Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Audience Expectations of Leading Ladies

I wonder if THE CATCHER IN THE RYE would be as famous for its iconic main protagonist if Holden Caulfield had actually been Helen Caulfield, a moody teenage girl who measures everyone by her self-appointed phoniness meter. Or if the genders were reversed between the male and female protagonists in classics like JANE EYRE and PRIDE AND PREJUDICE....Let's have Rochester be the hired butler or live-in tutor who falls in love with Jane Eyre, the lady of the manor. Would readers be as sympathetic to Jane when they find out she was preparing to tie the knot with Rochester, all the while having a secret husband with a mental illness locked up in the red room? Let's have Darcy be female. After we watch her rudely diss a man named Bennett by berating him within his earshot that he wasn't good looking or rich enough, would most readers continue to root for such a woman to find love?

I feel that mainstream readers can more easily forgive male protagonists who err, judge others, or are not so charming than leading ladies with these same issues. For example, a male who is aloof can be excused as being the brooding type while there is another b-word reserved for females who behave this way.

I can read about a female protagonist with an unlikable characteristic or two. Ideally, she would have some redeeming qualities to complement her unlikable ones. But you know what, I've actually finished books featuring unlikable female protagonists without any strong redeeming qualities (though rather infrequently). Such a book might feature a leading lady who exists mainly to shock readers by her outrageous behavior, and if there's a really captivating setting or plot to compensate, I can sometimes stick it out.

Just because a character has unlikable characteristics, it doesn't mean they should automatically be labeled an unlikable character. Sometimes one whom critics refer to as an unlikable female character, by my interpretation, is just a real person with flaws. An example of that would be the character of Lee Fiora in Curtis Sittenfeld's PREP. A number of online reviewers find Lee unlikable, and I disagree with that assessment. Curtis Sittenfeld addresses her "unlikable" characters in an interview with The Guardian. Here, Curtis acknowledges the faulty notion about an unlikable quality given to a female character being perceived as a mistake.

Female characters audiences disapprove of aren't only found in books. Anna Gunn, the actress who played Skyler White in Breaking Bad, wrote an editorial piece in The New York Times where she shares that her character is despised among some fans of the show.  Anna hypothesizes that those who hate on Skyler might be threatened by seeing a woman who won't "suffer silently." (I'm in Season 2 of Breaking Bad, so please NO SPOILERS in the comments section!)

Girls and women, real or fictional, shouldn't have to be adorable and agreeable 24/7, especially when they're encountering something or someone difficult. And yet, I don't find it easy to write a female protagonist with distinct unlikable qualities, and still have readers root for her. But I'd like to nail this someday. 

Do you think audiences set higher standards for leading ladies than leading men?

Can you think of any unlikable female protagonists in books, TV, or movies who you rooted for or let grow on you?

Image source: www.amctv.com

19 comments:

T. Drecker said...

One of my favorites, Anna Karenina, sort of went in this direction. I remember reading that Tolstoy wanted to make the readers like her, although her behavior for that time period was considered unforgiveable. If I remember right, it cost him a lot of time and headaches before he felt he got it right.

Ghadeer said...

That's an interesting observation.

I really want to read the article linked but I'm also on Season 2 and frightened to find the hint of a spoiler!

Pat Hatt said...

Yeah they seem to have less of a tolerance for women than mean when it comes to writing them that way. Kind of pathetic, I agree with her, it's because many don't want women getting the idea it is alright to be independent, still in this day in age.

M Pax said...

I loved Anna Karenina. I'm not sure Tess in Thomas Hardy's book of the same name is likeable, but I enjoyed her. I like to see women breaking the stereotypes. Makes me like them better. You can give even unlikeable characters a Save the Cat moment.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

All I will say is Skyler isn't quite as deplorable as her husband. Close - but not quite.
You might have a point about people feeling different if the roles were reversed.

S.P. Bowers said...

I've seen a few discussions lately about whether or not characters have to be "nice". Personally I don't think so. Some of my favorite characters can kind of irritate me, but I can identify with them, I see their motivation, their ideals, their journey and I can't help but admire them, even if I don't "like" them.

S.P. Bowers said...

But I think you're right. If we switched the genders in some of those books they wouldn't have had the same success.

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

Scarlett O'Hara is probably the best-known anti-heroine.

Courtney Summers writes good female MCs who have an edge to them.

Charlotte Cheng said...

Great point Cynthia! It does disturb me a bit that female characters with dimension and flaws do seem less likeable. I've always been fascinated with historical female leaders because they always had dimension and I often empathized with the choices they had to make. This book, about the last empress of China, was a great read and provided a lot of character depth: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Last_Empress_(novel)

Empty Nest Insider said...

I agree with Jennifer about Scarlett O'Hara. I agree that the expectations are higher for female characters. Thanks for the link with Anna Gunn!

Julie

Julie Dao said...

This is an excellent post... SO much food for thought here. There is definitely a double standard when it comes to female protagonists. I've been reading a lot of old fairy tales for research for one of my books, and the evil people (stepparent, queen, etc.) are almost always women. When the evil person is a man, he gets off scot-free... the heroine ends up marrying him, because he's a king, or he lives happily ever after. I guess things haven't changed much!

Sherry Ellis said...

You make a good point here. It's that stereotypical view of how men and women should behave. If they don't fall into the mold, they're viewed as unlikeable - even in fiction.

Elsie Amata said...

I think you make a valid point. You pictured the perfect character. People rooted for Walter yet had a harder time forgiving Skyler. Is it because she's a mom?

Jill Haugh said...

Well said Cynthia. As far as an unlikeable protagonist? Why, Scarlett O'Hara of course. She was so unyielding, a plotter and a back-stabber and always came late to the plate to dish an apology, yet we always rooted for her to grow and succeed. Well, at least I did.

Gina C said...

This is such a great post!!! I truly appreciate complex female characters on the screen and in print. Sometimes it feels like we haven't progressed in who/what we allow gals to be (especially in media), but then truly interesting, multi-dimensional characters pop up, and I regain faith.

One of my favorite characters is the mother in the middle grade book "Waiting for Normal." Such a true to life character, yet completely unique to literature.

Lynda R Young said...

such is the bane of being female. No matter in real life, books or movies, we are judged more harshly, especially by ourselves, than men.

Lydia Kang said...

Fascinating and thought-provoking post. There is a double standard in life and in literature. It's so frustrating and yet so hard to change, given that we've been immersed in that culture forever. I can't even get rid of my own issues with the gender stereotypes, much as I try.

posse said...

i adore female characters who misbehave. have you ever read BAD MARIE? so good.

Medeia Sharif said...

I don't mind unlikable characters. In fact, they're realistic and interesting.

Female characters are judged more harshly.

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