Ah, the unlikeable heroine. What a loaded term, one I’ve been seeing a lot of lately in reviews. What’s so interesting about it is how generalized the opinion often is for the heroine of a book. She’s rough around the edges or messy or bossy or countless other sharper traits that we don’t want our leading ladies to be. Which is odd, because they are often the things that make our heroes extra “swoony.”
We, as readers, give our heroes so much room for growth. We regularly brush off their transgressions and faults, loving their journey from a coarse alpha to a… still coarse alpha that is just a big softy for their love interest. We forgive their flaws, justify unpalatable personality traits, ignore rudeness, all in the name of watching them grow, reform, have a satisfying character arc.
While we love to watch a broken hero find himself and the decent man inside, root for the rake’s reformation (looking right at you, Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent, love of my life, keeper of my heart), and forgive his emotional unavailability. But if a heroine has similarly obvious flaws? UNLIKEABLE HEROINE.
We have FAR less patience for the heroine’s journey. If she’s blunt, annoying, harsh, bossy, opinionated, etc. we quickly turn our noses up at her and brand her as unlikable and unrelatable.
I know it’s silly and naive to assume we’ll like every character, and that’s not what this is about. This is about the generalized popular opinion that a heroine with hero qualities isn’t a relatable female. She doesn’t exemplify the role we expect her to play and is, therefore, someone that, instead of encouraging her growth, we lose interest in her development.
At its root, this tendency reflects our (still prominent) programming to expect women to fill a certain mold. She should be funny and sassy, but only to the point of endearing; otherwise, she’s obnoxious. She should be career-oriented and hardworking, but not too much; otherwise, she’s a bossy bitch. She should take what she wants, but not to the point where it steps on anyone’s toes; otherwise, she’s selfish. She should always be emotionally vulnerable and fully developed emotional intelligence, giving the hero room for his growth and character arc; otherwise, she’s too messy. In short, we like to watch our heroine guide the hero to his ideal self, while shutting out room for her to go on a similar journey.
But why do we feel this way? Why do we develop this collective dislike for a woman written in a very realistic light of modern trends in female empowerment? Maybe we don’t like her because she exemplifies the things we as women secretly yearn for, but society still tells we shouldn’t want. Maybe our dislike is a reflection of patriarchal programming not to take up more space and noise than strictly necessary. Maybe we care more about watching a man’s transition into an ideal form more than a woman’s because it provides us hope that misogyny can and will be changed.
Or, maybe, I just really love and feel for these bitches because I am one.