To Be an Unlikable Heroine
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Mad Max: Fury Road’s Furiosa, via las2orillas.[/caption]
As we move forward with our portrayals of women in media, I can’t help but wonder when we will fully appreciate the dynamics and vibrancy of the unlikable heroine.
Growing up, I knew that there were specific titles that I filled. The Smart One, the Funny One. The Black Girl with the Glasses. All of these titles rotated over time, but it wasn’t until I was older that I realized that they never veered towards the titles that society told me that I wanted — the title of the Nice Girl.
The Nice Girl is the figure that society is obsessed with. She’s classically beautiful, a true lady. She revels in her femininity and is rewarded with adoration because of it. She may act rashly or even have to get her hands dirty from time to time, but as long as it is all within the guise of being good, she is excused. The Nice Girl, at her core, wants to be accepted and loved by others; she wants to be liked.
In nerd culture, there is more of an abundance of “not so nice girls” than there are in mainstream media. That’s partly why I’m so partial to it. There remains to be a serious gap in representations of female characters that say, do, and act in ways that may be less-than-admirable but they do not apologize for it. And it dawned on me how liberating this is.
For heaven’s sake, we need more unlikable heroines.
As Amy Pohler said in this recent interview: “Female anger isn’t praised much in our culture, but it can be kind of exciting, I say. “It is exciting, isn’t it?” she says, her eyes lighting up. “It’s super-exciting to not care if you’re liked, and to watch someone’s face as they realise that. It’s fun defying expectations about me. It’s a nice secret weapon.”
This Tumblr piece, promptly titled The Importance of the Unlikable Heroine, also brings up this very topic. The author, Claire, writes:
Who is this “unlikable” heroine?
She is Amy March from Little Women. She is Briony from Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Katsa from Kristin Cashore’s Graceling. Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse. Sansa from A Song of Ice and Fire. Mary from The Secret Garden. She is Philip Pullman’s Lyra, and C. S. Lewis’s Susan, and Rowling’s first-year Hermione Granger. She is Katniss Everdeen. She is Scarlett O’Hara.
These characters fascinate me. They are arrogant and violent, reckless and selfish. They are liars and they are resentful and they are brash. They are shallow, not always kind. They may be aggressive, or not aggressive enough; the parameters in which a female character can acceptably display strength are broadening, but still dishearteningly narrow. I admire how the above characters embrace such “unbecoming” traits (traits, I must point out, that would not be noteworthy in a man; they would simply be accepted as part of who he is, no questions asked).
The unlikable heroine remains to be a figure that is fascinating because she exists beyond our limitations of femininity and gender roles. She belongs to herself, and is central in remaining that way. She does not clutch to likeability but instead frees herself from it… instead, she clings to being yelling, fighting, screaming, and clawing herself as far from the shackles of being the Nice Girl as she can.
Media is consumed with the idea of showing us a reformed Nice Girl, or an Unlikable Heroine that has been reborn — she has found love and has chosen to reel back her agency for a bit (I can’t help but think of my anime favorite, Anemone of Eureka Seven, filling this role, as we know very little about what happens to her after she and Dominic become a couple). But despite this, we do have genuine examples of Unlikable Heroine.
In films, we have recently seen the unlikable heroine in Charlize Theron’s Furiosa (Mad Max: Fury Road). On our first meeting of her, we know that she is not someone to take lightly. She has been hardened by the situation around her, making survival the first priority trying to survive under the tyranny of Immortal Joe. She is merciless in her fierceness to protect herself and the Wives from any threat, but especially from men. When she first fights Max, she holds her own And even her unweavering in being both a surviver and a fighter — she is physically differently abled with her mechanical arm, and often smears war paint on her forehead and shaved head to show her enemies that she means business — but does not lack compassion. She protects everyone on her side, even Max. And though there is a certain dependency that she grows for him, this never becomes more important than her mission to survive and get the Wives (and herself) to safety.
Another unlikable heroine is in the form of Satsuki Kiryuin of Kill la Kill. A character that is the antagonist-turned-ally to the protagonist, Satsuki is abrasive, ambitious, and calculating; described as someone with “a unbendible will”, her stubbornness remains unyielding. At the end of the series, she does have a metamorphosis of sorts, realizing that her plans to overthrow her mother were in error, but she still remains as fearless as the first episode that we met her.
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via The Coffee Spoon.[/caption]
It remains to be said that we lack vibrant, successful Unlikable Heroines in women of color characters that we encounter. But I think that as more marginalized creators are able to produce their own work, we will see Unlikable Heroines that better resemble the diversity of their audiences in due time. Until then, we still have a small amount of heroines whose concerns revolve around survival and their own interests rather than a man; whose lines are filled with snark and sarcasm but never a self-conscious filter to protect others’ hurt feelings. From Furiosa, Azula of Avatar: The Last Airbender (until her breakdown in the final episodes, of course), Malefacent, Satsuki, and Michiko Malandro of Michiko to Hatchin; like it or not, unlikable heroines are here to stay, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Til next time,