Recently the movie Not Okay hit a nerve by using “Unlikeable female protagonist” as one of the content warnings for its rating. What did the likability of the main character have to do with identifying the appropriate audience for this film? Nothing. This explanation was intended to be satirical, but it does point to a disparity in judging film and television characters.
There is a list of protagonists pulling off nastier stunts than faking a kidnapping. Misanthropic and pain-killer addicted Dr. Gregory House frequently disparaged his coworkers, exhibiting almost zero sympathy. Walter White was a down-in-the-dumps high school science teacher that fought the law rather than his cancer by manufacturing methamphetamines for sale on the street. People did not accuse them of being unlikeable male protagonists.
Why is there pressure to make female protagonists more likable than their male counterparts? A male protagonist can be anywhere on the range from handsome to ugly, sly to simple, strong to scrawny, or sophisticated to blunt, and still be considered likable as long as they show strength in at least one area. The female protagonist has to walk a tightrope.
The narrowest measure is that of beauty. But, this comes with subtle indicators that affect other characteristics. For example, the female lead can be physically strong but should not look musclebound. They can be older, as long as they look young. I recall an author showing off a cover with a female character that he assumed would read as a physically strong mature female. Her expression was tough, but her physical appearance was not, and she looked all of sixteen.
According to the Reysen Likability Scale, attractiveness is a major determinant of likability for females, and people are also pickier about the quantity of a woman’s laughter. The giggles of women in movies and films are reflected in real life. Women laugh as they talk, but not because they’ve found anything funny to laugh about.
This trend has hit close to home for me. My novella about a very intelligent, but not attractive female sparring with an attractive, manipulative male gained the comment “your female character is not likable.” One person went so far to say, “The problem is that she has low self-esteem.” My character had the opposite problem. She understood exactly where her ability lay and refused to give into playing dumb.
Finally, one person grew brave and defended her, “She reminds me of Daria Morgendorffer. I actually like her because she’s different.” As a person who doesn’t spend much time watching TV, I had to research Daria. She is a cartoon character and a teenager who is a bit pessimistic, not interested in fashion, and unfortunately, knows how to use her brain.
In film, the ideal female seems to be gorgeous and not intelligent enough to realize how good she looks. We are long overdue for characters who break this mold.