One day I will write a very detailed account of my love of Will & Grace and Living Single.
I’m in desperate need of something resembling a Bat Signal whenever a network is airing a marathon of either of these shows. It doesn’t matter that I can recite almost every episode by heart, nor is it a concern of mine that I own every season of Will & Grace on DVD. I will watch every episode like it’s the first time and laugh obnoxiously as if the jokes are fresh. I’m tempted to present these shows as sort of a litmus test for new potential friends.
I remember gushing about Grace Adler to a friend during my Freshman year of college and he kind of blanched at the idea of me considering her a favorite. “How can you honestly like her?” he asked. To strengthen his argument against her, he listed a few of her qualities that he found most unsavory: she was selfish, a little obnoxious, kind of a slob, and uncompromising about the things she wanted in her life, even at the inconvenience of others. She also had a tongue of acid at times.
My rebuttal: “I know! That’s why I love her!”
For kicks, I asked him who his favorite character was. His response (which came so quickly that I’m not entirely certain that I actually finished the question): Michael Scott. Famously inappropriate, culturally clueless, dopishly racist/sexist Michael Scott.
I didn’t have the time back then to dissect the clear double standard here (even though I’ve always quite enjoyed Michael Scott myself) and to be honest, I’m not positive that it would have mattered all that much to my friend back then. His outlook – where forgiveness of character flaws is provided much more liberally for our favorite fictional men than women – was widely shared just as much then as it is now. When it comes to women in television (hell, women in general) there is more of an emphasis placed on overall likability than any other character trait. Is she smart? Is she strong? Loyal? Kind? Generous? Reliable? Polite? Affable? Does she always look her best? Is she great at her job? Is she an attentive mother/wife/friend/daughter/coworker/neighbor/newspaper delivery woman with energy to spare? And if she is the ideal picture of benevolence…is it credible? When you really explore the commonly touted expectations of female characters in entertainment, there is just not much room for error. They (and we) are expected to be impossible and possible all at once. And while I try to abstain from the concept of fairness…dammit, it’s not fair.
My general likability is far from my greatest concern, therefore I tend not to place the same expectations on the characters that entertain me each week. It’s actually the ones that are labeled unlikable that I gravitate towards the most not because I’m a horrible person, but because I see more of myself in them than anyone else. When you look at some of the reasons women in television might be deemed unfavorable – whether they’re stubborn, demanding, occasionally offensive, sarcastic, etc. – you’ll find that they’re characteristics that exist in everybody at our most genuine.
I don’t want anyone to assumed that I don’t also love likable characters or find them wholly inaccessible. Jane the Virgin‘s Jane Villanueva, for example is a figure whom I will treasure always and strikes me as the perfect example of the Likable Female Lead who is also nuanced, charismatic, sharp, flawed, and hilarious. It’s quite difficult, I feel, not to fall for her once you meet her. I find her relatable in many ways, between her love of sweeping romance and her proclivity to dive into things heart first. I see those aspects in her and find some solidarity.
But it’s important that I see the rest of me reflected in my entertainment, too – the flaws that were deemed unbecoming long ago. Roxane Gay wrote this incredible essay over a year ago about the importance of unlikable female protagonists in literature. As she brilliantly noted, the ability for these women to exist without the pressures of being liked allowed us to see them at their most authentic. We get the opportunity to make more of a connection based on something more tangible than perfection: humanity. When a character in a book, movie or show is shamelessly honest, for example, more often than not they’re saying something that I’d probably never have the guts to say. In female protagonists, however, they’re more likely to be considered harsh or bitches rather than “straight shooters” like their male counterparts.
I recently had a discussion with a friend on Twitter regarding the importance of the Unlikable Female Character where I mentioned that she’s vital to the visibility of women in television and other media. It’s not just about having an interesting character to argue about by the water cooler; it’s also about having a character that serves a versatile purpose outside of being just the voice of reason or as a foil for the protagonist. It’s these layered characters that you get to take the journey with and the ones who become household names. You’re more likely to hear someone recall a variety of memorable Walter White moments than those of Skyler White. The flawed are the ones that get the character development, the side adventures, and the occasional redemption. They monopolize the discussion. Let us be a part of the discussion.
Some might argue that these women aren’t necessarily “unlikable,” but instead “complex.” I agree with that, but I also think that we shouldn’t shy away from the term “unlikable.” Avoiding the term insinuates a fear of not being liked which, again, I’m not sure should be our primary concern. Also, erasing the idea of unlikability has a way of sugar-coating what some of these characteristic truly are. Let’s face it: being selfish, withholding, judgmental, or cutthroat can be shitty things to be (certainly not always!). And that’s fine. They’re also human components that most of us have experienced within the last hour. We should be able to see this side of humanity without automatically villainizing it, and women should be just as entitled to these flaws as men, both on and off the screen.
I’m always going to defend the Unlikable Female Character because just as I should be allowed my flaws, so should the women on my TV. Should we all aim to be the best version of ourselves? Absolutely. But “best” does not equate to “perfection” and since entertainment should reflect certain aspects of real life, it’s crucial for me to see that the sources of my entertainment understand this concept. It’s why I cheer when Grace Adler is unabashedly selfish. I root for Maxine Shaw when she uses her razor-sharp tongue to defend herself. I feel better about my own potty mouth when I hear Dee Reynolds being utterly crass. I understood Gemma Teller-Morrow’s desperation to keep her family together, even if she felt that manipulation was her only tool in achieving that. I get Drita D’avanzo’s fierce promise to protect her family “at all costs.” Mindy Lahiri’s almost scholarly knowledge of celebrity gossip over current events matches my own, at times (though, in my defense, I was quite aware of Osama Bin Laden’s death, unlike her). It was difficult to not be moved by Rosa Cisneros’ passionate back story, even if it did include robbing banks. And while I strive to one day be as put-together as Olivia Pope, I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t feel Mellie Grant on a deep level, from her ruthless approach to establishing her own power to her desire to knock the mistress in her husband’s life down a few pegs. They’re allowed to have messy hands and beating hearts. That’s as important as it is entertaining.
Finding some level of solidarity with these women does not mean that I agree with them at all times, nor does it cloud my ability to recognize when they’re problematic. But I’m grateful for their existence and I’m anxious to see a future inhabited with more beautiful, layered, slightly messy women.