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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