A New Wave of Unlikeable Women
Anti-hero has been synonymous with male characters - Tony Soprano, Patrick Bateman, Walter White, Holden Caulfield, - the list goes on.
It is understood that the lack of virtuousness, morality and general unlikeability of such characters does not make their stories any less engaging to watch, if anything their flawed tendencies keep us watching, not despise them.
Notoriously, these sorts of roles have been taken up by men, and until recently, such roles for women had been lacking.
‘Disagreeable Women’ have only recently had their time to shine.
We’ve had some (poor) attempts at ‘girl-power’ that present shallow depictions of empowerment with ‘women can do it too’ sloganeering - a message that feels more like an attempt in explaining feminism to men than creating diverse roles for women.
The most alternative woman we could hope to see was the ‘cool-girl’ trope whose coolness relies on the number of male friends she has and/or rejecting anything remotely feminine.
To see a simply unlikeable character played by a woman was rare, and if we did, their unpleasantness was usually compensated with at least one redeeming quality, or some form of trauma that would excuse such unappealing behaviour.
There is a one-dimensionality to these tropes that place women in victimhood, heroism, or to serve and elevate the men’s character.
With more female writers, producers, show runners; the trajectory for women on screen is changing and we can enjoy variations of unlikeability, from Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag to Issa Rae’s Insecure, films like Young Adult, Three Billboards, The Favourite, and countless more.
Most notably, Lena Dunham’s Girls, who played the show’s protagonist Hannah Horvath, changed the landscape for the sort of women we would eventually get to see on screen, and in many ways was the first of its kind - observing and commenting on millennial culture.
Shows like Search Party, which came out the same year Girls ended, is similar in tone, exploring the shameful, entitled comedy of millennial life with its own sinister twist.
Girls was a fresh take on the life of twenty-something year olds in the period of time between graduating and ‘adult life’; the characters unapologetically egocentric and entitled.
The show allowed its (anti)heroines to be as oblivious to their petty complaints and judgements that was both relatable and humorous. The writing took risks in not giving in to the audience’s wants - the characters don’t become altruistic, they only get more unlikeable.
One of its central character’s, Marnie, hits a new level of narcism where with complete sincerity states: ‘I have bruises all over my body from the hours of massages I need to get over your addiction,’ after failing to notice years of her husband’s opioid addiction.
The men are not immune from this treatment either - Marnie’s husband Desi is just as intolerable, a performatively modern sensitive man who is all surface and no substance.
The lack of self-awareness in all these characters get them into hilariously dark situations. It is also filled with some genuinely touching moments, especially in its exploration of female friendships.
The show succeeded in not predictably realising the characters in the way we wanted it to, or used to seeing. Instead it offered something new, and more interesting, an accumulation of lived experiences each serving to inform the characters’ next move, avoiding any grand self-realisations. Things change as the series continues, and as the characters grow older, but the show risks to imagine a different ending for the characters, one that doesn't necessarily pan out the way they had expected.
Girls did not come without its own set of problems, it was weighed down by its almost exclusively white world, representing the lives of a narrow group of the privileged women that seemed to reflect Dunham’s own world.
The specificity of the show is not inherently problematic, but becomes so when it is the only world we are seeing on screen. What it did represent was a shift in the way women could be seen, the show brought us into a new era of unlikeable and layered female characters.
This unlikeability however, was not immune to critics whose denouncement of Hannah’s egotism provided a way to air their own misogyny - a Forbes critic asserts: ‘There is no moral in behaving this way. She simply is, and continues to be annoying.’ Hannah is annoying, and so are most of the other characters. But it treats this ‘amoral’ behaviour as accidental as opposed to an intentional creation of Dunham’s making.
When The Sopranos was released it was lauded in its ability to portray a murderous criminal we at once rooted for and were outraged by. The show was judged on the basis of this being a conscious creative decision in regard to the show’s writers and creator. Whilst men’s art remained (and remains) intentional, women’s art has oftentimes been considered accidental.
Now, imperfect women have become part of TV’s DNA, but Girls felt radical in its depiction of unforgiving women.
It’s hard to imagine living without shows where women don’t take up such roles, from Killing Eve’s Villanelle twisting necks in a pink, fluffy gown, to Broad City’s Abbi and Ilana uninterested in a world existing outside their friendship.
Women are not a monolith and neither should the roles available to them be.