We have arrived at an odd moment where I feel compelled to speak out in defense of the totally omnipresent, culturally dominant, not-in-any way endangered or helpless, probably forever hegemonic fictional being known as the likable heroine. In this week’s New Yorker profile of Jennifer Weiner, Weiner lamented that writing about likable characters gets her no respect. Claire Messud, in a much passed around interview from last year, snapped about how base and sexist it is to expect women in fiction to be likable. Writing in an essay for BuzzFeed, Roxane Gay described likability in almost purely negative terms, as “a very elaborate lie, a performance, a code of conduct dictating the proper way to be,” as if likable characters are only ever conforming.* We used to say that it should be OK for female characters to be unlikable. Now likability itself has started to seem cheesy and cheap. But I would still rather re-read Pride & Prejudice than the Lydia Bennet story.
There has long been a plague of poorly developed female characters outfitted with symbols of likability—good looks, one-liners, adorable flaws—instead of personalities. Women who are klutzes, foils, or were late-bloomers. Women who exist to talk about men or keep men from being heroes. Women who are one-dimensionally strong, crazy, or cool but never all three. Against the backdrop of these cardboard cutouts, difficult, intense, nasty women like Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne, The Woman Upstairs’ Nora Eldridge, Bad Teacher’s Elizabeth Halsey, Young Adult’s Mavis Gary, the girls of Girls and Enlightened’s Amy Jellicoe stand out. Their very existence challenges sexism and our understanding of how women can behave. To be socially inappropriate, like Charlize Theron’s Mavis, is a greater sin for a woman than a man (just ask Kristen Stewart), and these fictional characters (going back to the O.G.-Kardashian wannabe, Emma Bovary) force us to recognize and grapple with that imbalance.
But the distance between being willfully unlikable and a total Mary Sue is vast, and within that space live hundreds of female characters who are both challenging and appealing. Likability is often used as a synonym for nice and safe and dull, but that’s a corruption of the word: Who really likes that? Katniss Everdeen, Carrie Mathison, Peggy Olsen, Mindy Lahiri, Alicia Florrick, the women of so much literary fiction, books like Americanah, The Interestings and The Flamethrowers: These women have issues and edges and are, as Michelle Dean put it in her response to the Weiner profile, more than just “safe, relaxing, and fun.”
A kernel of so-called “unlikability” is just personality, and these days it is even all over genres once thought to be the home turf of chicks who cause no trouble. At this moment, sitcoms feature fewer put-upon, pretty wives than women with bad attitudes and naughty streaks. CBS, the home of Two and Half Men, also airs 2 Broke Girls, Mom, and The Millers, none of which are great sitcoms but all of which star women who are not pushovers or patsies or sweethearts, but foul-mouthed and headstrong women watched by millions of people. Even the characters in Jennifer Weiner’s novels, like so much chick lit, are not simply nice girls, but often acrid, angry, funny ones. What is rote about Weiner’s books are their happy endings, not their characters.
Of course, there are also female characters who are unchallenging and simpering. But the nice girl looking for love really does exist, and in 2014 is just as plausible as Amys Jellicoe and Dunne, even if, at the moment, she is way less cool. If unlikable heroines confront us with the reality that not every woman is or has to be pleasing and appropriate, that doesn’t change the fact that many women are pleasing and appropriate. Prosaic behavior is the stuff of life and so should be the stuff of novels, preferably in the hands of novelists who can make that sort of banality rousing (see, again, Madame Bovary or Middlemarch’s Rosamond). Besides, nice girls looking for love are some of our most lasting literary heroines: Elizabeth Bennet and Dorothea Brooke are neither simple nor simple-minded, but they are pretty focused on love, a fairly general description of the human condition, which did not, at the time, immediately get them branded with a big pink G for “girl stuff.”*
Lizzie and Dodo are also proof that though we may not read to make friends, there’s hardly anything better than when it happens. Weiner, in her New Yorker profile, is quoted as saying, “Why do we read? Yes, to understand the world, and, of course, to meet characters that are alive and visceral. But, at least to me, sometimes we do read to make friends. Sometimes we do read to escape, or find comfort, or to spend time in a world that is a little more fair and a little more kind than the world that we inhabit.” Weiner is defending herself against the charge—one that Claire Messud made clear in that interview I mentioned— that reading to make friends is unsophisticated. But a better defense wouldn’t mention escapism or comfort or all these code words for simplistic. The better defense is: We read, and watch, for pleasure— and your pleasure and my pleasure may not be the same. Lord knows, I liked the girls of Girls when that show first debuted.
Likability is not some fixed characteristic as perceptible to everyone as brown hair. In her piece on the importance of unlikable heroines, Gay says, “I am often drawn to unlikable characters, to those who behave in socially unacceptable ways and say whatever is on their mind and do what they want with varying levels of regard for the consequences,” which is another way of saying that she saw Mavis Gary and Amy Dunne, unlikable though they may be, and she liked them. We may not be here to make friends, but, often, we do anyway.
Correction, Jan. 11, 2014: This article originally misstated the last name of Charlize Theron’s character in the film Young Adult. It is Gary, not Gallant.