feel that way? What does it tell me about myself and the society I live in? How can I improve myself, and how can I improve the world?Perhaps when we label characters as ‘feminist’ or ‘unfeminist’ we miss the point. Click To Tweet
When looking at dislikeable female characters, I can’t help but find that many well-known ‘badass’ female characters – ones that are revered as feminists in the mainstream – are also characters that occupy privileged identities. It would be rad to see more unpalatable women of color, queer women, disabled women, and trans women on our screens and in our books. There isn’t nearly enough diversity in who gets to be dislikeable and complex, and this needs to change.
The media needs to show us what’s going on in the world around us. Ideally, it should also help us see what’s going on in within ourselves This introspection propels us to become more self-aware and to change ourselves for the better.