Books by Gillian Flynn discussed in this essay: Sharp Objects (2006); Dark Places (2009); Gone Girl (2012).
Why do we insist that female characters in fiction be “likable?” What is likability anyway? “Likable” is often a code word for a woman who does not challenge the norm. The cultural expectation of women as selfless nurturers is so ingrained in our psyches that we find it shocking when a woman, even a fictional one, behaves in a way that is self-serving. She is labeled “unlikable,” as if the only purpose a woman serves is to get other people to approve of her.
We tend to think of women, especially fictional women, as types, usually in some kind of binary arrangement: madonna or whore; good girl or slut; princess or witch; crone, mother, or maiden. In reality, women come in all the variations of humanity, just like men, even the unpleasant flavors. Some women are shallow, narcissistic, capricious, cruel, cynical, dysfunctional, insensitive, unrepentant–all qualities that men can be. Female characters should also have a wide variety of qualities, if they are to seem as real and true as male characters.
Take the women in Gillian Flynn’s novels, for instance. Not one of her protagonists can be called “likable.” Libby in Dark Places is self-involved, dysfunctional, deeply damaged:
I was not a lovable child, and I’d grown into a deeply unlovable adult. Draw a picture of my soul, and it’d be a scribble with fangs.
Camille in Sharp Objects is also damaged, insulated, unwilling to coddle men or give them what they want. She sympathizes with the other girls who are outsiders and don’t play by the rules, even her violent sister:
The photo showed a dark-eyed girl with a feral grin and too much hair for her head. The kind of girl who’d be described by teachers as a ‘handful.’ I liked her.
And then there is Amy of Gone Girl, where Flynn pushes the boundaries of unlikability about as far as she can. Can she not only create a female protagonist who the reader doesn’t like, but one we actively hate, and still pull us into her story? Judging by the success of this novel, I’d say yes.
Likability, as Roxane Gay puts it so astutely in her essay “Not Here to Make Friends,” is a code of conduct. When a woman is said to be “likable,” she is behaving according to how society expects her to be. An unlikable girl is a problem for society. The problem, especially when discussing fiction, is that likability can be boring. It doesn’t challenge us at all. Flynn’s women make us feel uncomfortable and reexamine our assumptions about women. Making us feel uncomfortable is what horror is supposed to do.
When we read about a woman, the relevant question isn’t whether we like her. It’s whether we believe in her. Or as Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs, puts it: “Is this character alive?” A character who is alive, who is the primary actor in her own story, is a character who engages us and helps us see ourselves more clearly–even if what she is showing us is our darker side.
Our darker thoughts are as much a part of us as our strong and powerful qualities. We are women, but we are also humans, and that means we have flaws. The job of horror is not to portray our ideal selves, but our worst selves, the selves we don’t usually allow ourselves to be–for fear of not being liked, perhaps? We feel uncomfortable reading Flynn’s novels because we glimpse ourselves in her unlikable women. She puts voice to the dark thoughts we all have. She helps us accept and even embrace our “dark places,” in the process rejecting the unattainable expectations society has always put on women to be perfect, saintly, likable.
I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it. It’s the Day blood. Something’s wrong with it. I was never a good little girl, and I got worse after the murders. — Libby in Dark Places
Sometimes I think illness sits inside every woman, waiting for the right moment to bloom. I have known so many sick women all my life. Women with chronic pain, with ever-gestating diseases. Women with conditions. Men, sure, they have bone snaps, they have backaches, they have a surgery or two, yank out a tonsil, insert a shiny plastic hip. Women get consumed. Not surprising considering the sheer amount of traffic a woman’s body experiences. — Camille in Sharp Objects
I hated Nick for being surprised when I became me. — Amy in Gone Girl
Gillian Flynn, not surprisingly, was not a nice little girl herself.
Special thanks to Roxane Gay for her essay on the importance of unlikable female protagonists.