Everyone knows there’s a huge disparity between roles for men and women in TV and film. We’ve all seen the stats – 80% of the speaking roles in movies this year were male, there are more non-human roles on TV right now than roles for women – and it doesn’t look like much is going to change in the next couple of years. To find female led films you have to steer away from the blockbusters and look towards indie film and to find the TV show with the most female cast and crew you have to go to Netflix and watch Orange Is the New Black. Major corporations just don’t want to invest in women or in female led projects. This trend is maddening and I have taken it upon myself to enact my own small, personal protest and make sure my money only goes to films with female leads. This hasn’t been a difficult choice to make as I’m finding myself increasingly disinterested in the dude-oriented blockbuster fare filling my local cinema regardless of my feminist sensibilities. This isn’t to say that I won’t watch any male led movies, just that I won’t be seeing them in the cinema. I will not be funding the erasure of my gender on screen any more.
This abject lack of women on screen is a huge problem, but there is another, more evasive issue plaguing female representation in film and television – the issue of likeability. There has been an overwhelming trend recently – in television especially – of unlikeable male characters, of stories revolving around men who are serial killers or drug dealers, men who live squarely in the moral grey. These characters like Walter White, Dexter Morgan or the definition of the anti-hero cliché Ray Donovan, are not supposed to be liked by the audience. It is the show’s goal to make these characters relatable, to make you root for them despite your better instincts, to show the complexity of the world’s villains, whilst ensuring their characters remain just as selfish, violent and sociopathic as they began. Another example is the NBC show Hannibal whose eponymous character is both a serial killer and a cannibal yet has earned the sympathy and borderline obsession of many of the show’s fans. Sherlock Holmes is a sociopathic narcissist, self-absorbed and arrogant, yet he is seen by the audience as complex, interesting and layered. It seems with this type of programme that the more unlikeable the protagonist, the more skilled the writing and production team are seen in order to get the viewer to sympathise with them. If you look over the most highly praised TV shows of the past decade, an awful lot of them revolve around unlikeable male leads and are praised for their deft handling of difficult subject matter and construction of a compelling anti-hero. The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, House – all celebrated for their complicated male leads.
However, this is entirely not the case when it comes to female characters.
There are very few outright female anti-heroes on screen in the vein of Walter White and Dexter. Unlikeable female characters tend not to be psychopaths or murderers, rather they are average people with difficult personalities. There are not many of them, but they exist and they are almost universally derided. Take Lena Dunham’s Girls for example. Leaving out the racial diversity issue (which I have discussed in this previous post: http://butmyopinionisright.tumblr.com/post/42382454900/in-defence-of-lena-dunham-and-girls along with why I feel the backlash was mostly caused by misogyny) the main problem Dunham’s critics seemed to have with Girls was that the characters were unlikeable and “too privileged”. Now I’ve never seen anyone complain that Batman was “too privileged” or that Superman “only got where he was because of his parents”, but that’s another issue for another post. What those critics didn’t seem to understand was that Hannah, Marnie, Jessa and Shoshanna were supposed to be unlikeable, they’re supposed to be self-involved and annoying and naïve – they’re 20 somethings, we’re kind of like that. Hannah Horvath never murdered anyone like Dexter, she didn’t rape anyone like Walter White raped his wife on Breaking Bad, she hasn’t eaten any corpses like Hannibal and she’s not even as selfish and narcissistic as Sherlock Holmes yet her unlikeable qualities render her unwatchable, unrelatable and badly written. Girls is brilliantly written and Hannah and her friends are endlessly watchable. They are far more realistic than the male anti-heroes flooding our screens, they are far more relatable but their gender means that audiences will always expect them to be likeable and will be angrily disappointed when they are not.
Another current example is the character of Piper Chapman in Orange Is The New Black. I’ve already written extensively on Orange on this blog but Piper’s character warrants a mention here too. I’ve seen so much criticism of her character online, about how self-involved, naïve and privileged she is, without anyone noticing that she is supposed to be that way. People seem to think this was a mistake, that no one could ever have intentionally written a woman to be annoying or unlikeable whilst still making her the protagonist. Women are allowed to be unlikeable as long as they are the villains or figures of hatred. Female characters are allowed to be selfish and annoying if they are the nagging wife or girlfriend of a “more relatable” male lead, they are allowed to be sociopaths or violent as long as they are the antagonists who a male (or occasionally female) hero has to destroy, but if the women are themselves the protagonists or the heroes of the story they must be immediately likeable and perfect. Piper’s annoying traits, her naivety and her privilege are crucial to the story OITNB is trying to tell – the story of a woman who thinks she is a good person, imprisoned and forced to confront her flaws and her privileges. Just because a character is the lead of a programme doesn’t mean they have to be liked by the audience, their position as protagonist doesn’t mean they have to be perfect, always do the right thing and never annoy anyone. This has been proven by the success of the anti-hero trend with shows like Breaking Bad, Dexter and The Sopranos. A main character can be contrary to every social value we hold dear but still be compelling enough to make us watch the show and even begin to understand their motives – as long as that character is a man of course.
This double standard is also visible in cinema. There are a raft of unlikeable male anti-heroes in recent films; we all know how much I hate Wolverine but he fits this category regardless of my personal loathing of his character. There’s Batman too – both despite their general hero status are gruff, anti-social, emotionally stunted loners who are decidedly unlikeable personality wise, yet they loom large in the box office and in popular culture. However, when Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman released their second feature together after Juno – Young Adult starring Charlize Theron – it was largely ignored by audiences, and critics, although mostly positive about the film, almost all commented on the unlikability of the main character Mavis Gary. Mavis is a distinctly awful person. She was the girl you hated at high school and she never grew out of the bitchy mean girl mould. Mavis ghost writes a series of relatively unsuccessful YA books and feels she is hugely superior to her former classmates because she moved to the city and has a white collar career. She is lazy, addicted to diet coke and the film follows her as she attempts to seduce her old high school boyfriend away from his wife and newborn child in order to, as she puts it, “save him” from his dull suburban life. Mavis Gary is not a good person, she is not someone you would want as a friend or even someone you’d ever want to encounter, but she is a good character. There are people like Mavis Gary in the world, you can see how someone might end up like that, she is complex and interesting and her story is compelling and darkly hilarious. Yet for many, a female character as unlikeable as her was a dealbreaker, especially as (SPOILER ALERT) she doesn’t end up changing a bit in the end. Young Adult was nowhere near as successful as Juno or as talked about as the notorious (but in my opinion still great) Jennifer’s Body which both featured markedly more affable female leads. In contrast, the Batman movies got more popular and more lucrative the darker and more morally questionable his character became, and Wolverine’s brand of brooding anti-heroics continues to sell out theatres.
It’s clear there’s a huge double standard here. Audiences find unlikeable male characters complex and fascinating, they praise the writing and production behind them and, in some cases, manipulate the source material in order to render that character as “just misunderstood”. Look at the way that Loki, the villain in both Thor and The Avengers, has been glorified by the fanbase. In Thor he’s jealous and petty, motivated by revenge and sibling rivalry. In The Avengers he’s a Hitler figure, bent on dominating the people of Earth as his minions. Loki isn’t even the protagonist here and he’s still forgiven for the unlikeable parts of his personality and his villainous actions. The audience still tries hard enough to understand him, to relate to him, that they twist his character and his story into one of a misunderstood outcast bullied by his favoured brother and largely just mischievous instead of evil. Hannibal – of the NBC series rather than the movies, probably because Anthony Hopkins isn’t as attractive as Mads Mikkelsen – is undergoing the same kind of treatment at the moment. Viewers seem willing to go to lengths in order to turn unlikeable male characters into someone they can root for, or at least someone they can understand, so why not with female characters with the same – and in most cases less severe – undesirable traits?
I would argue that this disparity is all down to the way women are viewed in society as a whole. The patriarchy renders us as objects for male consumption. We are viewed as accessories or rewards for men and are reprimanded or shunned when we don’t fit that mould well enough or reject it altogether. Unlikeable female characters are rejected for the same reason that we don’t see fat women on screen, for the same reason why actresses are photoshopped to death on magazines and why words like “friendzone” exist. Female anti-heroes are admonished for the same reason why women are harassed on the street and then vilified if they turn down a man’s advances. The patriarchy requires women to be desirable to men, more often than not at the cost of their own identities and freedoms. We are expected to change ourselves in order to become more attractive to men and those of us who choose not to comply with these expectations are demonised by society at large. So, art mimics life and life mimics art. If a woman’s sole purpose is seen to be as a prize to be won by a male or as an object to enhance the male’s experience, a woman on television is treated in the same way. For the same reason we never see ugly women on screen (although I would argue that beauty is really only what we’re told is beautiful and not in any way empirical) but actors like Steve Buscemi have made a living out of being creepy looking, female characters are expected to be amenable, to be nice, to be someone a man would want to spend time with. Men are allowed to be assholes because a man’s life and purpose is his own. Women have to play nice because why else are they there in the first place?
In a time where it is hard to even get a likeable female led show on the air, it must be even harder to get a programme to series where the lead woman is allowed to be imperfect. When the attitude is “why does there need to be a woman in it?” as if, yet again, the male is default and female representation is merely tokenism despite us making up more than half the population, one can only imagine the difficulty in convincing a studio to invest in a female character who isn’t likeable. There are however critically successful unlikeable female characters to act as precedent, even if their flaws aren’t anywhere near as severe as their male counterparts. Jenna Maroney of 30 Rock is a vapid narcissist with violent tendencies and a propensity to threaten suicide for dramatic effect. She was a constant highlight of a series already full of brilliance and was largely loved by critics and the show’s niche audience alike. Nurse Jackie is the only series I can think of with a true female anti-hero as the protagonist – Jackie Peyton being a nurse with a severe addiction to prescription meds who bends the rules in order to help her patients whilst cheating on her husband with the pharmacist she manipulates in order to get her drug fix. Weeds could be another example – Nancy Botwin starts off as a mother trying to do the best by her sons but loses track of her morals as the series continues and has some decidedly undesirable character traits. The short lived but critically loved HBO series Enlightened featured Laura Dern as Amy Jellicoe, a woman who suffers a breakdown and returns from a retreat determined to force her new “enlightened” philosophy into her old life. There are examples of unlikeable female characters being enjoyed by fans and critics, however it’s telling that all these examples are either comedies or comedy dramas. Perhaps it’s only ok to be unlikeable as a female character if that character’s purpose is to make viewers laugh. Are women ever allowed to be both assholes and taken seriously?
A show which exemplifies this double standard is HBO’s Game of Thrones. GoT features many unlikeable characters, the worst offenders perhaps being Joffrey and Cersei Lannister. Joffrey is universally despised but he has reached the status of “the character you love to hate” whereas Cersei, his mother is largely just plain hated. I love Cersei – perhaps marginally down to the fact that, as a lesbian, I am obliged to love everything Lena Headey has done since Imagine Me & You – but also just because she’s such a bitch. She’s not a likeable character; she had an affair with her brother and gave birth to his son who she turned into the insufferable and vindictive person he is, she instructed her brother to throw Bran out of a window when he saw them fucking in a tower – a fall that ends up rendering him a paraplegic – and she’s consistently cruel to her brother Tyrion and to Sansa who she forces to be betrothed to her son. Cersei is an awful person, but she is a good character. She’s a powerful woman in a man’s world and her actions and personality are easily justified when you consider the sacrifices she has to make to be as powerful as she is. It’s certainly less of a stretch to put yourself in Cersei’s shoes and understand where she is coming from, than it is to turn Hannibal Lecter into someone who is just misunderstood. And yet, Hannibal has thousands of fans singing his praises online and Lena Headey is called a bitch at fan conventions.
Women are not only expected to be physically attractive to men in order to “deserve” their place on TV, they are also expected to have an attractive personality as well. Male characters are allowed to get away with rape, murder, drug dealing, incessant infidelity and rampant narcissism, whereas woman have to be pleasant and affable in order to be tolerated on screen. The role of anti-hero is almost exclusively reserved for men, and for white men at that. There is an argument to be made that it is the whiteness as well as the maleness of characters like Walter White and Dexter Morgan that allows audiences to sympathise with them. A black or Latino meth dealer might not be so well received. So while we’re stuck in this trend of “complicated” protagonists, it seems the only complex characters we’re likely to see are white males, thus further erasing women and people of colour from our screens.
As is often the case, I feel an Amy Poehler quote is useful here. As recounted in Tina Fey’s Bossypants, Poehler responded to the light-hearted criticism that a joke she had just made wasn’t “cute” so the person in question (I think it was Jimmy Fallon) didn’t like it, with “I don’t fucking care if you like it”. It’s already evident that a protagonist needn’t be likeable in order to be interesting. That logic now needs to be applied to female characters and fast. So the next time you hear someone complain about how Hannah Horvath or Piper Chapman just isn’t likeable enough, paraphrase Amy – I don’t fucking care if you like her, she’s interesting and that’s all that matters.