Unlikable Fictional Women: Who Gets the Privilege?
I didn’t watch Breaking Bad in its entirety until almost two years after the season finale. Up to that point, any knowledge that I had of the pop television phenomenon came second-hand from family, friends, and coworkers who swore by its brilliance. While there was plenty of character analysis to go around, everyone seemed to be in agreement on two things: Walter White was the complicated antihero and Skyler White was, to put it plainly, The Devil. Cited as unsupportive, a “killjoy,” and generally spiteful, Skyler was widely painted by the audience (well, the men in the audience, mostly) as an unlikable obstacle that you don’t want to root for.
Then I finally binge-watched the entire series. By the end of it, I was convinced that the Skyler I had heard so much about and the Skyler I had watched for five seasons were two completely different people. I never met the fire-breathing monster I had come to know incrementally, rant by rant. I did, however, become acquainted with the wife and mother who reacted fairly to each betrayal levied by the one person in her life who she assumed she could wholly trust. Overall, it’s just really difficult to guess what a perfect response from her would have been, aside from bidding on a matching hazmat suit on eBay and standing unquestioningly by her man. Seriously, though … how many of us would actually do that when faced with the same catastrophic betrayal? Maybe Skyler, like many female characters, was just doomed from the start.
Fast forward to today, where the topic of unlikable women in television reigns as the landscape of storytelling slowly shifts to feature women who test propriety. With shows like Insecure, Veep, Orange is the New Black, and Scandal, female characters are finally being granted the freedom to explore the different shades of humanity in ways that male characters have been equipped to do since the inception of entertainment. Selina Meyer gets to crassly order her staff around while manipulating her constituents. Olivia Pope can gamble with the White House for personal power. Women in leadership positions have the room to pursue/maintain their desired position at all costs. Meanwhile, working mothers like Skyler White are bound to unwavering loyalty. Everyday women like Insecure‘s Issa Dee are held to their mistakes both within and outside of their fictional universe (seriously, the amount of vitriol that Issa Rae received online following almost every episode was ridiculous).
So it brings about an important question when it comes to the unlikability of female characters: which women get to be unlikable?
Of course this question garners a different answer depending on who you ask. Race and gender identity certainly pave the way for white cisgender women to explore the boundaries of their morality in a way that other women are not able to. Class also plays a part in the way the general audience analyzes female characters. Would House of Cards‘s Claire Underwood be just as crucified as Sons of Anarchy‘s Gemma Teller Morrow in a conversation about ruthless women? Probably not, because Claire’s purpose for her ruthlessness would be valued greater than Gemma’s.
One factor appears to be consistent among the women: the more their roles are perceived as masculine, the more their unlikability seems widely acceptable, even encouraged. Women like Claire Underwood and Olivia Pope, both powerful figures within politics, may often be criticized, but are rarely approached with the large-scale, virulent brand of hatred that Skyler White endured throughout her televised prime. A lot of that has to do with their fortunate positions. As women in power they are almost expected to be unlikable. In fact, it tends to be excused as the most effective way of getting ahead. However, if a woman is a non-profit professional like Issa Dee or a mother like Skyler and Gemma, any behavior that falls outside of the nurturing prototype is deemed unacceptable. Whether or not their behaviors and mistakes are considered perfectly human is rarely the point; it’s about whether or not they successfully conformed to society’s notion of womanhood. Infidelity, anger, selfishness, possessiveness, and ruthlessness buck standards, therefore they are seen as an affront rather than relatable flaws.
These constraints are limiting not only creatively, but socially. How do we treat the imperfect women in our daily lives? When do we truly acknowledge that the standards that our society upholds for women are impossible and at times harmful? When do all women get the chance to be boldly human without facing unmitigated scorn and backlash? Our fictional ladies deserve better. Honestly, so do we.