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11 August 2022

Why do we still have a problem with “unlikeable” female characters?

Warning: this article contains discussion of an imperfect woman.

By Ellys Woodhouse

There is a moment in the opening seconds of Not Okay, the black comedy recently released on Disney+, that has sparked viral discussion online. Danni Sanders (Zoey Deutch) is a struggling “zillennial” writer who fakes a trip to Paris by editing her Instagram posts. When a series of terrorist attacks is carried out across the city and threaten to reveal her lie, Danni rebrands herself from basic influencer to survivor activist – what can I say, the internet loves trauma.

But before we meet Danni, or hear of any terrorist attacks, an opening message flashes across the screen. It reads, “CONTENT WARNING: This film contains flashing lights, themes of trauma, and an unlikable female protagonist. Viewer discretion advised.”

This warning appears initially as a sly, satirical joke – no one could seriously suggest that Danni’s actions, while morally egregious, could necessitate a trigger warning, could they? Well apparently so. According to the film’s director, Quinn Shephard, “The content warning was borne out of, to be honest, our test screenings. We un-ironically and consistently got responses from – I’m not going to say what demographic, but you might be able to guess – people who were quite literally like, ‘why would someone make a movie with an unlikable woman?’”

Of course, Danni is by no means the first or the most flawed female protagonist to exist in media. The debate over just how imperfect fictional women are allowed to be has been raging for centuries – from Gustave Flaubert’s 1857 trial for “outrage to public morals and religion” after he dared to depict a woman who sometimes behaved “immorally”, to hand-wringing over whether Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl is “a sexist portrayal of a crazy woman”. In the past decade, there have been a flurry of works with messy, difficult or downright villainous women at their heart – Girls, Fleabag, Killing Eve, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Promising Young Woman, I May Destroy You, Normal People – all critically acclaimed for their portrayals of morally complicated characters. So why is it that “a certain demographic” – men – still have an issue with unlikeable women? And if the primary audience of many of these shows are women, why do we have to adapt media to suit what men want?

Of course, there are plenty of examples of the male counterpart to this trope – although they tend to be more flatteringly referred to as “anti-heroes”. Characters such as Don Draper, Tony Soprano, Walter White and Dexter Morgan have dominated TV screens for more than 20 years without the need for content warnings. Yet for female characters there is still the expectation to be a moral exemplar; that by the time the credits roll, she should be fixed of everything that makes her “unlikeable” and returned to being a “woman”.

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After her novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, and the film adaptation starring Tilda Swinton, sparked similar debates, the author Lionel Shriver concluded that audiences often get approval and affection confused. “I’m less concerned that you love my characters than that you recognise them,” she said. Many women outside the realm of fiction are also deemed “unlikeable” – that does not mean they are less worthy of being written about.

Unlikeable female characters not only present a more accurate representation of the spectrum of womanhood – flaws and all – but they allow us to confront aspects of it. Not Okay addresses how a societal insistence on “perfect” women allows the shallowness and narcissism of influencer culture to flourish, while Fleabag explores the shattering impact that shame can have on a person. The protagonists in popular teen shows Never Have I Ever and Euphoria continue to make morally questionable decisions, but the audience is trusted to understand that the characters are not role models but human beings.

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In the closing act of Not Okay, after her scam has been uncovered, Danni comes bearing her Notes-app written apology and puffy eyes to apologise to a survivors group she manipulated to cultivate her lie. However, Danni is denied any chance of redemption. Instead, she is forced to listen as a school shooting survivor Rowan (Mia Issac) closes the film with a powerful spoken word monologue. As Danni sits in the audience in the darkened auditorium, Rowan’s message is clear: nothing she can say will ever make this OK. Danni’s actions are inexcusable and the film doesn’t attempt to convince us otherwise. Instead she remains an unlikeable woman until the screen cuts to black.

In an essay for Buzzfeed, Roxane Gay writes “in many ways, likability is a very elaborate lie, a performance, a code of conduct dictating the proper way to be”. Of all the deceptions and poses in Not Okay, perhaps the idea that a woman must be “likeable” is the biggest lie of all.

[See also: Big Brother is back. Can nothing stop our obsession with toxic TV?]

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