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TV's female characters don't care if you like them

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Sep 3, 2019, 7:28 AM EDT (Updated)

Fictional characters, in many regards, are like real people. They're products of the creative right brain, a result of inspiration. Some of them are manifestations of our worst emotions; some of them symbolize our better nature. From an audience standpoint, no two people are necessarily going to respond to a character in the same way -- much the same as people, we're not going to be a fan of every character we encounter in fiction.

But what makes a character -- and a female character, more specifically -- unlikable? It’s a complicated subject, and there’s certainly no unifying answer. Some characters are victims of poor writing, while some are purposely written to be disliked and embraced in spite of their villainous traits. Some evolve into better characters but can't shake audience perception, which in turn leads to all their resultant actions being cast in a negative light. Given the vast, sprawling medium of television, examples of all of these types of “unlikable” female characters have cropped up -- many of them within the last several years alone.


It’s been seven years since the finale of LOST, yet the show attracts as many passionate opinions now as it did then. Fans had their favorites, but when it came to characters the audience couldn’t stand, the most hostility swirled largely around Kate Austen. Although early seasons of the show depicted her in a much better light -- her flashback episodes painted her as the unreliable narrator of her own story -- her intriguing plotline eventually devolved into a barely-disguised love triangle over the course of the show’s six seasons. While a lot of criticism against Kate was unfairly gendered (she was dubbed a slut by some for having romantic relationships with both Jack and Sawyer), a large portion of the negativity lobbed in her direction was due to disappointment for what could have been, especially when she had such a strong showing when the show first aired. Perhaps Kate’s greatest sin isn’t that she’s a divisive character, but that she could have been a much better one.

Not long ago, Jane Foster experienced a similar fate in the Marvel Cinematic Universe after being written out following the first two Thor movies. While there may have been some off-camera reasons for her departure, Jane still represents an example of a female character with a lot of wasted potential. It’s difficult to watch the first Thor film and not notice her smarts; she serves as the intellectual foil to Thor’s physicality, which is perhaps one of the reasons why their relationship succeeds as strongly as it does. Compared to Thor: The Dark World, which largely sidelined Jane from the bulk of the story, Thor is the best example of Jane’s strengths in action outside of the comics themselves -- in which she literally gets to wield Mjolnir as the new Thor.


Certain female characters are written to be unlikable, but because they’re written well they become the kinds of characters we love to hate. From the first moment Ellen Tigh tipsily swayed onto the screen in Battlestar Galactica, audiences were predisposed to be suspicious -- and with good reason. Even before the twist that she was actually one of the “Final Five” -- original Cylon models born 2,000 years prior -- Ellen was a character whose manipulations eventually gave way to hidden depths. The reveal of her complex backstory may have partly contributed to this, but it was also her longstanding and oft-strained relationship with her husband Saul that proved to be one of the show’s most complicated. Ellen was the kind of character who was sometimes branded as, among other things, “a cat in heat” and an “alcoholic sexpot,” but those surface-level readings do her a disservice. Certain darker arcs on BSG, like the season on New Caprica, gave audiences the opportunity to glimpse just how far she was willing to go in pursuit of answers -- or power.

American Gods’ Laura Moon is a contemporary example of an “unlikable” female character written in a compelling way. While the source material by Neil Gaiman didn’t delve too deeply into Laura’s story, showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green made it a point to expand where the novel had limited her point of view. Over the course of the first season, Laura in particular was a character who courted a diversifying number of audience responses, from those rallying behind her for her honesty and apathy to others correctly criticizing her tendencies to selfishly benefit from others. In spite of Laura’s bad behavior -- her betrayal of Shadow, her marital infidelity, which directly results in her death -- most fans were unable to simply despise her character. While she’s now dedicated her afterlife to making amends for past actions, against Shadow most specifically, she doesn’t need to be fully absolved of her sins to be fascinating.


Unfortunately, when it comes to female characters who have adapted and matured into better versions of themselves, some audiences have adopted a paraphrased version of Mr. Darcy’s philosophy from Pride and Prejudice: Their good opinion, once lost, is lost forever. There have been several recent examples of female characters who can’t quite toss off their negative labels, even if they’re surrounded by male contemporaries who are guilty of equally bad if not even more reprehensible behavior. Breaking Bad’s Skyler White is perhaps the most extreme example of this, but on Game of Thrones Sansa Stark has wound up on the receiving end of a significant amount of negative treatment from viewers. Within the world of Westeros itself she’s even been referred to as a mini-Cersei (by none other than Jon Snow), but has she really earned the title? Could it be that perhaps she's finally learned how to play the titular game of thrones after experiencing a story arc primarily consisting of grit and survival, or is the staircase of redemption that much steeper for some female characters? Holding Sansa up against her sister Arya makes for an even more revealing comparison: While Arya is often praised in defiance of her antihero tendencies, Sansa’s largest crime only seems to be that she has persisted against great odds -- and that could hardly be described as annoying.

Of course this “likability” factor for many female characters is admittedly subjective; TV audiences are just as prone to project praise onto the fictional women they sympathize with as they are contempt for the ones they disapprove of. The way we feel about certain female characters can be chalked up to any number of factors -- life experiences, viewing preferences, engagement level. Sometimes we don’t like characters because we want them to be better, but what do we do once we start to see improvement? In the long run, it may not matter -- these fictional women aren’t real, and they don’t have to care if we like them or not. In that respect, maybe the types of female characters we spend our time disliking say more about us than they do about them.

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