Being a "Likable" Protagonist Isn't Everything

by Hannah Nelson-Teutsch

Everyone seems to love talking about unlikable female protagonists — and how dare women write them. Much of it started when Claire Messud gave a smart, courageous, and on-point answer to the question of whether or not she'd want to spend time with the Nora, the narrator of her novel, The Woman Upstairs. Messud's exasperated response, which has been widely quoted across the interwebs and in more than one coffee shop conversation I've eavesdropped on, is worthy of yet another reprint:

For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?"

Of course, as Messud so astutely pointed out to her interviewer, any reader worth her salt has encountered a host of unlikeable characters over the years, and there's nothing inherently wrong with finding yourself annoyed with, enraged by, or just plain un-attracted to a fictional character.

What is ultimately at issue here is the host of ways in which female protagonists are treated differently from their male counterparts. As a woman and the main character in my own meandering story, I have often struggled with expectations— real or imagined — concerning my likability. Words like "bossy" and "bitchy" have been tossed my way more times than I care to consider, and I all-too-often find myself acting out of a desire to remain well-liked rather than to honor my conscious and act with integrity — which helps to explain exactly why I find the recent debate surrounding the likability of female characters particularly compelling.

So, whether you've also struggled with issues of likability, or you simply find yourself curious in the wake of Messud's comments; whether you're eager to re-examine your own prejudices or you simply enjoy spending some time with women who are anything but sugar and spice, these 11 female protagonists bring nuance and depth to the idea of how we label fictional women unlikable.

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

Many suggestions have been made as to why Claire Messud's Nora strikes so many readers as unlikable — is it her "inward bursts of rage," her discontent, her aggressive and explicit ambition? What is such a turn off about a woman who strikes some readers as "just plain angry"? Clearly, Nora does not conform to societal norms regarding proper womanly behavior — and yet, I wonder if that is all there is to it. When I finished The Woman Upstairs I too found myself turned off, but if I'm perfectly honest it was because the novel struck a little too close to home. As an artist and an ambitious woman, Nora's pain needled me, projecting a potential future I'm eager to avoid. Perhaps some readers find Nora unlikeable because in her brutal honesty she manifests our deepest fears about ourselves; likely, there's far more to it than that.

Vanity Fair by William Thackeray

Appropriately subtitled "A Novel Without a Hero," William Thackeray's Vanity Fair offers up what I consider to be perhaps the very model of an unlikeable female protagonist. Throughout the story Becky Sharp is portrayed as scheming, demonstrating the very same ambition and determination that make's Messud's Nora so controversial. Engaging her charms solely for the purpose of winning the attention of a wealthy and eligible bachelor, Becky betrays her friends and displays little or no loyalty to country and family as she so ardently pursues social advantage. All of this leads me to wonder what is it about blind ambition that seems to so thoroughly damn a bright, creative, and talented female protagonist?

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Gone With the Wind is a perfect example of the subjective nature of likability, given that more and more I encounter the idolization of Scarlett O'Hara... even though personally I found her selfishness, ignorance, and growing obsession with material possession difficult to stomach. I'm disturbed that Scarlett O'Hara is considered a "proto-feminist heroine," and I feel somehow obligated to unmask her to the world. Yet, I feel no such obligation regarding Becky Sharp. Despite my disparate reactions, I can't help but see striking similarities between the two young, beautiful and scheming social climbers, and I find myself struggling to understand how Becky languishes in unlikability while Scarlett is "true, rational pragmatist" and "a hero for our times."

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

The archetype of the bad mother is as old as literature itself, and as poisonous as ambition to a character's appeal. With We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver presents the ultimate "bad mother": a woman who failed to lover her son and in doing so was at least partially responsible for the subsequent massacre of children and teachers at the hands of her psychopathic offspring. The idea that Eva is inherently unlikeable because she is a bad mother is one of the perfect examples of the gender bias in literary likeability — have you ever heard of a male protagonist described as unlikeable exclusively because he is a bad father or because he sired offspring who have terrible tendencies?

What Was She Thinking? [Notes on a Scandal] by Zoë Heller

Zoe Heller's What Was She Thinking? [Notes on a Scandal] is as much the story of an unlikeable protagonist, the "catty narrator, disdainful of her students and suspicious of her colleagues" as it is the story of how we come to disapprove of women. For Barbara, the aforementioned "catty narrator," who also just happens to be lonely and unmarried (for those of you keeping track, you can add loneliness to ambition on the list of hallmark traits demonstrated by unlikeable female protagonists), Bathsheba "Sheba" Hart is at first a colleague and potential friend before becoming an object of scorn and ridicule as the the scandal named in the title begins to manifest. While it might make things a little meta, I think Heller's sharp, observant prose is as valuable as an example of what makes a female protagonist unlikable as it is as a demonstration of the ways in which we judge women.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina, like Scarlett O'Hara, is a female protagonist who attracts both ire and adoration. Like Scarlett, Anna is selfish and driven as well as beautiful, wealthy, and consumed with her own love life. Tolstoy's immortal work when considered alongside Margaret Mitchell's suggests that we seem to find female protagonists far more likable when they are young, wealthy, and attractive as opposed to older, lonely, and dejected.

California by Edan Lepucki

Edan Lepucki is one of a growing number of novelists who have spoken out about the perception that their female protagonists are unlikable, and her thoughtful response to the question of Frida's likeability demonstrates the stark difference in the way male and female characters are judged:

What's harder for me, honestly, is to hear/read reader's reactions to Frida. A few readers have found her very unlikeable ... but Cal, not so much: they see his reasons for lying to Frida as just, whereas they think she lies to be bratty and get back at him. Don't get me wrong, I love that readers have diverse responses to the book, and I respect their interpretations; I, however, see both Frida and Cal as flawed, and likeable and unlikeable in their own ways.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Freedom's Patty Berglund is a hard woman to love — she's difficult for her children to love, for her husband to love, and even tough for the object of her lusty affections to love. She also conforms to the archetype of the bad mother, and she is promiscuous with her affections, and unsatisfied with the status quo. Although Franzen has been widely and thoroughly eviscerated for his hostility towards "any woman who ain't a cookin' mom," in this case Patty's apparent unlikability seems to be less a product of any of the misogyny Franzen may or may not possess and more attributable to the consistent and recurring pattern of perceiving lonely, ambitious women who make less than morally rigorous choices as unlikable.

Madame Bovary by Gutave Flaubert

Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary presents the perfect opportunity for addressing another commonality among female protagonists perceived as unlikable — sexual deviance. Emma Bovary, like Patty Berglund, Scarlett O'Hara, and Anna Karenina, is guilty of pursuing her sexual appetites beyond the marital bed. Although Emma also demonstrates other characteristics common to the unlikable female protagonist, it seems relevant to note how frequently women deemed unlikable display a strong sexual drive. Women taking charge of their own bodies and sexuality have long been considered dangerous in the social and political realm, it seems that literarily they are also widely perceived to be unlikable.

The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand's Dominique Francon also display the sexual appetite of a deviant and unlikable female protagonist, yet she is far from the lonely, desperate, and ambitious archetype derived from the previous examples. Francon is independent without being particularly ambitious, self-assured without being particularly aggressive, dominating rather than desperate. Truthfully, when I first read The Fountainhead, I absolutely idolized her, and it came as a real shock to me to find that generally she is considered unlikeable. It would seem that when it comes to female protagonists a Goldilocks mentality applies — to be likable as a female protagonist you must be neither too lonely nor too independent, neither too aggressive nor too ambivalent, and that's a very tough line to walk.

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