Dear Committee Members
by Julie Schumacher
2014 • 192 pages • Doubleday
When we talk about well-rounded female characters, we often talk about allowing female characters to be unlikable. (Hell, we also talk about allowing female characters to look like actual human type women, which is such a broad category that it’s really amazing how often the mark is missed.) Even when female characters express unlikable traits (which, let’s be honest, are often considerable desirable or at least neutral traits in male characters), they’re often punished for it, by both the narrative and the audience. As much as I’ve been enjoying How Did This Get Made, their episode on A View to a Kill features the whole crew comparing Grace Jones’ superhumanly strong May Day to a shaved horse. It’s why Amy in Gone Girl is such polarizing; she may be, in a certain slant of light, a misogynist’s hysterical nightmare, but she gets to be selfish, hateful, cruel, violent, and dispassionate in a way few female characters are. (And the crowning glory: she gets away with it.)
But there is a B side to that argument, much shorter than the much more important single: why do we allow male characters to be unlikable? Specifically, why am I so often asked to sympathize with, idealize, or otherwise just plain tolerate male characters whose behavior is self-indulgent, passively cruel, and generally awful without any redeeming characteristics? I am fine with unlikable male characters in the abstract. I am, after all, quite an active fan of James Bond, the last three films of which franchise have been entirely about an already unstable man being built into a horrifically amoral monster. (And it’s so, so great.) Unlikable characters, as we’ve established, can be riveting and revelatory. What I’m taking issue with is when I am presented with unlikable male characters and told, by both the text and paratext, that I should like him.