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: