Why the Unlikable Woman is More Likable Than You Think

By Morgan Roberts

At the 2018 New York Film Festival, actress Carey Mulligan was asked how she could get into character for someone as unlikable as Jeannette in “Wildlife” (2018). Mulligan explained to the shortsighted audience member that likability is more than niceness. It is finding a connection in someone. Mulligan transformed herself into Jeannette, a young mother who, while her husband is away, has an affair as she tries to find herself again. It is a beautiful performance about the way definitions can be thrust upon and shackle women.

So, what made her unlikable? Was it the infidelity? The selfishness? The uncomfortable self-exploration? It seems that male characters can do and be those things. We call them “complex” or “complicated.” We label them the “anti-hero.” But what makes that journey different for women?

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Carey Mulligan in “Wildlife”

“People are complicated. Regardless of gender. Wherever you fall upon that spectrum, you are complicated.”

From where I sit, it should not be different at all. If there was to be a difference, it should be more of a celebration than a condemnation. To me, the “unlikable” label is weaponized to diminish or demonize the women portrayed and the actresses portraying them. At the end of the day, the more “unlikable” the woman, the more likable they truly are.

Likeability is used to make or break cinema. Look at Netflix’s “Gypsy” (2017). The Naomi Watts lead series was canceled after one season with many critics labeling the main character as “unlikable.” But then there are shows like “Two and a Half Men” or “Mad Men” which were teeming with unlikable men.

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 Naomi Watts in “Gypsy”

People are complicated. Regardless of gender. Wherever you fall upon that spectrum, you are complicated. And the more complicated the women we see in film and television, the more our complexities are celebrated.

It is nice to see women be messy. Margot Robbie in 2017’s “I, Tonya” portrayed a woman we all reveled in her messiness. But instead of letting Tonya Harding remain the caricature society painted, Robbie gave her depth. She let her be unforgiving and ruthless but also terrified and broken. It is a compelling performance that does not condone her actions, but gives them context. It is a heart and understanding that we do not expect from male-lead films. Look at Robbie’s other film, “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013) where men got to do some pretty despicable things without any redeeming background or qualities.

“Olivia Wilde recently said, “With female characters, you run the risk of audiences turning it off if the girl isn’t likable. But on the flip side, a male character could stab someone in the eye and audiences will say, ‘Huh, he seems nice. Does he have a dog?’”

The ”unlikable” trope gives women the ability to be free in all of their feelings. Television is much better at this than film. Netflix, though they canceled “Gypsy,” have kept on series like “Orange is the New Black” – about female convicts, “Russian Doll” – about a drug-abusing narcissist continually dying on her birthday, and “GLOW” – a show about a host of messed up women together on an amateur wrestling show. They all are about complex women. “Orange is the New Black” has women who are drug dealers, abusers, murderers. But they find the human in each of them. Natasha Lyonne shines in “Russian Doll” as she peels away the rough exterior of her character. “GLOW” is a crowning achievement in portraying complex women. Alison Brie stars as Ruth, who sleeps with her best friend’s husband and learns to own her “villainous” side. Her frequent acting partner, Betty Gilpin, beautifully portrays rage-filled Debbie, a newly divorced mom trying to redefine herself while working to own a piece of the business that has previously determined her value as a person.

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Natasha Lyonne in “Russian Doll”

They are tremendous performance. It gives us the deliciousness of fully, actualized people. We root for them not in spite of their weakness but because of them. Olivia Wilde recently said, “With female characters, you run the risk of audiences turning it off if the girl isn’t likable. But on the flip side, a male character could stab someone in the eye and audiences will say, ‘Huh, he seems nice. Does he have a dog?’” No more dudes stabbing dudes. I want messy, daring, authentic women. After all, they are way more likable.

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