The Unlikeables: Unlikeability in Male vs Female Characters

| Wednesday, September 18, 2013

When you're perusing online YA book reviews, as many of us are wont to do, you'll often notice a whole lot of contradictions in the way people view girl protagonists. A whole lot of people have written about how girl characters just can't win, no matter what they do.

It certainly seems that regardless of personality, characteristics, strengths, weaknesses, actions, inaction, or otherwise, there are always a few things you can expect to find within any batch of reviews. First and foremost, accusations of being a Mary Sue. It doesn't really matter if the character is too perfect for words or completely imperfect in every way, someone will accuse her of being a Mary Sue. It's like the Godwin's Law of YA. The Mary Sue Law, perhaps?

Other accusations one can expect to find for practically any female protagonist? Weak, boring, bratty, bitchy, limp noodle, pathetic, obsessed, selfish, wishy-washy... the list goes on, but you get the gist. The common theme is that there is always something wrong with her. She's never good enough.

And that's the MAIN CHARACTER. The "good" girl. The one we're supposed to root for. It's not even TOUCHING on lady villains.

Lady villains, man. Not even pure villains... any woman who detracts from a man's story. You've hardly ever seen a group so loathed. Especially when they're getting in the way of the shippers. Woe be the woman who steps between a non-canon m/m slash ship. And if they're cruel, calculating, clever murderesses? HOO BOY. Never mind that mean, nasty, angry asshole boy/men characters are often lauded as *sassy* and *wounded* and *sexyyyyyyyy.*

Why is it, exactly, that unlikeability in men is revered (they're sometimes called ANTI-HEROES, for crap's sake) while unlikeability in women is met with derision? People are ECSTATIC when a "bad" lady character bites it. They LAMENT when an equally awful dude gets the axe. And writers often indulge this preference, subconsciously or not.

I witnessed a recent example of this in the Teen Wolf fandom at the close of the last season. Major spoilers for all three seasons ahead! You've been warned!

omg so sassy!

If you're unfamiliar with the show, let's do a quick rundown of the season's antagonists.

1.) Peter (man) - Alpha werewolf; sire of the protagonist for purposes of building his own strength; murderer of previous alpha, who happened to be his niece/fan favorite's sister. Dies via fire/throat slashed, then is resurrected in perfect health and allowed to rejoin the "good guys." Continues to manipulate everyone for his own gain.

2.) Kate (woman) - Female MC's aunt. Hunter. Manipulative murderess who seduced a fan favorite and then murdered his entire family via arson because all werewolves = bad. Dies via slashed throat, stays dead.

3.) Gerard (man) - Female MC's grandfather. Hunter. Manipulates another character/supernatural being to commit several murders in order to ultimately manipulate the werewolves into biting him so he can survive his terminal cancer. Betrays his family, tortures and murders characters in cold blood, is generally horrible. Suffers a supernatural sickness... which he survives, in addition to the aforementioned TERMINAL CANCER. Remains alive, albeit under constant care.

4.) Victoria (woman) - Female MC's mother. Hunter and "decision maker" for her clan/family. Tries to kill male MC out of misplaced desire to "protect" her daughter + bias against werewolves. Is bitten and dies via assisted suicide rather than turn. Remains dead, occasionally appears in visions/flashbacks.

5.) Deucalion (man) - Alpha werewolf. Blinded by Gerard after failed peace negotiations (Gerard's fault), becomes vengeful. Murders his entire pack for power, inspires others to do the same. Is not above murder to further his own ends. Makes multiple attempts on the lives of our heroes and manipulates them for his own gain. Is defeated, but not before having his sight magically restored by the female villain. Is allowed not only to live, but is released to his own devices to "think about who he used to be."

6.) Jennifer (woman) - Druid gone bad. Was brutally assaulted, disfigured, and nearly killed by someone she considered a friend. Becomes vengeful. Proceeded to murder innocents in an attempt to seek revenge. Makes attempts on the lives of our heroes and their loved ones. Dies by having her throat slashed... twice. Remains dead.

Weird pattern arising here, right? I'm not even getting to other minor "bad" characters, where again a woman of color was killed and remains dead (Kali), but two of the white male "bad guys" appeared dead but then came back (Aiden and Ethan). I do want to note that the character Ethan is also gay, so I'm less bothered by this... although a show lauded as so LGBT-friendly still killed off a lesbian earlier in the season.

Hm. Hmmmmmm.

It's like... male villains tend to live while EVERY. SINGLE. FEMALE. VILLAIN. DIES. Even the male villains that DID die are somehow given a second shot through resurrection or MAGICAL HEALING.

This is not a mistake. It's not a single skewed example. There have literally been SIX "primary" antagonists, split evenly between the genders, and every single "evil" woman died while every single "evil" man lived.

The reaction in the fandom is even more troubling. If you even begin to scratch the surface, you'll find fans REJOICING at the deaths of these female characters. They deserved it! They were so awful! Bitch got what was coming to her!


Meanwhile, the male characters (particularly Peter and Deucalion) are completely excused of any wrongdoing because they are so *sassy* and *sexy*. Give a dude villain some sarcastic one-liners, tragic backstory, or a few deadpan eye rolls and he becomes a fan favorite no matter what he does.

I doubt I have to even tell you my theory for why this happens, but I'll do it anyway: women, in general, are socially confined to a very strict set of behaviors and expectations. If they put a toe out of line, they become stigmatized (brat, bitch, selfish, slut). If they DON'T put a toe out of line, people still find a way to stigmatize them (boring, stupid, pathetic, weak). Women are considered Strong Female Characters if their "strength" is suitably masculine -- physically strong, fighter, acts like a bro, all without sacrificing her (heterosexual) sexuality and attractiveness (to men). If their strength is derived from emotional intelligence, compassion, or vulnerability, then they are not "strong." See: recent criticism of Mako from Pacific Rim for not being "feminist enough" because she... cries and respects her father figure and isn't perfect at her new job immediately. Despite the fact the she is THE key player in SAVING THE WORLD. Even Buffy freakin' Summers is referred to as "whiny" when she's being all... ugh... emotional.

That's a complicated mess right there. Even mainstream (white cislady) feminism demands perfection and lack of emotion from their heroines.

On the flip side, naturally, men are excused for asshole behavior because 1) we are simply taught that men are more valuable in general, and 2) behavior that would be considered "bitchy" or "psycho" or "slutty" in a woman is applauded in men. He's clever! He doesn't put up with anyone's shit! He's assertive! Even manipulative bastards are considered "charming" instead of horrible. He knows just what to say to get everyone to do what he wants! What a charmer!

Over and over again, we see male villains (or so-called "anti-heros") lie, cheat, steal, murder, torture, rape, use, belittle, crush, and manipulate. They can do it for power, for revenge, for lust, for pride, or for giggles. Doesn't matter. In the end, they are still awesome and sassy and fun to watch.

Women who do any of the above -- even women who don't -- deserve to die and stay dead because no one wants to hear their stupid mouth. See: the fandom's reactions to Walter White (super awesome badass anti-hero!!!!) and Skyler White (bitch! bitch! weak bitch! KILL HER OFF!) from Breaking Bad.

This goes even deeper. In literature, it's considered significant, deep, and well-drawn to create an unlikeable protagonist... as long as it's a man. Lolita, anyone? Very few would confess to actually liking Humbert Humbert because the dude is intentionally a creep and literal pedophile, but they respect the construction of the character and the creation of the work. You don't hear about woman characters who receive the same level of respect. Any woman who gets in the way of a man's story is horrible and needs to die, any woman who doesn't fit Western society's idea of womanhood is horrible and needs to die, any woman who stands up against a villainous (but so charming!!!) man should probably die, too.

I'm not saying anything that hasn't been said before, but I always think it's worth reminding people to really sit down and explore their "preferences" for male characters over female characters. Why do you just ADORE this tortured, angry man, but you can't stand this tortured, angry woman? Why can you forgive this guy for being a literal rapist and murderer because he's got awesome style, but this woman who dared to use someone for her own gain deserves to die a million deaths?

Do you have thoughts to share, readers? I love thoughts!


{ Becky Mahoney } at: September 18, 2013 at 1:45 PM said...

I wish I had coherent thoughts besides 'ugh!' You're so right, and it's depressing. Whenever I hear that old "I only like male characters better than female characters because they're so much more WELL-WRITTEN" chestnut, it makes me want to grow hundreds of feet and start rampaging through the seas.

{ Yael } at: September 18, 2013 at 5:27 PM said...

Regardless of audience backlash, I will continue to write complicated, abrasive, unlikeable female characters. They're more interesting.

{ JeffO } at: September 18, 2013 at 5:45 PM said...

One thing I'm curious about is the demographic of the 'fandom'--who is it that's hating on all the female characters?

{ MaryAnn Pope } at: September 18, 2013 at 7:47 PM said...

I've never seen Teen Wolf, and I don't spend a lot of time in fandom of any show, but surely there must be some female villains that fans love.

What about Azura from Avatar the Last Airbender, she was awesome. Or Faith from Buffy, and Drucilla and Darla from Buffy and Angel. Or Katherine from Vampire Diaries. Or Cersei Lannister from A Game of Thrones. I can't imagine these villains being despised by fans because they are simply amazing characters. But maybe I'm just out of touched. So are these characters hated by the fandoms? Personally, I love a good female villain.

{ Stephanie Ingrid Sarah Kristan } at: September 19, 2013 at 6:22 PM said...

Yeah we can't really speak to the Teen Wolf specifics, but we agree that the double standard between male and female characters definitely extends to villains too. Which is a shame, because complex villains (regardless of gender) are the most fun!

{ E.Maree } at: September 27, 2013 at 1:19 AM said...


{ Blair B. Burke } at: October 9, 2013 at 8:53 AM said...

I love anti-heroes and I've written two of them in the same medieval world - one male, one female. I don' t know why, but it does seem easier to make the man much worse and still have readers route for him. With the female character I just don't feel like I can take her as far down the dark path and still have people on her side. You are so right that it shouldn't be a double standard, but I find myself using it without being aware of it. Maybe I'll have to look at that some more.

{ Emma Brill } at: January 15, 2014 at 12:23 PM said...

It is sad. Like Sherlock, Irene and Moriarty - everyone love SH and JM but hates IA.

{ Nico Villarreal } at: February 22, 2014 at 11:56 AM said...

I don't think those sentiments are as universal or general as you're making them out to be, especially to the point of being a law.

For example, one of my favorite female villains is Yang from the TV show Psych. While she was completely insane, she wasn't as evil as her counterpart Yin. But she was also incredibly awesome with her odd manerisms, and the clever way she would hide clues. Ultimately, the hero of the show was incapable of defeating and killing the villain Yin, whereas Yang was able to, even though Yin was her father.

She is my favorite female anti-hero, and one of the most loved characters in the Psych fandom, not to mention playing more major parts than any other side character from the Ying/yang episodes.

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