Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss in the film adaptation “The Hunger Games”.
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Why I want more unlikeable female characters

When we don’t let women live the whole range of humanity – making mistakes, screwing things up, not being very nice – we miss out.

This article first appeared as a guest post on Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds.

I love asshole protagonists.

Or rather, I love a particular breed of them: protagonists who are brusque and violent, egotistical and snarky, but when the chips are down and the friends they’d never admit they care about are in danger, they’ll break the world to save them. Characters like Tony Stark, Sherlock Holmes, the Doctor, Rodney McKay, Spike, Wolverine, Artemis Fowl, Dean Winchester…

You might notice it’s a lot, lot easier to think of male characters who embody this archetype. And, in contrast to the many sympathetic asshole men who lead their own stories, the awesome ladies who are both jerks and heroes often aren’t the main protagonists: Faith and Anya from Buffy, H G Wells from Warehouse 13, Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica, Hermione from Harry Potter. We’ve got a few great leads and co-leads in genre – Maree from Deep Secret, Katniss from The Hunger Games, Miriam Black from Blackbirds, just for example. But for every woman who fits this mould, I can think of many more men: Bones and Body of Proof go up against Monk/Psych/Sherlock/The Mentalist/Endgame/Elementary/House, The Heat is one film outstripped in numbers by every other buddy cop movie ever made, and so on.

In fact, I did some maths! Narrowing solely to written fiction for the moment, since that’s what I’m about to talk about, I looked at the “literature” section of a bunch of the TV Tropes pages that match the asshole hero archetype I’m talking about:

Character Trope Male Examples Female Examples Genderqueer Examples Percentage Female
“Jerk with a Heart of Gold” 63 12 0 12/75 = 16%
“Sociopathic Hero” 16 2 0 2/18 = 10%
“Loveable Rogue” 47 1 0 1/48 = 2%
“Unscrupulous Hero” 8 0 0 0/8 = 0%
“Good Is Not Nice” 58 13 0 13/71 = 18%
Overall Average       THIRTEEN. FUCKING. PER CENT.

Notes: Literature section only, accessed 15 January 2015. I did a search on any name that didn’t have a pronoun attached. And this is not counting who is a lead character and who is supporting -- I’m willing to bet that number would go down if we narrowed to only protagonists.

Thirteen. Per cent!

Certainly part of the problem is that we don’t have enough women in media, period. After all, only about 30 per cent of speaking roles in movies go to women, and I’m not hopeful the written word is eons ahead. But 13 per cent is way way way lower than that, and also lower than other, more positive TV Tropes categories, even those we might expect to be gendered – “Minored in Ass Kicking”, for example, is more than one-third female.

This disparity in such magnificent assholery disturbs me greatly. It disturbs me enough that when I started writing what would eventually become Zero Sum Game, I purposely made my asshole antihero protagonist a woman, and it disturbs me enough that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it when interacting with other writers since then.

And I have a conjecture.

You see, as I’ve meandered through the depths of the Internet Writer Community, I see one question asked time and again: “How do I write good female characters?” I see people so worried – worried their fictional ladies will come off as bitches or whores or mean girls or ditzes or doormats or damsels or Mary Sues. And I see people carefully constructing their fictional women to be sexy but not slutty, confident but not arrogant, smart but not insufferable, flawed but not too flawed.

Because good representation, amirite?

But this desire to make fictional women somehow unobjectionable can flatten out everything that makes characters the most compelling. After all, stories are not built on unobjectionable people! There’s an excellent essay by Rose Lemberg that makes the point better than I could: I want female characters, particularly main characters, who are allowed not to be good. I don’t mean that just in a moral sense, although yeah, that, too – but I also want women who are bad at things, or just fucking terrible at being human. Women who are not nice. Who fail. Who make disastrous mistakes. Women who are unstoppable in combat but a disgrace at basic human interaction, or women who are fantastic diplomats but can’t hit the broad side of a planet with a weapon.

And yes, I want more women who are assholes.

When we don’t let women live the whole range of fucked-up humanity, we miss out. Just look at the list of male characters I started with at the beginning – every one of them can be a horrible jerk, but every one of them has an intense fanbase of people who love and connect with them. Hell, if you tried to take those characters away, Tumblr would melt the entire internet in rage. And I’m one of those fans! But I want me more lady antiheroes as well – and that can’t happen unless we let female characters be jerks too.

Let’s have more Starbucks and Marees and Olivia Popes. Let’s populate fiction with women who are every type of humanity – assholes and all.

Who’s with me?

S L Huang is the author of Zero Sum Game and its sequel Half Life, the first two books in a series starring an asshole female protagonist. You can find her online at www.slhuang.com or on Twitter as @sl_huang.

S L Huang is the author of Zero Sum Game and its sequel Half Life. You can find her online at www.slhuang.com or on Twitter as @sl_huang.

Marvel Studios
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In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, every other line reeks of a self-help manual

This lame sequel suggests the makers have largely forgotten why the original was so refreshing.

The 2014 romp Guardians of the Galaxy boasted the budget of a blockbuster and the soul of a B-movie. What that meant in practice was that audiences had to endure the same biff-pow battle scenes and retina-blistering effects as any space adventure, but they were rewarded with eccentric characters and tomfoolery for its own sake.

Despite the Marvel Studios imprimatur, the film showed the forces of intergalactic evil being fought not by superheroes, but by a ragtag band of bickering goofballs: Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), aka Star-Lord, a self-regarding rogue in the Han Solo mould; the green-faced alien Gamora (Zoe Saldana); Drax (Dave Bautista), a literal-minded hulk; Rocket, a racoon-like warrior (voiced by Bradley Cooper); and Groot, a piece of bark that says “I am Groot” over and over in the dulcet tones of Vin Diesel. Movies this odd don’t usually become $770m smash hits but this one did – deservedly.

Those characters return in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (the “Vol 2” reflects Peter’s love of mix-tapes) but the new film suggests the makers have largely forgotten why the original was so refreshing. Gags are rehashed; several sequences (including an interminable slow-motion section involving a laser-powered arrow) are dragged way beyond their desirable lifespan. Late in the day, Rocket tells his shipmates that they have too many issues, which rather pinpoints the problem with the screenplay by the director, James Gunn. Gunn has saddled his characters with unreasonable baggage, all of it relating to family and belonging. No matter how far into space they travel, all roads lead back to the therapist’s couch.

Peter, raised by his late mother, is delighted when Ego (Kurt Russell) materialises claiming to be the father he never knew. The old man makes grand pronouncements, only to undercut them within seconds (“’Scuse me, gotta take a whizz”) but, on the plus side, he has his own planet and pulls the whole “One day, son, all this will be yours” shtick. Gamora also has family business to contend with. Her blue-skinned sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), wants to kill her: Nebula has never quite got over Gamora being Daddy’s favourite. To be fair, though, he did force them to fight one another, replacing parts of Nebula’s body with metal whenever she lost, so it’s not like we’re talking about only one sister being allowed to watch Top of the Pops.

The more Peter gets to know Ego, the less admirable he seems as a father, and soon we are in the familiar territory of having parenting lessons administered by a Hollywood blockbuster. The reason for this became obvious decades ago: the film industry is populated by overworked executives who never get to see their children, or don’t want to, and so compensate by greenlighting movies about what it means to be a good parent. Every other line here reeks of the self-help manual. “Please give me the chance to be the father your mother wanted me to be,” Ego pleads. Even a minor character gets to pause the action to say: “I ain’t done nothing right my whole life.” It’s dispiriting to settle down for a Guardians of the Galaxy picture only to find you’re watching Field of Dreams with added asteroids.

Vol 2 gets by for an hour or so on some batty gags (Gamora misremembering the plot and star of Knight Rider is an especially juicy one) and on the energising power of Scott Chambliss’s glorious production design. The combination of the hi-tech and the trashy gives the film the appearance of a multimillion-dollar carnival taking place in a junkyard. Spectacular battles are shot through scuffed and scratched windscreens, and there are spacesuits cobbled together from tin pots and bubble-wrap. This is consistent with the kitschfests that inspired the Guardians aesthetic: 1980s science-fiction delights such as Flash Gordon, Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.

If only Vol 2 had mimicked their levity and brevity. Gunn ends his overlong movie with a bomb being attached to a giant brain, but this is wishful thinking on his part. He hasn’t blown our minds at all. It’s just a mild case of concussion. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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