Why Unlikeable Female Leads are a No-No in Hollywood

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When I mentioned my theory to a friend, she was quick to point out Miss Piggy didn’t count anyway because she was, after all, pretty for a pig.

by Tamar Halpern

I’m pretty sure it’s not sour grapes, but a TV pilot I wrote was recently rejected by a major agent not for the writing, which he loved, or the character development, which he called fresh, or the dialogue, which he said was some of the most natural and original he had read in a long time. His rejection was because he felt my lead character was unlikeable. And, oh yeah, my lead character was female.

I spent the next weeks re-examining the shows I loved most, almost all with male leads, measuring their likeability and getting, quite frankly, a bit pissed off. Tony Soprano, Walter White, Francis Underwood and even Dexter: none are initially likeable by the very nature of their dark journeys, yet all were deemed worthy of long-running shows and my unadulterated attention.

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A mob boss, a drug kingpin, a Machiavellian politician, and a serial killer walk into a bar. But my character, a woman so deeply traumatized by her husband’s infidelity that she’s compelled to help others discover the truth about their philandering partners, isn’t likeable enough to get served. Intrigued, I began to consider flawed and complex female lead characters, imagining how they had slipped past the likeability bouncers and enjoyed their share of gender gap cocktails.

I looked to Enlightened, with the delightfully messed-up lead character played by Laura Dern as she tries, unsuccessfully, to find—wait, never mind. It was canceled after two seasons. I considered Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23 which, despite the fact that the lead character is clearly identified as a being a B—-, was canceled because the lead female is unlikeable. I looked to Girls, a show I adore despite many an argument from some of my peers that Lena Dunham’s lead character is hard to like. “That’s exactly what I love about that show,” I cry in defense. “She’s my kind of woman!”

Likeability is a slow burn. Just as it has been for the alcoholics in 60’s couture suits of Mad Men, or the undertaker business in Six Feet Under, or the flagrant slovenliness of Eastbound and Down, we women have been waiting for a Lena Dunham to come along and further push the boundaries of what a woman can and can’t do. But these shows are all comedies and comedy has historically embraced the flawed woman, from Lucile Ball to Tina Fey to America Ferrera’s braces-wearing, glasses-sporting title character in Ugly Betty (the name says it all). Where was the dark, tortured female lead to show me the way?

I turned to the dramas I devoured ravenously, specifically House of Cards where Frances Underwood’s wife, played with stunning and chilling precision by Robin Wright, is every bit as unlikeable and complicated as Kevin Spacey’s. But she isn’t the lead and that is a crucial difference. I thought about Nurse Jackie and was immediately stricken with guilt as I remembered the reason I stopped watching—every character in the medical profession had a level of apathy toward the value of human life that was more than I could swallow. Had I turned my back on one of the few unlikeable, lead female driven dramatic shows? Was I proving the agent’s point? The mere idea made me queasy and I resolved to go back and watch with a more open mind. Homeland had me at hello, with the flawed and complicated lead brilliantly portrayed by Claire Danes, so there’s that, but her every move, thought and emotion is mitigated by male characters like a chess game.

I broadened my search to the silver screen with its famously dark and unlikeable leads—Kevin Spacey in American Beauty and Harvey Keitel in The Bad Lieutenant among others—but when I tried to conjure up their female counterparts, my best bet was Charlize Theron masking her beauty to play real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster. It made me wonder if the only way Dexter could have been a written for a woman is if it were true.

Theron bravely managed to play unlikeable again in Young Adult, a hilarious send-up of what happens to self-centered, vapid people, but unlike her turn in Monster, she did it as her gorgeous self. And I do think that’s the only way a woman can get away with playing an asshole lead character that’s not based on a true story, by being pretty or funny or both. Men can be both unattractive and unredeemable, which Bad Santa and Shameless demonstrate with flair, but where is the unattractive and unredeemable female lead?

I expanded my hunt, landing on Bette Davis, famous for playing difficult, unlikeable characters despite her inarguable beauty. The first role to win her critical acclaim was the “vicious and slatternly” Mildred Rogers in Of Human Bondage. Life magazine said she gave the best performance on screen by any US actress, ever. That was 1934 and so much has changed for women since then politically, socially, and economically.

But what exactly has changed on screen? I reflected on my connection to film and TV as a young girl, avidly consuming everything I could get my eyes on, and later as writer and director. With great nostalgia, I recalled one female character I loved dearly my entire life. She was flawed, overweight, narcissistic, obsessive, independent, single, opinionated, and outspoken. I discovered her as a child and she continues to play a prominent role in film and TV today. The indomitable Miss Piggy possesses some of the best unlikeable qualities a woman can own, although she works strictly in comedy. Add to that, when I mentioned my theory to a friend, she was quick to point out Miss Piggy didn’t count anyway because she was, after all, pretty for a pig.

Perhaps it is just sour grapes, but I’m yearning to discover more examples of female lead dramatic characters who—pretty or not—are flawed, complicated, and unlikeable. It’s time and even Miss Piggy agrees. To quote her, “I am waiting for a really strong and meaningful female pig role.” Aren’t we all, Miss Piggy. Aren’t we all.

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