The first film stars I was obsessed with when I was little were Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe. Although I didn’t entirely understand what was going on in their films, I borrowed biographies from the library about them and thought, in my pre-adolescence, that they were the female ideal to aspire to. I learnt that women should be beguiling, charming, pretty, and likeable, especially towards men. Decades later, this week I saw Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Russian Doll and Lena Dunham’s adaptation of Camping – all stories with complex female leads who are so different to the historic monoculture of female characters many of us grew up watching on screen. Being attractive or nice doesn’t figure one jot. What a relief that in the last couple of decades the chokehold of “likeable” female characters is starting to loosen, even in patriarchal Hollywood.
The champion forger, writer manque and convicted felon Lee Israel, for example, played adroitly by Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, couldn’t have been further from characters played by Grace Kelly or Marilyn Monroe. She is frumpy with dreadful hair, a chaotic flat with catshit piling up underneath her bed and not one pleasing or romantic bone in her body. Instead, we are privy to her loneliness and narcissism, and glimpse the fears and defences that drive her. It’s so much more intriguing than the mostly one-dimensional female characters the 20th century served up. Rightly, she is tipped to win an Oscar for Best Actress later this month.
My obsession with Grace and Marilyn was short-lived: inevitably, I couldn’t identify or relate to them. So instead, I returned to my heady diet of watching 1) The Sound of Music on repeat, because I was drawn to Maria’s outspokenness, unconventionality and dislike of discipline; and 2) those mid-Nineties US shows such as Saved By the Bell, Sweet Valley High and Party of Five. But with the exception of Alex Mack, whose secret world we watched between 1994 and 1998, female characters were mostly passive rather than active, and the message was the same: be flirty, pretty, cute and nice. Frankly, it was a garbage diet for any developing adolescent identity. This is what happens when the symbiotic relationship between fiction and the viewer trickles into real life. There are pernicious real-world consequences to this type of messaging. They don’t serve women, or young girls. They only serve the agenda of an unequal society which clips our wings. They hold us back and keep us small.
Clearly, we don’t even want our characters to be likeable. That would be hugely boring and leads such as Tony Soprano, with his wonderfully dubious ethical code, are beloved giants in popular culture. But, until recently, it seemed to be a requirement of the majority of female fictional characters in mainstream motion pictures.
Why? First, because niceness remains a condition of femininity across the board. Second, because films that pass the Bechdel Test – which requires that there are at least two named female characters, who talk to each other about something other than a man– have been rare.
Keira Knightley put this well in an interview with The Guardian: “We all empathise with men hugely because, culturally, their experience is so explored. We know so many aspects of even male sexuality. But we don’t feel like men can say: ‘Yes, I understand what you’re talking about because I’ve got this wealth of art and film and theatre and TV from your point of view’.”
Space is finally opening up for fictional characters on the big screen to be more than the conventional stereotypes of the manic pixie dream girl, the romantic lead, the mother, the virgin, the whore, or the corpse. In 2018, Frances McDormand won her second Oscar for playing Mildred Hayes in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Hayes is violent, angry and not in the least bit sweet and forgiving. A believable state of affairs, in other words, for a mother who is grieving her murdered daughter. In 2014, Cate Blanchett won the Oscar for Best Actress for her portrayal of Jasmine Francis in Blue Jasmine. She is narcissistic, condescending and snobby. Imperfections are interesting; Hollywood has just taken a while to get the memo.
In Russian Doll, currently on Netflix, the main character dies repeatedly. She’s got good friends, but she’s crawling with demons and unresolved issues, brittled by self-loathing and self-obsession. In an interview with Elle, Natasha Lyonne – who wrote, directed and plays the lead – referred to this wider evolution of thought around the “likeability” of female characters. “The idea that for adult women, there’s an option for us to like being our full selves and take up space – I think it’s great,” she said. “To get to collaborate with all female writers and directors on this and never be worrying about... they never worried about, will James Gandolfini’s character in The Sopranos be likeable, you know? That kind of stuff was never on the table in this story.” It’s about time.
In recent years, there has been a slew of unlikeable and morally ambiguous female characters on television, from the titular hero in Jessica Jones and Piper in Orange Is the New Black to Sally in Sally4Ever and Fiona in Camping, recast this year by Lena Dunham as Jennifer Garner in her own adaptation. Hurrah for the distaff stories. No more Ms Nice Girl? I hope so: it’s been a long time coming.
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