I like people I find likeable. This goes for men and women, as well as the fictional and the living. I also like being likeable.
This all sounds pretty obvious, I know. And yet holding such an opinion these days makes one a bit of a philistine and, worse, a heretic in certain feminist circles.
We are living in a moment when calling a woman likeable is akin to calling her simple and a conformist, and calling a woman unlikeable signals depth and strength. Except so many women I know, fictional and otherwise, myself included, don’t neatly fit into these categories. We are deep, and strong and not always pleasant, but ultimately there is something likeable about us. Sometimes that thing is a traditionally feminine trait, and other times it’s not. Still, we’ll give you some reason to stick around, be it passion, kindness or a penchant for the truth.
The ongoing debate about whether fictional heroines should be likeable was recently set-off by a profile on novelist Jennifer Weiner in the New Yorker. In it, Weiner is quoted as saying that she doesn’t just want to give her readers characters that are alive and visceral, but also ones that can be their friends. Well, at least while they are reading the book.
Writing for Buzzfeed, critic and novelist Roxane Gay takes on this notion that characters should be likeable by positioning likeability as “ a very elaborate lie, a performance, a code of conduct dictating the proper way to be.” As Gay sees it, the unlikeable “dare to breach the norm of social acceptability” and are “the ones who are the most human, are also the ones who are the most alive.”
By Gay’s logic, the more a character “does bad things,” “makes ugly decisions” and “makes mistakes and put themselves first without apologizing for it” the more real or alive they are.
I don’t think so.
Calling women who are uncomfortable with intimacy unlikeable has become the new shorthand for writers and critics looking to indicate gravitas. This unlikeable woman is an inversion of the cliche female character who only aims to please. Except a cliche inverted doesn’t necessarily make for a cliche undone.
In her analysis of culture in 2013 for the New Yorker, poet and critic Meghan O’Rourke points to the rise of “cool, affectless” female detectives on television, women who read as “‘atypical’ women in one way or another—or we’re meant to think they are: so driven by their obsession with work that they fail as mothers, daughters, or lovers.” Maybe because I am a new mother, or maybe because I’ve always thought it possible to be passionate about work and other people, this rise of the affectless, ambitious type disappoints me.
This is not because these women aren’t likeable, despite their traditionally “unlikeable” feminine traits. (As Slate TV critic Willa Paskin noted in her smart piece on this topic, if unlikeable characters are all the rage these days, we must actually then like them.) But rather because fictional women are still being forced to choose between career and life, between being interesting and being married with kids. As a married women with a kid who tries to do right by the people around her, this must mean I am totally boring. And apparently not very alive. How depressing.
Still, the big question we should be asking here isn’t whether or not female characters are likeable or not, but rather what our fixation with these categories says about us. Why are women still stuck in this cycle of either/or?
Anyways, all the while we debate these categories, good art continues to defy them. We like characters not because of how they conform to or reject societal expectations, but rather because we connect with them. “Lolita” is the masterpiece it is because, despite our deepest instincts, we like Humbert Humbert, and are drawn to his charisma and sophistication. Do we want to marry him? No. But we find him irresistible nevertheless, we witness the tainted humanity, that is to say ourselves, within him, and so we read on.
Elissa Strauss has written for the Forward over a number of years. She is a regular contributor to CNN, whose work has been published in a number of publications including The New York Times, Glamour, ELLE, and Longreads.