In Defense of Unlikable Women: Guest Post by Kameron Hurley

I am excited to welcome writer Kameron Hurley with this excellent guest post.


IN DEFENSE OF UNLIKABLE WOMEN a post by Kameron Hurley


A fall-down drunk who’s terrible with relationships and makes some selfish, questionable choices, goes in search of love, and fails at it.”

This is actually the general plot to two films – the well-received, critically applauded film Sideways and the much maligned, controversial film Young Adult.

One follows a drunken, frumpy loser who steals money from his mother to enable his soon-to-be-married best friend to cheat on his soon-to-be-spouse; the other follows a drunk, frumpy loser who drives to small-town Minnesota to try and hook up with her happily married ex. Both films created stark, harrowing portraits of their protagonists’ pathology and inability to connect to others. Both protagonists are even writers! The biggest difference in the reception of these films, I’d argue, is that one featured a male protagonist – and thus was critically celebrated. The other told the story of a deeply flawed woman, and become instantly “controversial” because of its “thoroughly unlikable” heroine.

I see this double standard pop up all the time in novels, too. We forgive our heroes even when they’re drunken, aimless brutes or flawed noir figures who smoke too much and can’t hold down a steady relationship. In truth, we both sympathize with and celebrate these heroes; Conan is loved for his raw emotions, his gut instincts, his tendency to solve problems through sheer force of will. But what we love about many male heroes – their complexity, their confidence, their occasional bouts of selfish whim –become, in female heroes, marks of the dreaded “unlikeable character.”

Author Claire Messud takes this issue head on in an interview when her interviewer say her female protagonist is unbearably grim, someone the interviewer wouldn’t be friends with. Messud responds:

“For heavens’ sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble.”


Male writers, and their male protagonists, are expected to be flawed and complex, but reader expectations for women writers and their characters tend to be far more rigid. Women may stray, but only so far. If they go on deep, alcoholic benders, they best repent and sober up at the end. If they abandon their spouses and children, they best end tragically, or make good. Women must, above all, show kindness. Women may be strong – but they must also, importantly, be vulnerable. If they are not, readers are more likely to push back and label her unlikeable.

I actually wrote a recent guest post where I noted that in grad school, I sometimes drank two bottles of wine in a sitting and smoked cigarettes. A couple of commenters on another forum said I must be an irresponsible alcoholic. I couldn’t help but wonder what their reaction would be on hearing a 23-year-old male college student occasionally drank two bottles of wine in a sitting.

Boys will be boys, right? But women are alcoholics.

And so it goes.

But why is this? Why do we read the same behaviors so differently based on the presented sex of the person engaging in them?

I’d argue it’s because women have been so often cast as mothers, potential mothers, caretakers, and servants, assistants, and handmaidens of all sorts that’s it’s become a – conscious but also unconscious – expectation that anyone who isn’t – at least some of the time – must be inherently unnatural. And when we find a woman who doesn’t fit this mold, we work hard to sweep her back into her box, because if she gets out, well… it might mean she has the ability to take on a multitude of roles.

Let’s be real: if women were “naturally” anything, societies wouldn’t spend so much time trying to police every aspect of their lives.

I like writing about complex people. I like writing about women. Hence, the women and men I write are flawed and complex. They have their own messed up motivations. They don’t always do the right thing. There’s not generally a rousing ending where everyone realizes they were a jerk and has a big hug. Life is messier than that, and so are women. We’re not any better or worse than anyone else. I’m flawed. I often make poor choices. I’m very often selfish.

So are many of the people I put on the page. And to be dead honest, I like them a whole lot better that way. Roxane Gay gives several examples of successfully unlikable heroines in fiction in her article “Not Here to Make Friends.” (which I strongly recommend you read). As Gay writes:

“…(this is) what is so rarely said about unlikable women in fiction — that they aren’t pretending, that they won’t or can’t pretend to be someone they are not. They have neither the energy for it, nor the desire….Unlikable women refuse to give in to that temptation. They are, instead, themselves. They accept the consequences of their choices and those consequences become stories worth reading.”

There is something hypnotic in unlikable male characters that we don’t allow women, and it’s this: we allow men to be confident, even arrogant, self-absorbed, narcissistic. But in our everyday lives, we do not hold up such women as leaders and role models. We call them out as selfish harridans. They are wicked stepmothers. Seeing these same women bashing their way through the pages of our fiction elicits the same reaction. Women should be nurturing. Their presence should be redeeming. Women should know better.

Female heroes must act the part of the dutiful Wendy, while male heroes get to be Peter Pan.

Pointing out this narrative, of course, isn’t going to fix it. But I do hope that it makes people more aware of it. When you find yourself reading about a gunslinging, whiskey-drinking, Mad Max apocalypse hero who you’d love if it was a guy but find profoundly uncomfortable to read about when you learn it’s a woman, take a step back, and ask why that is. Is it because this is truly a person you can’t empathize with, or because somebody told you she was supposed to be back home playing mom to the Lost Boys, not stabbing her land lord, stealing a motorcycle, and saving the world?

Stories teach us empathy, and by limiting the expression of humanity in our heroes entirely based on sex or gender does us all a disservice. It places restrictions on what we consider human, which dehumanizes the people we see who do not express traits that fit our narrow definition of what’s acceptable.

Like it or not, failure of empathy in the face of unlikable women in fiction can often lead to a failure to empathize with women who don’t follow all the rules in real life, too.

Stories matter. Fictions matter. It all bleeds out.

Be careful what you cut.



ABOUT THE AUTHOR Kameron Hurley is the award-winning author of the books God’s War, Infidel, and Rapture. Her short fiction has appeared in magazines such as LightspeedEscapePod, and Strange Horizons, and anthologies such as The Lowest Heaven and Year’s Best SF.    Visit for upcoming projects.

23 thoughts on “In Defense of Unlikable Women: Guest Post by Kameron Hurley

  1. Thanks, Kameron.

    I hadn’t thought of the parallels between Sideways and Young Adult, and the reactions to them, but shining a light on it makes the parallels, and how the difference in protagonist, matters.
    “Magnificent bastard”, for example, is a frankly admiring stereotype that gets applied to men, but not to women.


  2. While I was watching Young Adult I kept thinking it reminded me of something… another movie about an unlikable alcoholic, but couldn’t put my finger on it. Then I looked at my movie shelf, and there it was – Sideways. The scene where he’s stealing money from his senile mother was the point at which I almost stopped watching the movie. They’re both terribly unlikable people you hate in the beginning but empathize with at the end (and no, I certainly didn’t I LIKE either of them by the end, but again, I don’t think that’s the point of these stories. The point is to learn empathy. Even crappy people are people).

    Would be interested to see if anyone else connected those dots.

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  5. I’ve noticed this also. Woman characters always seem to be skating that thin line between “unrealistic archetype of female virtues” and “too unlikable to be marketable.”

    I wonder if it’s because, on average, men and women read and/or watch movies for different reasons. Maybe women do consume fiction to find friends more than men do. I know I do sometimes (though certainly not always) because I enjoy seeing my own experiences or values reflected in characters. Or could it be that women are more critical of their own sex in books or movies because they expect to bond with a female character in a different way than they do a male characters?

    I wonder also if there’s a difference in the way male and female consumers of media perceive such characters of each gender? Most critics and reviewers are still male, even though more readers and just as many potential moviegoers are women. If bad reviews (because of character traits of a female character) are usually projected through a male filter, then there may be a lot of books and movies that fly under the radar of many female consumers of media.

  6. Yes. I’m trying right now to write a Magnificent Bastard character who is female and it’s amazingly difficult for me to get past my own assumptions and stereotypes about how that could work.

  7. I still have no desire to watch Sideways (haven’t seen it) but now I do intend to see Young Adult.

  8. Really interesting thoughts, Erica.

    I think one thing is that unlikable male characters can still be seen as 1) admirable and/or 2) redeemable and/or 3) worthy of our attention. Whereas female characters more often have to live up to more specific and constrained parameters.

  9. Perhaps the real problem of the double-standard is not getting audiences to accept unlikable women, but how to see men who share the same unacceptable traits as equally unlikable.

  10. True, and dare I say it, one female fantasy seems to be fixing bad boys. I know women who say they prefer male protagonists in general because they love to fall a little in love with male characters. So if a story has that angle, then women may be more forgiving of a flawed male character if they’re saved by the love of a woman.

    But some of these male movie characters, not to mention some of the characters in some popular fantasy novels of late (and humorous characters like Peter Griffon on Family guy), seem to be less redeemable. They’re just jerks, and the don’t even like women all that much. These kinds of guys don’t seem to repel male viewers the way irredeemable, selfish or immature female characters repel women.

    I don’t know if this is just reflection of the fact that many men still have sort of a “bros before you know whats” fantasy going because for them, there’s some freedom that comes from identifying with a guy who doesn’t give a crud what women think of him. Is it that whole breaking free of mom and her civilizing (read sissifying) influence thing that’s still driving that?

    Whatever the reason, the double standard is alive and well, and it is annoying as hell.

  11. I’ve heard that “I prefer male characters because I want to fall in love with them” too — sometimes from writers, which always interests me. An angle that hadn’t occurred to me.

    There really does seem to be a sense that we can engage with and want to read about/view a jerky male character, that he is worthy of our interest, but that similar kinds of women are just harpies or bad role models.

  12. That’s an interesting perspective in terms of men.

    One thing that I notice is there are some characters who are and should be unlikable but as characters, as drivers in a story, they are fascinating. I’m currently reading WILD SEED by Octavia Butler, and the main male character, Doro, is really quite unlikable, but the story would not work if he was not that way.

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  14. Oh wow, I wish I had seen this when it was first posted! I completely agree.

    I especially want to highlight the point about empathy. I don’t want characters to be perfect, I actually find that off-putting, and when people dismiss a character (almost always female) as “unlikeable” I find myself wanting to say, “Oh yeah, well if you’re so much better than this person, then why can’t you find some sympathy for her?”

    Most of the time it seems to me these criticisms are from women, many of whom seem to hold female characters to such ridiculously narrow standards that we wind up with hundreds of books starring generically inoffensive and completely forgettable heroines, and no, I’m totally not bitter about that. I read The Woman Upstairs, and I’m still not sure what bothered people so much about Nora.

  15. Yes. I have characters who I really *like* (as in, I can “imagine” being friends with them), but I also read female characters who are memorable and charismatic but not “likeable” in a “friends” way. I don’t need them to be. I just need them to be interesting or intriguing or startling or memorable or vivid in a way that makes me want to read about them and learn their story.

  16. I agree. I want characters who are interesting and realistic. The “friends” thing doesn’t make sense to me at all–it seems like a weird way to relate to a fictional character, who obviously isn’t going to be taking any reader out to lunch. But I don’t look for perfection in my friends either; I want to enjoy spending time with them, of course, but I find people who are incapable of bellyaching (for instance), more intimidating than appealing. I know I’m not perfect, so I’m most comfortable around people with whom I don’t have to pretend to be.

  17. Interesting post. I know I’m late to the party, but I wanted to chime in here. I couldn’t agree more- it always annoys me when female characters aren’t allowed to be basically human beings, or *have* to be vulnerable. One of my favorite female characters is Eve Dallas from J.D. Robb’s In Death series, but I know quite a few people (mostly women) who don’t like her because of her lack of softness or vulnerability. Yet these same people will excuse her husband anything, including vigilante justice. Why is this, I wonder?

    I’ve always felt personality traits don’t have genders, and giving them genders can be harmful, as it ostracizes people who don’t fit into a specific mold.

  18. Yes, there does still seem to be more judgement against women who are “hard-headed” than against men with similar traits.

  19. I’ve noticed that myself. ‘Hard-headed’ male characters are still more sympathetic than hard headed female characters- if hard- headedness is even allowed in women. I’ve read book reviews and opinion pieces where female characters with certain traits are disparaged as ‘men with tits.’ As if personality traits were divided up according to gender.

    I’m currently attempting to write a female character who is both a bit of a hard head and not what we think of as traditionally feminine, and I do wonder how readers (if I ever finish and get published, that is) might react to her. I’m also having to think over my own assumptions concerning gender and gender stereotypes, which I didn’t expect.

  20. I think some of it is that there’s often more of an =expectation= (as viewers and readers) that we *will* like and be sympathetic with the female character. So when she’s unlikeable, it hits us harder than when a male character is unlikeable, and we react more strongly.

    One could interpret this as being unfair to male characters, actually — perhaps we’re not as open to liking them in the first place, so if they’re unlikeable, it’s “I told you so”. Conversely with unlikeable female characters it’s “WTF?”

    Actually, I don’t even think about it, as reader or writer… they are who they are. Tho I think I’d like to see Kate’s ‘magnificent bastard’. 😀

  21. I am often amazed by how many assumptions concerning gender and gender stereotypes I still carry around with me and have to consciously push back against as I am writing. Not just gender, of course. It’s daunting.

  22. I think that’s a very good point about a societal expectation that women “ought” to be likeable and sympathetic — very true in daily life as well. Another way to look at it is that men are allowed more range.

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