July 9, 2013

Heroine Week, Day 2 – Flawed Heroines and the Likeability Standard by Rebecca Rogers Maher




No one better to join Heroine Week than an author whose heroines and their journeys are always at the core of her books, and sometimes that journey exists outside of the romance itself, which make her stories even more compelling and rich. 

*****

Flawed Heroines and the Likeability Standard by Rebecca Rogers Maher

In Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman insists that the most important thing in life is to be likeable. “Be liked,” he says, “and you will never want.”

Is this true? Is likeability what we all should be striving for? In a recent interview about her novel, The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud was asked whether anyone would want to be friends with her angry heroine, Nora. Messud responded with an outraged, “What kind of question is that?” She suggested that it would never be asked of a male author, about a male character, and that it was not necessary to be friends with a character in order to be moved by her. The question of likeability, or the “critical double standard—that tormented, foul-mouthed, or perverse male characters are celebrated, while their female counterparts are primly dismissed as unlikeable,” was later posed to a panel of authors at The New Yorker, with compelling results.


In a response essay on Slate, author Jennifer Weiner argued that this debate suggests an implicit—and sometimes explicit—criticism of commercial fiction (or as Messud dismissively calls it, “crap you buy at airports”). Weiner contends that literary fiction writers look down on commercially successful writers, questioning whether their typically more relatable heroines are complex enough to be taken seriously. She asserts that there’s nothing wrong with likeable characters. I agree, but I’d like to take the debate to a different place. I’d like us to reconsider the definition of “likeable.”

In our culture, we’re surrounded by depictions of women who nurture, sacrifice, and caretake—who are pretty, thin, and white. We’ve come to think of this as the ultimate definition of womanhood. And when we compare ourselves to that standard, we usually find ourselves lacking. Because in reality, we can be cranky, angry, resentful, envious, judgmental, hurting, and mean. Admit it! This is true of every man, woman and child on the planet. We are terrible jerks on the inside.

And yet, as women, we feel compelled to sell a much more palatable version of ourselves. We sell a public persona that’s a good-time girl—easygoing, gracious, hardworking, selfless, attractive, well-groomed, and above all, nice. We sell it to men, to other women, and to ourselves. Why? Because we fear that if we don’t convincingly appear this way, we’ll be rejected.

The publishing industry seems to prove this is true. Plenty of female writers have reported receiving pressure from editors, publishers and readers to make our heroines more likeable. Film and television follow similar principles; where, for example, is our female equivalent of Tony Soprano—a heroine who is truly, unequivocally awful, but who we love and root for anyway?

Perhaps we find female “anti-heroines” difficult to be around. When I first met my best female friend, for example, she irritated the hell out of me. I found her abrasive, loudmouthed, arrogant, and judgmental. I thought, where does this bitch get off being difficult when I’m trying so hard to be EASY?

I was busy selling a version of myself that took a lot of effort—like a ballerina with broken toes smiling prettily—and meanwhile, this lady was getting away with showing her messy inside on the outside. How dare she??

I think this is what we do with flawed heroines. We get mad at them for being difficult, when we are working so hard to be the opposite. We step on each other’s necks competing to be The Woman Who is the Most Easy to Like, and we expect our heroines to do the same.

To me, this is not an issue of commercial fiction versus literary fiction. At least, it shouldn’t be. It’s an issue of women against women.

It’s perfectly reasonable to want to like the characters we read about. But I think we need to consider what we are selling as likeable, and why. Some women truly are sweet inside—God bless them!  Some are a combination of sweet and sour, and God bless them too.

When I got to know this friend I initially hated, you know what I learned? She was hilarious and fiercely intelligent. She had compassion—the bone-deep, genuine compassion borne of a complex life. She knew how to call me on my bullshit, and wasn’t afraid to do so. She rejoiced in the suffering of others, and then felt appropriately guilty about that. She was brave, ambitious, and occasionally irrational and self-sabotaging. She grieved over her losses, and raged about injustices against herself and others. She laughed so hard tears streamed down her beautiful, perfectly imperfect face. She was a real woman with real flaws—flaws that coexisted with her profound grace and strength—and this is what made her likeable to me.

In the romance genre, I want to see the full range of female qualities, without judgment or restraint. Every woman has a Bertha in the attic, and you know what’s the great thing about real romance? It will unlock those attic doors and set that bitch loose. Because that’s what love does. It opens you up—the real you. It reveals you. All your darkest, most hidden, most un-sellable qualities. And thank goodness! Because those are the parts of us that most need love. That most need to be seen, heard and accepted.

We need to expand our definition of likeability because it’s in romance that we deal with loveability—who deserves to be loved, and why.

In my books, I work with difficult characters. I understand that many readers will meet these tortured heroines with a huge dose of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. I know this because it’s true in my real life as well. The more I behave like my real self—a woman with lots of sharp edges, a mean sense of humor, and an arrogance that’s only sometimes justified—the more I find that some people don’t actually like me. Ha ha! My worst fears are true. And that fact is actually quite liberating.

I spent most of my life trying to be exactly what people wanted me to be, and guess what? I was miserable. Also? This is hard to admit, but I was untrustworthy. People could tell there was something brewing underneath the surface; they just didn’t know what.

This is how I often feel about an Extremely Likeable Heroine. What is she hiding? She can’t possibly be that goddamn perky. At least with a flawed heroine, you know exactly what you’re dealing with. That bitch is crazy! Nobody’s hiding anything, because she just goes right ahead and spews that crazy all over the hero.

And you know what’s the best part? He loves it. The flawed romance heroine isn't selling anything. She is simply herself, and it isn’t always pretty. She’s messy, complicated, and real, and she is loved anyway. As she should be.

We find these kinds of heroines in the books of Cecilia Grant and Charlotte Stein—characters who are difficult but who we care about. Who we love. Who we root for. It’s hopeful, to me, that these heroines exist and that we are willing to invest in them. It suggests that we might become more willing to accept the messiness in ourselves, and that is a good thing for all women.

Do you agree? Can you think of other examples of flawed heroines who pushed your buttons but with whom you still forged a connection? Please share. And please feel free to vigorously disagree. After all, even if you’re a pain in the ass, I’ll probably like you anyway.

*****

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31 comments:

  1. Melanthe, from Laura Kinsale's For My Lady's Heart was one of those heroines for me. Oh how I loved and hated her.

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  2. The heroine of Anna Cowan's historical isn't a bit likable. Nor is the lead in Anne Calhoun's Unforgiven. Tris and Katniss are fairly bitchy. Tam in Shannon's McKenna's McCloud series comes to mind too. Victoria Dahl has some pretty hard to take heroines as well. There's a small subset but they are out there!

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    1. The heroine in Unforgiven is also sexually forward and quite comfortable within her own sexuality. That's two strikes against her ;-) (And just to clarify, I absolutely adore her and the book)

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    2. They are out there, yes -- thank goodness! Those prickly bitches. I love them!

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    3. I didn't find the heroine in Unforgiven unlikeable...but given Rebecca's awesome new approach to looking at female characters I need to think about it some more...

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    4. I haven't read Unforgiven yet, but I love Anne Calhoun's writing, so I'm gonna get on that. Maybe the fact that you liked the heroine is a sign that you have an expansive definition of likeable, which is great! Let all the jerky women loose, world!

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  3. I found this link http://asherwolf.net/on-myths-of-glamor-and-faerytale-archetypes-of-female-form/350/
    thanks to Natalie’s weekly linkspam and I think it’s quite fitting to what Rebecca is talking about here.

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    1. Brie, that is a fantastic essay. Thank you for sharing it. Did you see this one? Also great. http://www.newstatesman.com/lifestyle/2013/06/i-was-manic-pixie-dream-girl-now-i%E2%80%99m-busy-casting-spells-myself

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  4. I quote my BFF’s wonderful, crazy aunt: “Anyone who doesn’t like me is an asshole!” I adore that woman.

    Personally, as a both a writer and a reader, I’m not looking for “unlikeable” so much as I am “real”. I like my heroines with a bit of edge to them, with opinions, with brains, and with sex drives. And I like them unapologetic about being who and what they are.

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    1. Can I make that quote into a T-shirt? And then wear it every day and never wash it?

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  5. My husband and I have been watching the incomparable Dame Mirren in Prime Suspect. She's incredible. She isn't likable; she's something else entirely. Hurtful, hurt, brilliant, sexy, witty, able to laugh, self-destructive, and utterly mesmerizing. I'm thinking the women in mysteries are way less likable as a whole than are the women featured in romance.

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    1. Why am I not watching that show? I love her.

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    2. It's been off for years, but you can watch through Amazon or Netflix. It's pretty freaking astonishing.

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  6. THIS.

    I like this kind of heroine. Complex, flawed, messy, good in parts. To me, that's not an 'unlikeable heroine', that's just a realistic character. Because the people that I like in real life are also complex, flawed, messy and good in parts.

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  7. This post is so amazing, and I think Charlotte Stein's heroines are such a perfect example. As I begin reading one of her books, I am always uncomfortable. Because the heroine is thinking what I would be thinking and that is a hard truth to see reflected back at you when you are trying to be something else, but then she pulls you in with that honesty of character.

    This hits so many nails on the head. Things I've tried to work out and never quite gotten to the center. Love, love, love.

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    1. Thank you! Isn't Charlotte Stein the best? She just makes you SQUIRM, and it's so fantastic and visceral and real.

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  8. We had a female Tony Soprano - it was Courtney Cox's character on her short-lived FX series, Dirt. Editor-in-chief at a sleazy tabloid - sort of like if Us Weekly, OK and The National Enquirer had a threesome. She was a bitch, and you weren't really sure if she genuinely cared about some of the secondary characters (is there a heart of gold there?), or just cared about what they could do for her (OK, maybe not....). I loved that show beyond all reason - and the damn writer's strike killed it. Well that and not-so-good ratings. Cougar Town lives but Dirt gets shit-canned? There really is no justice in Hollywood.....

    Sigh.

    And I need to catch up with review books so I can read more Charlotte Stein.....

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    1. I never saw Dirt, and now I'm bummed. All the good shows get canceled. My two favorites were canned recently -- Enlightened and Southland -- and it seriously made me question humanity. Such devastating writing, acting, and directing -- and some seriously flawed, wonderful women -- and nobody was watching? Gah.

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  9. I think there's a lot of women socialised to "be nice" and "if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all" and I think that women tend to judge each other more harshly than men do sometimes. But a super nice heroine makes my teeth ache with all the sugar. I'd rather have someone who is flawed and who isn't so intimidatingly perfect - they're much more interesting to read about and I'd much rather be friends with them actually.

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    1. It's a delicate balance, though, right? Flawed but not too flawed, sweet but not too sweet? Good-looking but not intimidatingly so and not vain about it? Feels like we're walking on a high wire sometimes. I think the thing I would most like in the world is to be able to read a female character or meet a real-life woman, and just accept her fully for herself, to be curious about her and interested in her motivations, and not be measuring us against each other defensively, you know what I mean? But I think that takes a certain amount of self-acceptance first.

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  10. Wow, this post brought tears to my eyes. I think you're speaking some important truths here. Especially this - "you know what’s the great thing about real romance? It will unlock those attic doors and set that bitch loose. Because that’s what love does." Amen.

    One heroine that I couldn't decide if I liked or not, is in The Bride and The Buccaneer by Darlene Marshall. It's a romp - the h/h work with/against each other to find pirate treasure. The heroine is completely, unapologetically out for herself, to the point of seeming amoral, and I really had a problem with her. I don't care for amoral heroes either, but I think this heroine bugged me more because it went so against how I was socialized (to you know, put other people's needs ahead of my own). I think that's part of your point - one of the values of a "difficult" heroine is in pointing out the parts in ourselves we'd rather pretend aren't there.

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    1. You put that so well, Cleo. One thing I really hate is when I've got a nice pleasant burning hatred going for another woman and then I realize what I can't stand about her is really something about myself I'm trying to stifle. Ugh! Can't I have any fun?? Once I realize it, I don't know that I necessarily start loving the woman, but I might learn something from knowing her. I figure that's true for heroines as well, as you say. I'll check out the Darlene Marshall book -- thank you!

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  11. For some reason I can't seem to get anything to happen when I hit "reply". *sigh* I think t-shirts would we awesome. Though we might also want to consider Aunt Joanie’s other main quotable: "What do I care, he he's not making me cum." which I use FREELY in response to situations where I’m supposed to care about offending someone and I really don’t see why.

    Also, sign me up as another who ADORED Dirt. I think there are a few others who come close, Nurse Jackie, The Closer (both Brenda and Laura are hard to like and I sometimes wince at how they treat the people who love them), Joanie on Deadwood (who I freaken adored), Ava on Justified, the collective women of Mad Men.

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    1. Aunt Joanie, adopt me please! I'm going to check out Dirt for sure. There definitely seems to be more experimentation with heroines on cable TV, which is so great. I absolutely loved Laura Dern on Enlightened and Regina King on Southland -- both powerful, challenging women.

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  12. This rings so, so true. Especially this:

    I was busy selling a version of myself that took a lot of effort—like a ballerina with broken toes smiling prettily—and meanwhile, this lady was getting away with showing her messy inside on the outside. How dare she??

    I think this is exactly what the insistence on heroines being likeable is all about: How dare she! If you've spent all this time and effort presenting yourself as likeable and easy and tamping down on the mess, seeing someone getting away with not doing so makes the point that all that effort was in vain.

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    1. Yes, I think so. One aspect that troubles me is that we're often competing with each other for the attentions of men, some of whom are much less bad-ass and awesome than we are! Or would be if we just let loose and did our own thing. So again I say, set that bitch loose! :)

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  13. I love this post-some great food for thought for me to ponder! I especially like the "how dare she!" part.

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