In Praise of Unlikeable Women: Introduction (1)

 
Book Review_ Eileen by Otessa Moshfegh.jpg
 

I have a horrible feeling that I’m a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical,
depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist.

– Fleabag [1]

 

The unnamed narrator from Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Fleabag from Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s eponymous television series lead vastly different lives, yet their experiences intersect through the ways in which they navigate their emotions, thereby generating a similar kind of popular reception. Set in major cultural and financial capitals, New York and London, both works centre around two female characters who are on the brink of a mental breakdown. Moshfegh’s narrator is an orphaned 24-year-old woman who recently graduated from Columbia University, holds a mindless job at an art gallery, and takes on the project to sleep for an entire year, hoping to wake up a better and more enlightened person. Fleabag is the owner of an unsuccessful guinea pig-themed café, who goes through life navigating a series of masochistic relationships with men, as she is haunted by grief and guilt over the recent death of her best friend. Both works depict characters leading rootless, anxious lives who navigate adulthood with deadpan humour that is revealed to cover unbearable shame and sadness. They both tend towards self-sabotage as a coping strategy and turn to meaningless sex to fill the void of their unstable lifestyles. Most importantly, both works have generated the same kind of public critique, with countless articles addressing their shared “unlikeable” features, spotlighting female characters who refuse to contain their dark feelings for the sake of normalizing gender inequalities.


Numerous articles debating the likeability (or, more precisely, lack thereof) of these two characters continue to emerge on various popular websites, to the point where it becomes a challenge to find reviews in which how detestable, subversive, selfish, self-destructive or sex-obsessed the main characters in My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Fleabag presumably are is not the main point of focus (see, for example, Lincoln and Wilson). The extra-textual conversation surrounding these works position the two protagonists as anti-heroines, although that was not what Moshfegh and Waller-Bridge intended them to be. Their intention, rather, was to create characters that are unhindered by the gendered representations imposed on women, by portraying female characters that do not filter their socially unacceptable behaviour, nor do they apologize for it.


In an interview discussing My Year of Rest and Relaxation from 2018, Rich Juzwiak mentions that the book’s protagonist does not behave the way women are generally expected to behave, and proceeds by asking Moshfegh whether her motivations are reactionary or simply matter of fact. Moshfegh’s answer comes as the following:

 

I have a tendency to just not want to participate in groupthink, period. I feel like there are certain things that, as a woman, are inextricable from the group experience of being a woman. Certainly, there’s overlap between what’s being spoken about in this wave of… I don’t know if you call it feminism or just, like, social politics. I didn’t feel like I was corresponding to that in any deliberate way. I felt like I was just really imaging the lives of these women and the irritation in limitation that they would experience. That’s kind of it.

 

Similarly, in an interview for Vice magazine from 2016, Lauren Oyler mentions that “[a] lot of writers have characterized Fleabag as ‘unlikeable,’ which is a trendy way to talk about female characters who do bad things,” and goes on asking the show’s creator whether it was her intention to create an “unlikeable” character. Waller-Bridge answers:

 

Not at all! It was important to me that she's funny, self-aware, and entertaining company for the audience to keep—but also, whenever she seems callous or dismissive, it's because of underlying pain. I hoped that pathos would balance out the more caustic sides of her character. I think that a woman not giving a shit about what people think in a certain moment—being undercutting or self-aware—weirdly means that she's a profoundly unlikable person. I see [Fleabag] as a person whose mood changes and is defined by her pain, not necessarily her actions.

 

As such, both Moshfegh and Waller-Bridge clearly show how their protagonists were not necessarily created as anti-heroines, even though this is how they have been categorized by readers and viewers. To be clear, my thesis does not aim to account for and to analyze the recent influx of unlikeable female characters in popular culture. My research attempts, rather, to explicitly link the negative responses from readers, viewers and critics who are most affected by these characters’ unlikeable traits with our current postfeminist political and cultural background, which embraces stories of bubbly and positive female protagonists that conclude with their acceptance of patriarchal expectations. As such, I attempt to unpack the social and political struggles that both Fleabag and Moshfegh’s unnamed protagonist direct to our attention, albeit both doing so in a very passive manner, as I will demonstrate in Chapters 2 and 3.


According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word “unlikeable” is described as “not having pleasant or appealing qualities,” and the provided example is “an utterly unlikeable character.” An important question to raise in this thesis, in relation to the novel and the series, would be: to whom are these characters unlikeable, and based on what factors? Although (un)likeability is a subjective matter, what is undeniable is that what we generally find (un)likeable is a social construct which reflects the values and principles of one’s environment. Thus, it is safe to claim that the negative responses towards both Moshfegh’s protagonist and Fleabag are symptomatic of the values and norms we hold true today in relation to female characters, an idea that will be further analyzed in Chapter 1 of this thesis.


Two feminist critics that have previously and notably discussed the topic of unlikeable women in fiction are Roxane Gay and Kameron Hurley. In an article titled “Not Here to Make Friends,” Gay observes that “from a young age, [she] understood that when a girl is unlikeable, a girl is a problem.” After finding a note in her high school yearbook that reads “I like you even though you are very mean,” Gay has a revelation: “I understood that I wasn’t being intentionally mean. I was being honest (admittedly, without tact), and I was being human.” Her statement is indicative of the way in which women’s expressions of complex emotions can easily be interpreted as offensive and thus rendered unlikeable.


Throughout the article, Gay draws a connection between female characters who do not follow a particular code of conduct as dictated by society and their negative critical reception. More often than not, female characters who embody unpleasing but nonetheless human characteristics require a diagnosis for their unlikeability in order to be tolerated. Similarly, Gay observes how in the case of the movie Young Adult, Charlize Theron, who stars as Mavis Gary, is diagnosed by many reviewers as mentally ill, because “[t]he simple explanation, of Mavis as human, will not suffice.”


A similar formula can be found in both My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Fleabag, where most critical discussions aim to justify the protagonists’ presumed dysfunctionalities by seeing them as an aftermath of their traumatic past (Pejcha; Foiles). However, the characteristics that critics and reviewers find as “flawed” are further encoded in gendered expectations about how women should behave. That is why, by and large, when male characters act in concretely unethical ways, they are simply labeled as “anti-heroes” (such as Humbert Humbert, Jay Gatsby, Don Draper, Patrick Bateman, Tony Soprano and so on). However, when female characters act in the same manner, a totally different conversation ensues. As Gay puts it in “Not Here to Make Friends,” “[w]hen women are unlikeable, it becomes a point of obsession in critical conversations by professional and amateur critics alike. Why are these women daring to flaunt convention? Why aren’t they making themselves likeable (and therefore acceptable) to polite society?” For this situation to change, Gay claims that literary merit should not be dictated by morality – which further reflects how likeable a character is – and argues in favour of increased visibility of unlikeable female characters:

 

I want characters to do bad things and get away with their misdeeds. I want characters to think ugly thoughts and make ugly decisions. I want characters to make mistakes and put themselves first without apologizing for it (…) I want characters to do the things I am afraid to do for fear of making myself more unlikable than I may already be. I want characters to be the most honest of all things — human.

 

Kameron Hurley also addresses the topic of female unlikeability in her essay titled “In Defense of Unlikeable Women,” published in 2016. At the core of the essay lies a critique against the deeply rooted disposition in readers to hold female characters to higher standards than male characters. As Hurley notes, the traits we most root for in male characters – such as complexity, confidence and even the occasional selfishness – become the marks of the aforementioned “unlikeable character” when attributed to females. According to Hurley,

 

Male writers, and their male protagonists, are expected to be flawed and complex, but reader expectations for women writers and their characters tend to be far more rigid. Women may stray, but only so far. If they go on deep, alcoholic benders, they’d best repent and sober up at the end. If they abandon their spouses and children, they’d best end tragically, or make good. Women must, above all, show kindness. Women may be strong—but they must also, importantly, be vulnerable. If they are not, readers are more likely to push back and label them unlikable.

 

This double standard delineated by Hurley for men and women in works of literature and other arts is further explored by Lili Loofbourow in her essay “The Male Glance,” where she explains how content created by women is often seen as superficial or inferior in quality to content created by men. Loofbourow points out that our ability to see complexity in works created by or centred around women is diminished by our reading habits. Moreover, the author argues, centuries of glancing over female-driven stories have led readers to the assumption that there is little to be found there. As Loofbourow puts it, “the glance sees little in women-centric stories behind cheap sentiment or its opposite, the terrifically uninteresting compensatory propaganda of 'female strength'.” Hurley supports her argument by directing our attention towards the distinctly gendered roles women were cast as over time – mothers, caretakers, servants, assistants, handmaidens etc. In the case in which women do not fit these categories, there is a certain supposition that something must be inherently unnatural – or they are simply deemed unappealing.


Author Claire Messud combats this issue head-on in an interview from 2013 with Publishers Weekly regarding criticism she has received about her own characters. When the interviewer, Annasue Wilson, asks the author if she would like to be friends with Nora, the protagonist from The Woman Upstairs, adding that her outlook is “almost unbearably grim,” Messud responds:

 

For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? (…) If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?”

 

Nonetheless, while writers like Gay, Hurley, Loofbourow and Messud point out the problems of glancing over female-centric texts and labelling complex female characters who stray from the normative expectations of womanhood as “unlikeable,” they do not specifically offer any background on or explanation for why that might still be the case today, a time when it is commonly believed that feminism has already achieved its purposes. In her book The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change (2008), Angela McRobbie comments on the state of feminism in contemporary (media) society:

 

[In] popular culture there is also an undoing or dismantling of feminism, not in favour of re-traditionalisation, women are not being pushed back into the home, but instead there is a process which says feminism is no longer needed, it is now common sense, and as such it is something young women can do without. (8)

 

Similarly, in Young Women’s Dis-identification with Feminism: Negotiating Heteronormativity, Neoliberalism and Difference (2009), Christina Scharff puts McRobbie’s claims into practice by interviewing a diverse group of 40 women aged between 18 to 35. Her results support McRobbie’s claims and exemplify a postfeminist logic: “feminism was either considered as valuable, but anachronistic and therefore irrelevant to the present, or fiercely repudiated as extreme and dogmatic” (5). Comments by women she interviewed ranged from “I am just not sure whether, to what extent [feminism] is still important nowadays” (145) to "nowadays, you don't have to talk about it much, because it is also normal (…) it does not need much clarification, or debate, it is simply clear that the woman is also allowed to work, that she has certain rights, that the man cooks, or, I mean, I feel it's simply normal" (145). Such comments support McRobbie’s claim that feminism is understood as no longer needed, as it has already achieved its main purposes.


Nonetheless, these case studies were conducted over a decade ago, which poses the question of whether they are still relevant today. As I will demonstrate in the last section of the first chapter, postfeminism itself has gone through different phases – from feminism being fiercely repudiated to being acknowledged as positive, yet irrelevant to the present. However, the values postfeminism represents remain distinctly encoded in our society. As Rosalind Gill puts it in “Post-postfeminism?: New Feminist Visibilities in Postfeminist Times” (2016), “I look forward to the day when the constellation of values and ideas signalled by “postfeminism” no longer extern their chilling cultural force, but in the meantime, we are a long way from being post-postfeminism” (625-6).


Despite their so-called “unlikeable” characters, both My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Fleabag remain highly popular works of art, with countless reviews searchable on the internet, which can only imply that people do like these stories and perhaps even relate to the characters to a certain degree[2]. This, in turn, shows that readers indeed relate to women who are sometimes cruel, ill-mannered and downright oblivious to proper conduct, yet they remain at the same time influenced by our society which champions “acceptable” women who do not need to be depressed, angry, or difficult, an idea that stands in contrast to Sara Ahmed’s figure of the “feminist killjoy” (2010), which will be further analyzed in both Chapter 1 and 2.


The combination of finding a character unlikeable yet still relatable is, to a certain extent, antithetically positioned to what is nowadays described as a “guilty pleasure.” According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a guilty pleasure is “something pleasurable that induces a usually minor feeling of guilt.” It is very often referenced in connection to two of the most notable genres to emerge during this time period – chick flick movies and chick lit novels, both of which following a distinctly postfeminist logic. They are called “guilty pleasures” precisely because people like these female characters – or they have been made to like them, despite arguments about their culmination into patriarchal acceptance, as the ending usually reinforces the importance of getting married and starting a family. However, Fleabag and My Year of Rest and Relaxation do not follow the same pattern, but rather stand in stark contrast to postfeminist protagonists by continuing to disturb and subvert readers’ expectations by ending in an unsatisfying manner and leaving their issues unresolved. They are not what readers would call “guilty pleasures,” yet they nonetheless offer a certain satisfaction giving their undeniable popularity.


As such, my interest lies precisely in unpacking the politics of the negative critical responses towards these characters, despite their popularity. In doing that, I will show how a double standard for male and female protagonists continues to be deeply rooted in our current postfeminist movement, despite its perfunctory claim of gender equality. In order to achieve that, attention must first be paid to the concrete features of postfeminism and its significance as a theoretical framework.


A deeper look into the postfeminist discourse will allow me to examine how readers in this post-Second-Wave era are engaging with texts and other media products, and what happens when some works such as My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Fleabag mark a departure from it. In order to pinpoint the exact peculiarities of postfeminism, I will draw on explanations provided by different scholars, such as Angela McRobbie and Rosalind Gill, both of whom having written extensively on the topic. I will also offer various analyses on what many media scholars consider to be distinctly postfeminist cultural products in order to better explore the themes and features that characterize this movement.


Finally, by discussing the concrete features of postfeminism and applying them to analyze cultural products which adhere to this movement, I will not only show the ideology that I believe to best characterize our current moment, but I will also demonstrate how postfeminist popular culture punishes female characters who refuse to meet its standards – or, in this case, renders them “unlikeable.”

 

Footnotes

[1] Season 1, Episode 1. [2] It is worth mentioning that the women in these works are both white, cisgender, middle-class, heterosexual women.



Bibliography


“Guilty pleasure.” Dictionary by Merriam-Webster: America's Most-trusted Online Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web.

“Unlikable.” Dictionary by Merriam-Webster: America's Most-trusted Online Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web.

Ahmed, Sara. The Promise of Happiness. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010. Print.

Foiles, Jonathan. “My Year of Rest and Relaxation. A New Work of Literary Fiction Examines The Uses & Abuses of Psychopharmacology.” Psychology Today. N.p., 23 July 2018. Web.

Gay, Roxane. “Not Here to Make Friends.” BuzzFeed. N.p., 4 Jan. 2014. Web.

Gill, Rosalind. “Post-postfeminism?: New Feminist Visibilities In Postfeminist Times.” Feminist Media Studies 16.4 (2016): 610-630. Web.

Hurley, Kameron. “In Defense of Unlikable Women.” Bitch Media. N.p., 31 May 2016. Web.

Juzwiak, Rich. “Interview with Ottessa Moshfegh, My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Her Year of Pain and Disorientation.” Jezebel. N.p., 18 Dec. 2018. Web.

Lincoln, Michel. “The Pleasures of Hating in ‘My Year of Rest and Relaxation’ On Ottessa Moshfegh's Latest "Unlikeable" Character.” Chicago Review of Books. N.p., 8 Aug. 2018. Web.

Loofbourow, Lili. “The Male Glance.” VQR Online | A National Journal of Literature & Discussion. N.p., 5 Mar. 2018. Web.

McRobbie, Angela. The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change. Thousand Oaks: SAGE, 2009. PDF.

Moshfegh, Ottessa. My Year of Rest and Relaxation. London: Vintage, 2018. Print.

Oyler, Lauren. “‘Fleabag’ Star Phoebe Waller-Bridge on ‘Unlikable' Women and Sexual Validation.” Vice. N.p., 19 Oct. 2016. Web.

Pejcha, Camille S. “'Fleabag,' 'You,' and the Rise of the Delusional Protagonist.” Inverse Magazine. N.p., 3 Jan. 2020. Web.

Scharff, Christina M. Young Women’s Dis-Identification with Feminism: Negotiating Heteronormativity, Neoliberalism and Difference. Thesis. London School of Economics and Political Science, 2009. Web.

Waller-Bridge, Phoebe, creator. Fleabag. Two Brothers Pictures, 2016 – 2019.

Wilson, Annasue. “An Unseemly Emotion: PW Talks with Claire Messud.” Publishers Weekly. N.p., 29 Apr. 2013. Web.

Wilson, Craig. “Fleabag is the Best Tale About the Worst People.” The Plum List. N.p., 25 Apr. 2019. Web.