Hey Ladies! Or Unlikeable Female Characters

In two separate articles, two different female authors were asked to defend their ‘unlikeable’ female characters.

Claire Messud took umbrage over one reporter’s question of would Claire want to be friends with her character Nora. “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that?” and went on to say that you shouldn’t read to find friends (sidenote: though sometimes you do). Gillian Flynn was called a misogynist for creating an irredeemable female sociopath in one of her books.

These ladies aren’t nice. Is that really such a big deal? It’s not even a new thing. There have been plenty of female protagonists who were awful, nasty bitches over the years. Why are people acting so surprised by these two recent additions? It took me about five minutes to come up with a list of examples.

Becky Sharp (Vanity Fair): Becky is an opportunist. She had a hard life and will climb her way to the top if it kills her.

Scarlett O’Hara (Gone With the Wind): The biggest bitch in heels there ever was. After nearly starving to death during the Civil War, she vows never to go hungry again. She steals her sister’s sweetheart and works him to death to make sure of it.scarlett2

Catherine Earnshaw (Wuthering Heights): Cathy is a brat. She wants to have her cake and eat it too. In her case, have a rich husband and a sexy, bad boy lover. She drives them both crazy.

Undine Spragg (The Custom of the Country): Another brat, spoiled by her parents. Entitled. Social climber. Doesn’t care who she hurts on the way to the top.

There are more but those ladies came to mind first. With the exception of Vanity Fair, the books were written by women. None of the characters had much in the way of maternal instincts, although they were all mothers. Scarlett and Becky have something admirable about their mad self-preservation skills. They both occasionally do something nice for someone else, but Cathy and Undine are out for #1. Murder? Maybe not, but given the opportunity I’m sure they could do it.

I actually love an unlikeable character. It’s fiction after all, I don’t have to work with these people. They aren’t real. But there is something interesting about exploring the darker side of humanity. Why else would film and TV keep giving us new stories about Hannibal Lector? Why should the guys have all the fun anyway? Ladies don’t have to keep in the kitchens doling out advice about not letting the sun go down on our anger, like Marmee March. Marmee’s okay, but a good slap from Scarlett would set some people straight too.
bitches
And it’s true that bitches get stuff done. You might not like the stuff they do, but they sure know how to do it. Women can be just as awful as men. It’s sexist to think otherwise. Unlikeable female characters? I say, bring them on!

Who are your favorite unlikeable female characters?

20 comments:

  1. That is so sick! I am tired of how often women are called upon to defend something while their male counterparts sail through their life. Nothing against the menfolk - I wouldn't want them getting ridiculed as well, but these interviewers (and other bashers) need to stop stooping down to such ridiculous levels of questioning and treat women writers on par with male writers.

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    1. Did you see Ron Charles' video review of The Woman Upstairs? He satirizes how women writers are treated in the media and it's brilliant.

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  2. Great post! Rock on sister! (love Fey and Pohler, love)

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  3. Scarlett is probably my fave unlikeable character (in the movie...still haven't read the book). I'm having a harder time coming up with unlikeable females I've loved in literature. Oooh, nevermind. Xenia (sp?) from Atwood's The Robber Bride! She was horrible and awesome. Villainous characters are always more interesting than good ones. Male or female.

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    1. I have to read The Robber Bride!

      Scarlett is probably a bit nastier in the book. :)

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  4. I *like* reading about bitches. It's better than BEING one. I'm with you: Bring em' on!

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    1. Ha! It's probably easier to be a bitch in fiction too!

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  5. I haven't read any of the books you listed, but I love unlikable characters, too. How about Lady Audley from Lady Audley's Secret? LOVE HER. I read a post once that Elizabeth Bennet was the type of person most women would never want to be friends with. Not sure if I agree, but it gave me something to think about. Do we like her, or do we just sympathize with her?

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    1. The last time I read P&P I found her very judgemental. I think she'd be hard to be friends with because of that. She needs to loosen up.

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  6. Recently I had a similar conversation about a male character. A reviewer friend of mine wasn't too impressed with Barney from Mordecai Richler's Barney's Version, saying Barney's not someone he'd like to know in real life and it took away from his enjoyment of the book. I on the other hand loved the book and think Barney was a great character, because of the fact that I'd not want to know him in real life!

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    1. There are a lot of characters I wouldn't want to be friends with but reading about their lives is interesting. I think it's a case of watching from afar.

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  7. Brilliant post, Chris. That point about Flynn sounds bad, why shouldn't she create whatever characters she wants? I'm in the middle of Vanity Fair and I do like her as a character quite a bit.

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    1. Strangely enough, I once read a comment from a man claiming Flynn was a man-hater as well. She can't win!

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  8. How is it any different than a male author dreaming up unlikable male characters? I guess men feel that women are part of a hen house and should not make their counterparts anything less than desirable?? I don't get it.

    I love to read about men and woman who are unlikable. I love to hate them. It keeps me reading (usually). I loved Rachel from My Cousin Rachel.

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    1. I forgot about Rachel! And Rebecca could count as well though she's only seen through others eyes. Oh and Mrs Danvers! Definitely Mrs Danvers.

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  9. I loved reading about Becky earlier this year. I think there are some fascinating female characters who you love to hate. There are tons of men who you love to hate in literature and for some reason no one ever tihnks that is a bad thing.

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    1. And maybe the women are just a bit more interesting, to me anyway. :)

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  10. Yep to everything you said.

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    1. And, in reply to myself, I also liked the opinion at Reader's Respite -- totally different angle but also well stated.

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