Unlikable heroines and women hating women.

Dear Author asks, “Why are we so hard on other women?” Jane Litte thinks two major factors are at play: over-identifying with a female character and familiarity breeding contempt. When we over-identify with a character of the same gender, Jane says, we tend to judge her more harshly because we hope that we wouldn’t make the same mistakes in her position:

When it comes to romance books, if some female character does something that nets a bad result, we are impatient with her because we hope that in her circumstances, we would have made other choices to effectuate a different outcome.

As for familiarity breeding contempt:

Women start out “knowing” women intimately. Men are far more ambiguous and therefore are still mysterious wondrous creatures. Women, because most of us are women, view the female characters with a jaundiced eye, perhaps already pre-judging them before the book is even opened.

Angry Woman

We assume we have an intuitive grasp of how female characters think and feel, and our expectations of them are much higher, because our expectations for ourselves are quite high. As the commenters on Jane’s post point out: there is some serious internalized sexism in effect here. Women are more critical of other women because everyone is more critical of women, period. We’re socially conditioned to judge ourselves harshly, to never be satisfied, to always want to be prettier, thinner, nicer, more pleasing, etc.

A male character can be cold or angry and readers will excuse it because he had a tragic past; a female character who’s cold or angry, however, tends to get labeled a bitch. A male character who’s arrogant and cocky is lauded for his confidence; a female character who’s arrogant and cocky is branded uppity, snobby, and the ubiquitous bitchy.

Moral of the story: we sure do like to find ways to label other women bitches.

On the topic of bitchiness and unlikable heroines, the excellent Heroine Week at Romance Around the Corner contains this gem: Flawed Heroines and the Likability Standard. Author Rebecca Rogers Maher points out the huge divide in reader expectations along genre lines:

In a recent interview about her novel, The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud was asked whether anyone would want to be friends with her angry heroine, Nora. Messud responded with an outraged, “What kind of question is that?” She suggested that it would never be asked of a male author, about a male character, and that it was not necessary to be friends with a character in order to be moved by her.

Rebecca makes a compelling argument for seeing more “unlikable” or, simply, more realistic heroines in romance. An unlikable, even reprehensible character can still be worthwhile to read about—witness the enduring popularity of Lolita. Obviously Lolita is not a romance, but romance can take a cue from literary fiction here: realism is good. Sometimes, realism is what romance readers want. This is a huge reason why I love New Adult: genre conventions are much less strict in NA romance compared to traditional romance. NA is rife with seriously flawed, fucked-up characters in dark and gritty situations. Psychological damage is the trait du jour.

But it’s tragic if, as one commenter suggests, romance readers only read for heroes, not for heroines. Do we really want our heroines to be blank slates and vacuous paper dolls? I sure as hell don’t. I read romance—and all types of fiction—for realistic people, period. Only flawed characters are capable of growth and change. A flawless character is stagnant; they may be easy to like in a bland, inoffensive way, but they inspire no great passion or compassion from me. Give me your flawed heroines, your cocky ladies, your selfish bitches, yearning to be themselves.

What do you think? Are women too hard on other women? Do you want to see flawed, unlikable characters in romance?

7 Responses to Unlikable heroines and women hating women.

  1. I’ve always been a fan of flawed *female* characters, not just your typical brooding jerk-with-heart-of-gold guys. And it’s always frustrated me how few of them there are! In romance, in YA, anywhere. I think you’re right– readers tend to brand them as bitches, so they have to be toned down for the book to even have a chance. I browse reviews of some of my favorite books with “bad girl” heroines and it’s the same thing over and over: she was such a bitch, she was unlikable, couldn’t relate to her at all. Sad.

    • Word. And it kills me that readers will often criticize a heroine for certain qualities…but then give a pass to a hero who has those very same qualities, if not worse ones! *head explodes*

  2. Um, I’m a guy so I can’t have anything meaningful to say about women hating women.

    On the other hand, I can say that I like unlikable female characters about as much as I like unlikable male characters. It really depends on how the character is written and the circumstances involving them. For instance, Bella (from Twilight), I just can’t stand her inability to grow as a character. But when Catarina (from Miserere) had strokes of humanity slap her in the face, I was hoping she’d finally start trying to climb out of the pit she had fallen into but would descend further (but her character was developing in some way, and it was interesting).

    I admittedly do not read much romance anything, but I tend to not really differentiate between male and female characters in the stuff I do read (but I’m practically illiterate with how much reading of any kind of literature I actually partake in nowadays). I will, however, get angry at authors that have difficulty writing characters of a gender and/or sex and restrict themselves to using stereotypes. I seriously cannot stand that.

    • ITA–I take them on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes an unlikable character is just irredeemable for me. Most of Chuck Palahniuk’s MCs fit this bill. Yet I can read about someone like Humbert Humbert and despise him while remaining fascinated with him. Really depends on the execution.

  3. Unfortunately, I do think many, many romances are written with ‘blank slate’ heroines that allow the reader to step into her shoes. I remember some people making a similar analysis of Twilight and the seeming vacuousness of Bella. I wonder if this holds true for the counter, though–in pornography marketed to males, are the men themselves stunningly fit, or are the men just average guys?

    I do find myself judging other women harshly, especially those who “hit too close to home,” and it’s a really hard and frustrating habit to try to break–in real life and in recreational reading.

    • Yep, Twilight is the first thing that comes to mind when I think Blank Slate Heroine: Bella Swan, a perfect black hole of a character, with the singular “flaw” of being clumsy. Gimme a frigging break. Not only is that not actually a character flaw, it’s infantilizing.

  4. I feel like I should expand on that comparison because it seems way out in left field. One character is from a YA romance, the other a dark fantasy novel. The genres are pretty different, but I don’t think this should impact how one goes about writing a character. So I guess I’ll elaborate even though no one asked.

    On Bella from Twilight, I will admit I have never read the final book in the series so what follows is only from the perspective of the first three books.

    I started out feeling neutral towards Bella when I was reading the Twilight series at the request of my girlfriend. She seemed like a “normal” high school girl other than the fact that she was described as basically being bad at everything that ever existed in the entirety of the history of the universe. Okay, that must suck. I actually saw her as a sympathetic character initially, because I know what it’s like to not be good at stuff, just like every other human being that is not perfect. As the series drew on, though, she never strived to really improve herself, she never grew up or matured, she never learned to accept herself for who she was. In fact, her inability to deal with the flaws she had been given is what killed me. I expect a protagonist that starts out weak to gain the tools, ability, and/or understanding/enlightenment to overcome their problems. In the first three books, I waited. I waited a long time, and I never got the satisfaction of her gaining any kind of independence or power over her life. She was just constantly dependent upon others around her and if her support vanished, she now became dependent upon a different individual to take care of her. I feel like at the end of book three, she was no different than she was at the beginning of book one, with the exception that she was now sought after by two men that were mortal enemies, and she sort of had the hots for them both.

    Now let’s look at Catarina from Miserere. She’s an evil, despicable woman. Before she ever actually physically appeared in a scene, it was made abundantly clear to me that she was a person that shouldn’t be liked. She was both cruel and manipulative, and yes, she was what someone could call a bitch. I feared for pretty much every character in her presence, or that she had shown even the faintest interest in. But she wasn’t a boring, evil character. She had moments where she hurt, where she even began doubting herself and what she had done as things started falling apart. Around that point, I no longer really saw her as just an outright evil character doing evil for evil’s sake, I saw her as someone who had fallen victim to her bad decisions, had moments she showed regret, turned it into anger, and made decisions that took away even more of her humanity. She became a tragic character in my eyes that was beyond saving. Her flaws were used to help her character develop throughout the story.

    I guess I should also bring up the fact that Bella is the main character of her series, whereas Catarina is the main antagonist of hers. But we could look at Rachael (also from Miserere), instead. Rachael was sort of described as a shrew-like character at her introduction in Miserere. She’s got a lot of flaws. She’s headstrong to the point of being self-destructive, she’s got a lot of emotional baggage thanks to Lucian, she’s missing an eye (also thanks to Lucian), and actually, pretty much her entire life sucks and she’s really bitter at Lucian. She’s practically consumed by her hatred for him because of what he did to her. I felt she was a sympathetic character initially because she had been screwed over so royally. At least, I felt sympathy for her and her situation, I’ve been thrown under the bus before. She was a very rough character (understandably, given her experience) and was very, very stubborn about pretty much everything, which started rubbing me the wrong way. She was running away from facing flaws that were making her miserable, but she does have to face them, and I can’t say she overcomes all her flaws, but she was an interesting character because she was trying to escape facing herself, but ended up growing and learning to deal with things in spite of herself (a few plot points certainly helped things along). By the end of the story, she is still a very flawed (and human) character, but she struggled and grew and become something more for her struggles. I had moments where I was frustrated with Rachael, where I was absolutely disgusted and angry for Rachael, and I had moments where I was cheering her on and where I was happy and/or proud for her. Teresa did a good job writing Rachael. Rachael’s struggles feel meaningful, both internally to her and also on a much larger scale that pushes the plot forward. I did not hate Rachael, but there were times when she and I did not get along.

    I’d take a look at Lucian, but I feel like he’s too sympathetic of a character to really draw a comparison to Rachael or Catarina. He starts out the story being a bitter man that is given a chance to atone and basically spends the entire story trying to make things right, even if he doesn’t make all the right decisions. He is still certainly a flawed character, but I feel like he was written to be more sympathetic than the others simply because he regrets his past actions and is trying so hard to atone for them, even if it means his death. And you know, my conclusion right here could just be a result of how entrenched our sexism is. Was he intentionally made more sympathetic than the other characters? Is he actually more sympathetic, or is that me thinking he’s more sympathetic simply because he’s a guy so I am more willing to overlook his own flaws?

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