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?

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