Are Female Characters Likeable?

At her blog, Ada Hoffman’s speculations on whether audiences like female characters less than male characters brought to my attention this great post from Overthinkingit.com. It’s four years old, but this insight from commenter fenzel about the persistent misconception that kickass female characters are just faux-men is still relevant -perhaps the most relevant to me:

“Maybe women want to have adventures too, and want to be adventurers, and when we identify this need as masculine, we shut them off from something they want. And maybe when we insist women not be portrayed as adventurous, or be only secondarily so, or alienate them from our storytelling’s predominant adventure phantasmagoria, we diminish them and shrink the space where they might exist as fictional characters or self-identifying beings…

… And maybe, by insisting that something is essentially masculine when it isn’t, we shortchange and diminish men as well, by limiting how they might imagine themselves and setting them up as essentially hostile to modernity and social progress when there is no real need to cede that ground either.”

I understand, in a way. An audience long exposed to kickass female characters as tokens in an all-male cast will dismiss them as much as their writers do. Case in point, Maggie in TNT’s Falling Skies constantly plays second fiddle to the entire cast even though she’s the most competent soldier in the war against aliens- because the creators of the show don’t give her any conflicts and maintain her as one-dimensional all-star. At least Anne got some development as war chief slash vengeful mama.

In Shana Mlawski’s column, she suggests that we still represent women as bastions of morality in fiction while male characters enjoy leniency and open minds from audiences. They can be anti-heroes, cowards, losers, et cetera, et cetera with apparently far less criticism. Although I’m a fan of neither, we have yet to see a female-starring Breaking Bad after Weeds. This reminded me of a conversation with a friend, when I observed the differences in urban fantasy by men and women, which focus on everymen and overachievers, respectively. “Overachievers” may be unfair, since urban fantasy heroines have problems, but they always triumph in contrast to urban fantasy heroes who barely hold onto their limbs and typically stumble into solutions rather than outwitting -and never overpowering- anyone.

I’ve always thought this spoke to women and men’s struggles (and these characters definitely revolve around struggle.) I can only guess at the reasons some men relate to the heroes. Do they feel helpless or stressed by life’s boss battles and find it cathartic to read about another man at wit’s end? I can definitely understand the appeal of the heroines, however. Women are expected to accomplish this, that, and the other, and urban fantasy heroines may not technically manage all of them, but they come close. Notice I’m speaking specifically to urban fantasy because protagonists change radically by genre. I’m told scifi features similar heroines, but as racism slaps me in the face every time I pick up a scifi, my forays into the genre have been few. Kickass female characters are still, by and large, a minority, but as I’ve noted and fenzel notes, they’re criticized harshly. We can’t expect to relate to every female character and view that as a lack of realism. Are there a lot of action heroes strolling among us?

So, in sum, maybe it’s all of the above. Maybe we want some better writing and more opportunities, maybe we’re expressing different struggles, and maybe we need to appreciate a spectrum of female characters, failings and triumphs because, as Hoffman notes from her informal survey, the only consistent is that no character is likeable to everyone.

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