Why are we still talking about whether or not female characters are likable? Historically, female characters have been over-defined by how much a male viewpoint character likes, or indeed, doesn’t like them—creating a gendered bias of likability.
Elliot: “Nobody likes me when they first meet me.”
Why are we still talking about whether or not female characters are likable? Today’s it’s the default to embrace male characters who exist all across the spectrum of morality. But it remains incredibly common for critics and some viewers to fault female characters for being “unlikable” and declare that their movies or shows are, therefore, unwatchable.
Historically, female characters have been sidelined, more often the love interest than the leading role. As a result, they’ve been over-defined by how much a male viewpoint character likes, or indeed, doesn’t like them.
Kelly: “Which do you think guys like best on girls, long or short hair?”
Dylan: “Deep question. Personally, I prefer blondes.”
In real life, being considered unlikable holds women back far more than men, with one 2020 study revealing that in male-male interactions, likability “Is not an influencing factor”, but in male-female and female-female interactions, likability is crucial. There’s also the matter of what qualities are likable in women versus men: in studies of the Reysen Likability Scale, we see that women’s laughter is rated as more likable than men’s, and attractiveness is seen as a determining metric of likability.
And when it comes to female characters on screen (who are so often reviewed by male critics), there tends to be a conflation between likability and relatability, as if the only way we would ever be able to relate to women on screen is if we’d like to hang out with them. In reality, though, people are messy, flawed, and sometimes can be pretty damn unlikable—and the best characters illuminate this, along with all the nuances of the human condition. Here’s our take on the gendered bias of likability, and why we need to stop talking about whether or not female characters are likable at all.
The Myth That Likability Matters (for Girls)
So, what makes someone likable? Psychologist Stephen Reysen’s likability scale defines it through a series of questions, like whether you’d ask someone for advice, how approachable they are, and whether you’d want them as a co-worker or roommate. But this scale doesn’t measure a person’s deeper values or beliefs—just how they act superficially in society.
When it comes to interesting storytelling, it’s undoubtedly far less important for a character to be agreeable than to be real. Yet to this day, when female characters dare to behave unpleasantly, their stories risk getting trashed. In Diablo Cody’s Young Adult, the whole dark humor of the 2011 film is built around Charlize Theron’s Mavis acting in over-the-top unlikable ways as she desperately tries to recapture the glory days of her high school past.
Buddy: “Mavis, I’m a married man.”
Mavis: “I know, we can beat this thing together.”
For some reason that made it difficult for many reviewers to enjoy the movie. James Berardinelli wrote Mavis is “the kind of character who’s easy to despise,” saying by the movie’s end, “Any hope of our caring about what happens to [her] is long gone.”
Mavis: “And I hate this town! It’s a hick lake town that smells of fish shit!”
Sonja Bennet, writer and star of 2014’s Preggoland, said at least one studio was reluctant to take on her film due to the question of whether her character was likable, because, quote, “from a financial point of view female anti-hero movies like ‘Young Adult’ had underperformed at the box office… They thought those films were underperforming because the characters were unlikable.” It’s a persistent myth to this day (despite the lack of evidence) that the reason certain movies or shows fail is due to female unlikability. This was cited as a reason 2017’s Gypsy was canceled, with Terry Terrones writing that Naomi Watts’ caustic therapist was an “extremely unlikable figure” whose “irredeemable acts” made her a “lead player who is just hard to watch.”
Personality problems were the scapegoat for Tall Girl’s issues, too, with Alex Hartzog writing “Having a toxic lead does not make for an interesting story nor does it make the audience want to root for her.”
2011’s Bridesmaids was initially received as a female version of 2009’s celebration of male debauchery The Hangover. But unlike that film, Bridesmaids faced pressure to make sure its central character, Kristen Wiig’s Annie, showcased a serious, hard-working side, so she wouldn’t feel too unrelatable in the scenes where she acts wild and unhinged.
Annie: “I’m ready to parrrrtayy!”
It almost goes without saying that male characters who would be pretty objectively unlikable in real life are lauded on our screens. Tony Soprano, a literal mafia boss who murders members of his own family, set off a craze for male antiheroes. Breaking Bad follows a guy who likewise murders, lies and manipulates, putting his family at risk to manufacture meth for the sake of an ego trip—but all this was seen (rightly) as a plus from the standpoint of good drama. There’s an implicit understanding that these characters aren’t real people, but story elements who interact with everything else going on in the narrative to create interesting pockets of meaning. Willa Paskin described the “smug, menacing, [megalomania]” of Walter White as a “walking incarnation” of the central tension of the show.
Margaret Lyons writes that womanizing, arrogant, unpredictable Don Draper, is “there to remind us of the failures of postwar American culture that told people patriotism, consumerism, and determination were the keys to happiness.” In the comedic realm, the unlikability of George Costanza in Seinfeld or Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm as they call out petty social annoyances that most of us just tolerate, is the whole point. Carina Chocano writes that David’s unlikability in Curb speaks to a wider study on the universe, where “every little seed of discord that he has planted along the way [...] comes back to haunt him in a merciless karmic domino effect.” For decades now, audiences and critics have become increasingly educated in the value of unlikable male characters, and can recognize that likability is just one personality trait of many which should be factored into a portrait of character that illuminates the story’s wider truth.
Strangely, when it comes to female characters, numerous critics and audiences lack that ability to separate the character as a meaning-making story element, from the need to judge her as a human being. In You, Guinevere Beck should be the character we naturally sympathize with, given that she’s the target of a creepy stalker-turned-serial killer, but reviews still called her “ungrateful and lazy,” complained about how much she cried, and even said that her unlikability undermined the entire message of the show.
In The Walking Dead, Lori became a target for hate for, among other things, not being a feminist, and being a bad mom, which (given the fact the show is set in an apocalypse) seems harsh.
Another odd phenomenon when it comes to the reception of “unlikable” female characters is a widespread inability to recognize when stories intend the character to be unlikable to make a certain point. (This ties into the larger bias to conflate female storytellers with their characters and assume their material is always autobiographical.) Girls’ Hannah Horvath was described as “one of the most disliked characters on television” by Erin Whitney, but many critics and viewers seemed to miss that Girls was trying to depict Hannah and its other characters as privileged, entitled, bratty and often problematic in order to explore some of the worst traits of millennials.
Lena Dunham: “They thought we were going, ‘this is what everyone’s life is like’ and we were going, ‘no these are girls who don’t understand the value of a dollar. They think everything’s going to be handed to them.’”
In A Year in the Life, Rory Gilmore—the bright, mostly polite teen of the original Gilmore Girls series—had become an irresponsible, entitled 30-something who was even cruel toward her mother.
Lorelai: “It’s my life Rory… now you’re going to put it all in a book?”
The Things wrote that Rory, “the quintessential privileged millennial,” was “the number one reason why Gilmore Girls is the worst.” But Rory’s unattractive qualities actually made for a more interesting and realistic portrayal of how a millennial who grew up with wealth and privilege might be in this stage of life.
Rory: “I’m blowing everything. My life, my career… I’m flailing, and I don’t have a plan or a list or a clue.”
Critical and awards darling The Favourite was so interesting because it’s the rare historical drama that’s choosing not to give us female characters of the past who act in the way we’d expect—yet it too found itself dismissed by some for having “wholly unlikable female characters,” as if the movie wasn’t fully aware.
In the series Barry, a comedy about acting and assassins, Sarah Goldberg’s Sally embodies all of the worst clichés about actresses (like being self-absorbed, narcissistic and fame-obsessed) while at the same time illuminating in an honest way the heart, drive and complexity of striving to be a working actor. In response to early feedback that Sally was “too dislikable,” Goldberg fought to maintain the character’s flaws.
On the other end of the spectrum, the pressure for female characters to be likable can lead to one who seems written solely for likability, at the expense of making them real, multi-dimensional characters. And even then, trying too hard for likability can backfire. Emily from Emily in Paris is warm, friendly, and approachable, all traits indicated on the Reysen Likability Scale. Yet despite the show’s popularity, many viewers complained that Emily was annoying, to the point that Lily Collins felt compelled to defend her in an interview, saying “To have someone be optimistic, bright, and bubbly—it’s sad to think that people would look and go, ‘That’s a lot.’ ”
What’s Likable (in Ladies)
The gender bias surrounding likability isn’t just in how much it matters, but also in what we consider likable in men versus women. This sexism often plays out in business and politics, where important leadership qualities like assertiveness and directly addressing conflict are held against women.
Perhaps the most striking example of the unlikability bias in recent years came with the release of 2019’s Captain Marvel, when intense negative scrutiny on both the character and Brie Larson revealed a lot about gender expectations. Captain is a gender neutral term, but most female superheroes have explicitly feminine names; take Black Widow, Catwoman, Supergirl, the Scarlet Witch, and Wonder Woman. Today’s other main superhero with the “captain” name is that all-American archetype of masculinity, Captain America, so through this association, Carol Danvers implicitly adopts a kind of maleness. Criticism of Captain Marvel was rooted in her being too strong, too confident,
Carol: “I have nothing to prove to you.”
and too able to overcome her emotions. In other words, not woman enough.
There are countless examples in film and TV where a lack of traditional femininity is conflated with unlikability. Returning to Stars Hollow, Paris Geller was initially set up as an antagonist of Gilmore Girls, and loaded with “unwomanly” characteristics—she was assertive, driven, very confident in her own ability, and uninterested in sororal relationships.
Paris: “You’ll never catch up. You’ll never beat me. This school is my domain, and the Franklin is my domain. And don’t you ever forget that.”
But Paris went on a journey toward likability which entailed softening some of these stereotypically male characteristics, while forming a sisterly bond with Rory. In other words, as she became more of a girl, audiences began to like her more.
On the deeper level, what really bonds Paris, Captain Marvel, and other so-called “unlikable” protagonists isn’t masculinity, but agency. We are not asked to define them by their relationships to anyone else—least of all men.
But we’ve long been conditioned to view female characters—and perhaps women in general—in relation to others—as love interests, sidekicks, or (more broadly) objects of the male gaze.
For most of cinema’s history, women have served as images for men not only to enjoy, but also to use as symbols and project their inner worlds onto. In Laura Mulvey’s theories on the male gaze, she observes that this makes women inherently passive, an “erotic object for the spectator...” So when female characters take a more active role and define themselves, this challenges the automatic assumptions of many viewers and critics, who probably don’t even quite realize why this makes them so uncomfortable.
The Rise of the “Unlikable” Woman
Today we are seeing a growing number of compelling female characters who don’t adhere to traditional standards of female likability.And at last, stories are opening audiences up to them by leveraging more and more of the qualities that have long made us accept antiheroic males on screen.
Elena: “So what do you wanna do now?”
Eve: “I wanna kill her. With my bare hands.”
Salon’s Willa Paskin argues that competency is crucial to going along with unlikable characters. Intelligence or being good at a job are key reasons audiences were enamored with Tony, Walt, Omar or Don. And we’re starting to see more stories use competence, intelligence, and drive to get us to side with characters like Ozark’s Wendy Byrde and Ruth Langmore, How to Get Away With Murder’s Annalise Keating, Scandal’s Olivia Pope, Homeland’s Carrie Mathison, or The Americans’ Elizabeth Jennings.
Elizabeth: “No, we blew our whole window on the chase, we won’t make it.”
Phillip: “So? Parkway to the beltway, he dies, and 50/50 we miss the hand off anyway.”
Elizabeth: “No, the mission comes first!”
In Killing Eve, Eve Polastri’s focus on her work comes at the detriment of her relationships, but her brilliant insight as a detective is magnetic.
Eve: “I said it was probably a woman. Victor Cadron was a misogynist and a sex trafficker, he may not have considered a passing woman a threat.”
Meanwhile, the fact that psychopathic Villanelle is marked out as a top-notch assassin—and looks great doing it—makes her feel almost aspirational.
We also know that being funny scores highly on the Reysen Likability Scale. This traditionally male-coded trait has become an increasingly common tool for making us enjoy badly behaving female leads. 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon is kind of a bully and incredibly self-involved, but she—and her partner in unlikability, Jenna Maroney—are both brilliant comedic creations that send up stereotypes of white liberal guilt and the fragile ego of celebrity respectively.
Veep’s Selina Meyer is narcissistic, inept and totally devoid of morals, but this makes her the perfect center of the show’s satire of the incompetence and chaos of the political system, where no one really knows what they’re doing.
Mike: “It’s like a f***in’ rubik’s cube, I mean, it’s impossible at this point!”
Selina: “What, Mike? A rubik’s cube is not impossible to solve.”
What all these “likably unlikable” female characters share is that their behavior illuminates something interesting about their world and ours. And what we’d think of their character in real life doesn’t matter, compared to whether they’re interesting and their actions yield meaning within this particular story.
Modern female characters also confront us with the truth that unlikability is fluid and situational, rather than a permanent state. When we meet Mare from Mare of Easttown, she’s in a state of complicated grief over her son’s suicide, and so acts in selfish, highly unethical ways—not because that’s who she is inherently, but as a response to her struggle.
Chief Carter: “These two cases have taken a toll, and you’re still struggling to deal with the loss of your son.”
Mare: “No, that’s—”
Chief Carter: “I recommended grief counseling.”
In I May Destroy You, when Arabella goes through a phase of becoming an incredibly self-obsessed influencer and a bad friend, but we can clearly understand this as part of her journey of processing a harrowing sexual assault. Mildred in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, displays a lot of anger and blunt rudeness (qualities our society is highly primed to dislike in women) but her intense grief, along with her humor, helped many audiences understand where her rage came from. In Can You Ever Forgive Me?, this challenge to stick with a character who’s behaving in an unlikable way is baked right into the film’s title. Melissa McCarthy’s Lee Israel is motivated by economic desperation.
Being “unlikable” often frees up female characters to provide more of the story’s fun—like by driving the plot, raising the stakes, and keeping things entertaining. Unlikability can also be just a standard within the character’s world. The women of Succession and Ozark are by turns amoral, selfish and cruel,
Siobhan: “Not wanting to put a dampener on Rhea’s celebrations or anything but it’s time we killed her dead, smash her skull in with a rock.”
but they exist in morally bankrupt universes where we’re not invited to like or admire anyone—so why should we expect the women to be any different?
All of these examples push us to put ourselves in these women’s situations, just as we would for a male character—in other words, substituting likability for relatability. And this gets at the central problem at play when people complain they can’t relate to female characters: it reveals that too often critics and viewers aren’t seeing women as universal humans.
Partly this stems, too, from the longstanding white male makeup of the critical establishment—women are still in the minority of film critics. Even in a 2021 Decider review of Julie Delpy’s Netflix show On The Verge, critic Joel Keller writes that the “intensely unlikable” main characters “[hurt] the narrative of the show,” complaining that their unlikability renders them unrelatable. But there’s nothing even strikingly unlikable about most of the show’s characters; the reviewer’s inability to “relate” reveals more about him than about the comedy—whose humor about four 40-something women going through shades of mid-life crisis is probably accessible to many.
Yasmin: “Sometimes I think we’re all just grieving the person we hoped we would become.”
To be sure, it remains ineffective to make a female (or any) character unlikable and unrelatable, with no motivation we can identify with. Rosamund Pike’s most iconic roles represent an interesting study of this balancing act. In I Care A Lot, Marla Grayson is unlikable, but that’s all she is. And the film’s message is muddled, so while we’re almost invited to root for Marla, it’s unclear why. In comparison, Pike’s Amy Dunne in Gone Girl similarly behaves in shockingly unethical ways, but her motivation is clearer; we’re invited to understand and relate to the sources of her resentment,
Amy: “Nick Dunne took my pride and my dignity and my hope and my money.”
and so (even if we’d never condone her actions) we’re interested in going along with her for this ride.
In today’s social media-fixated world, we’re perhaps more primed than ever to fixate on the goal of being “liked.” But great stories move us the most not through characters who are purely aspirational, enviable, or “nice,” but who reflect a piece of ourselves we recognize (even when we’d rather not). As viewers, we need to get used to accepting that truth from a character of any gender. People can have bad days—which sometimes turn into bad weeks, bad months, and bad years. And if we’re honest, that may be when we’re able to relate to them the most.
Jeanette: “I have no one, I have nothing, and you want me to be more likable?”