Hello! femmeliterate is back from a COVID-inspired hiatus with food for thought from guest contributor Savannah Cordova. Enjoy! – Ed.
Much like in real life, women in fiction are often judged by far stricter standards than men. These standards frequently feel impossible for anyone to ever meet in real life: she should be smart but not a know-it-all, ambitious but not selfish, kind but not a pushover, and so on.
What’s more, female characters are perceived on a much more binary scale than male characters — we don’t “love to hate” pop culture’s leading women the way we do with men, and female villains don’t have nearly the same level of diehard fan bases as their male counterparts (think Kylo Ren, Loki, the Joker, etc.). This issue is more obvious when it comes to movies, but it’s just as insidious with the deeply flawed characters of books (Mr. Rochester, Holden Caulfield, etc.).
In any case, whether you’re self-publishing a book or going the more traditional route, there’s huge pressure to write mainly “likable” female characters in order to attract more readers. But in a market where women outnumber men as consumers, must it truly be that way? Here are three undeniable reasons why it should not.
The popular critical view is antiquated
Many critics still believe that female characters should be sympathetic and relatable to make for a better reading experience — seemingly assuming that the best characters are always those we’d want to be friends with IRL.
A quintessential example of reviews utterly lacking nuance in this area has been with Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. The book has sold 20 million copies and been made into a blockbuster film, and yet the top reviews on Amazon focus mainly on how Amy Dunne, the female protagonist, is despicable and how her husband is weak for giving into her. So just because you wouldn’t want to be friends with a fictional character, does that mean the book is trash? Of course not.
To be sure, sometimes we read because we want an easygoing story with fun and relatable characters, something to make us feel good — but just as often, we read for honesty. Critics who base their reviews entirely on the first premise fail to realize that thoughtful development alone makes for a good character… not whether or not they are “likable” in real-life terms.
And as obviously misguided as it seems, the antiquated view prevails. You could attend hundreds of creative writing classes, publish multiple successful novels, and still be dismissed by critics if your female protagonists aren’t “likable” enough. Even Margaret Atwood has been told that she writes awful books just because her characters are unpleasant — and if a two-time Booker winner can still be commonly criticized for her characters, we’re in a grim state indeed.
There are real-life negative consequences
Besides the pure critical imbalance between “likable” and “unlikable” female characters, there’s also the matter of how these stories affect people in real life. If women in books are confined to a delicate balance of perfection, what kinds of role models are we creating for young readers?
The need for wider, more nuanced representation is especially vital for women from minority and marginalized communities. It’s crucial that we acknowledge the privileges which white, straight, and cis-gendered women are afforded on this issue. Minority women of all backgrounds need more representation — especially because many minority characters that currently exist in the literary canon are held to even higher standards than other characters (alarming parallel to the model minority myth, anyone?), dooming their real-life counterparts even more soundly.
Additionally, when men read about these “likable” female characters in books, they can form deeply unrealistic expectations of women and relationships. For their own emotional health, men should have female characters that accurately represent a variety of women, too — but at the same time, the most important thing is that young women see themselves.
True feminism is rooted in diversity
On that note, one of the major tenets of feminism is that people shouldn’t have to conform to any kind of standards or norms based on their gender. In this sense, the idea of a universally “likable” female protagonist is something of an oxymoron. We need characters who stand up for what they believe in, who break societal expectations, and who aren’t criticized for doing so.
That’s not to say that all female characters should be unlikable — far from it. The point is that writers should feel free to write their protagonists however they choose and however best fits their narrative, and that there’s no right way to be a woman in fiction or otherwise.
Sometimes we’re shy and reserved, sometimes we’re bold and confident, sometimes we’re perfectly pleasant, and sometimes, yes, we’re downright unlikable. Literature needs to showcase and celebrate the gamut if there’s any hope for a truly feminist canon in the future.
Savannah Cordova is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects indie authors with the world’s best publishing professionals. In her spare time, Savannah enjoys reading fiction, delving into feminist texts, and writing short stories.