The Rise of the Unlikable Woman
By K.B. Wagers
There have always been unlikable characters in fiction, though the idea of the anti-hero — brooding, self-centered, wholly unredeemable — has long been considered a man’s territory. From crotchety but lovable Han Solo to the downright dangerous Riddick, no one complains that these characters aren’t people you’d trust to watch your house, let alone have a cup of tea with.
Women in fiction, by contrast, can only be unlikable if they are redeemable in some fashion or another — or if they’re ultimately punished. Black Widow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is struggling for redemption (and turned into a nursemaid for the Big Guy as a result). Were she still unrepentant about the death she’s dealt — as Loki is — she would find less compassion from the audience. Emma Bovary, in Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, receives her punishment (in the form of her death) at the end of the novel as a result of her sexual desires.
But now, women characters are rising up from the ashes of these expectations. They’re planting themselves firmly onto the page (or stage, or screen) as complex, imperfect, sometimes even cruel. Celeste Ristuko from the Apparatus Infernum novels by A.A. Aguirre is unapologetically good at her job and equally annoyed by her partner’s bad habits. Yeine Darr in N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy has neither the time nor the patience to make friends in the deadly power struggle for the throne and rises to the challenge of navigating unfamiliar terrain. And, of course, there’s stubborn Rey from one of the newest installments of the Star Wars films, who survives in the wastelands of Jakku for years, then withstands the powers of Kylo Ren.
Activists in real life are a driving force behind this change. They are speaking up, holding firm against a world that wants to push back. Stop Telling Women to Smile is an art series and movement by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh. It was started as a response to street harassment and fights the idea that women are there to be pretty, that we are required to smile on command especially when we don’t feel like doing it. This movement has inspired others: women confronting their street harassers, women owning their space in public places rather than shrinking when men try to claim not only their space but the space of others around them.
There is no right way to be a woman: we don’t have to smile on demand; even the friendliest of us are occasionally unlikable and that’s not a flaw, it’s just part of who we are.
I have started and stopped this essay so many times over the last several months, struggling against my own mind and a climate that has been shouting at me to sit down, shut up, and move on. The word flawed tastes bitter in my mouth, as though we must always admit that unlikable women characters are “flawed” while unlikable men just exist.
My goal is to write and read more books with and about “flawed” or “unlikable” women: who don’t grieve the way people think they should; who defy the expectations of behavior and looks; who are capable of taking your head off but who also cry for the loss of loved ones; who talk their way out of a situation without apologizing for disliking violence; and who are there just to get a job done, not to make friends or make other characters comfortable. In Behind the Throne we come upon protagonist Hail Bristol just after the death of the love of her life; but there’s no time for her to grieve, and so she does what is necessary even at the expense of seeming cruel and uncaring. She has been dragged back home, a place she never thought she would see again, and Hail is not in the mood to play nice with the nobles and the palace.
Better women than I have written about why society seems so bent on maintaining the idea that fictional women need to be our BFFs. Roxane Gay’s “Not Here to Make Friends” and Kameron Hurley’s “In Defense of Unlikable Women” are two of my favorites.
It is glorious to witness writers taking award and bestseller lists by storm with stories about women who are unapologetic, unforgiving, unlikable. Women aren’t always nice, and we no longer have to pretend we are to make everyone else comfortable.
K. B. Wagers has a bachelor’s degree in Russian Studies and her non-fiction writing has earned her two Air Force Space Command media contest awards. A native of Colorado, she lives at the base of the Rocky Mountains with her husband and son. In between books, she can be found lifting heavy things, running on trails, dancing to music, and scribbling on spare bits of paper.