Female Leads

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The Phenomenon of the Unlikable Female Lead

Scarlett O’Hara is a selfish, stereotypical Southern belle. Julianne Potter (My Best Friend’s Wedding) made multiple attempts to break up a happy relationship out of a belief her best friend "belonged" to her. Emma Woodhouse could be considered on the fence, because while she is charming and engaging, she does meddle in others’ lives constantly, and looks down on those she considers "beneath" her.

These are only a few examples of the unlikable female lead, in literature, film, and other mediums. These women are not inherently evil, but they are self-absorbed, gossipy, backstabbing, and at times downright narcissistic. Yet…a lot of people like them. Why? Is there a "happy medium" between perfect, Mary Sue women and evil women, and have these or other characters found it? Discuss this, as well as whether the unlikable female lead does female representation more harm than good overall.

  • As someone who studied the Mary Sue phenomenon in comparing why certain female characters are adored while others are ignored, I would like to share my findings. Female characters, like other characters are nothing more than projections of society's fantasies of what it means to be a "cool", "strong" and "powerful" woman. It may seem twisted, but if the female character is an extension of the male character, and is constantly influenced by feminist ideals, these are the type of women are portrayed. – Amelia Arrows 3 years ago
  • I feel like this isn't really a uniquely female problem--there are plenty of obnoxious, self-absorbed, horrible male leads too. If anything, the problem is that society is more accepting of this kind of behavior in men than in women, so these male leads get a pass. – Debs 3 years ago
  • And that in itself could warrant an entire, separate article. – Stephanie M. 3 years ago
  • I think it's very important to mention Elaine Benes (Julia Louis Dreyfus) from Seinfeld here. She was arguably the first "unlikable" female character on US television. She was hilarious, witty, smart, independent, successful, yet extremely cynical, self-absorbed, blunt and occasionally downright mean. I think what made her character appeal to so many was how she came across as someone extremely "regular", someone you'd know in real life or run into on the streets. As opposed to other female leads on other shows that aired along with Seinfeld, she was decidedly more "human" and realistic, in contrast to the "beautiful and shallow" Rachel Green or the "clean freak" Monica Geller from Friends, for example. Elaine was known primarily for her acerbic sense of humour and general zaniness, while Rachel and Monica, I would argue, were better known for being "perfect" girls with quirks that made them funny. I think Larry David, in one of his interviews, talked about how the writing team on the show saw Elaine as "one of the men". And if anything, I think this portrayal of women in the media is nothing but a positive example, as it calls for the audience to look at women as funny, intelligent and relatable for a change, instead of viewing women as just "pretty" and quirky, though I think there dies need to be a balance: excessive portrayal of women in this direction could definitely cause potential harm. – Aniruddha 2 years ago