Opinion, Writing

On the Unlikables

(Disclaimer: I am a white, queer cis woman. The books I am discussing in this post are mostly about white, queer cis girls and women. There is a lot that can be said about books by and about queer women who are trans, PoC, disabled, and more, but since I am not, I do not feel that my analysis of those books in this context would be adequate or appropriate.)

The word “unlikable” gets thrown around a lot when we talk about women, whether they’re politicians or colleagues or fictional characters. In my daily life, I see it most often in the microcosm of Young Adult book reviews. Nestled amongst the lowest-star reviews of a given YA book with a female protagonist is the common refrain: she was unlikable. She was too mean, too bitchy. Too whiny, too weak. Too “this” or too “that.” These complaints are often contradictory, sometimes within the same review.

This kind of take on a given female character is the free space in Book Misogyny Bingo. For some, the accusation that they have written an “unlikable” female character is a point of pride, even something to use to market a book — I know it works on me! But the constant uphill battle to recognize the complexity of female characters and to challenge what makes them “likable” is exhausting for writers and readers both.

I had the privilege to attend a panel on unlikable female characters at the 2018 Boston Teen Author Festival with authors Julie C. Dao, Claire Legrand, Lygia Day Peñaflor, and Kiersten White. Each author had the same stories about misogynistic reviews and the double-standard of male characters being loved for the same traits that make a female character reviled. The energy in the room was infectiously validating. We’d all been angry about this, it seemed, and the packed lecture hall was proof that these kinds of characters attract readers just fine.

The panel kept me thinking. Women are pressured to package ourselves as pleasant and palatable, ruffling no feathers and making no waves, and we are still struggling in 2019 to break out of that. But some women are more bound by this restrictive mold than others. I want to talk about that. Specifically, I want to talk about queer girls in teen fiction.

I started bookselling in 2014. It’s hard to appreciate just how much has changed in the five short years since then and the work — the endless, ongoing work — that has gone into making these changes. I want to begin with that caveat because I do not want to diminish in any way the hard-won battles for books where queer youth are happy, healthy, and supported. We deserve those stories. Too many of us have literally died for them.

However (and this is where I get controversial, so bear with me) I think stories about complicated, “unlikable” queer characters — especially girls —  can face pushback from both the queer community and the “mainstream” readership because they present queer characters as imperfect, fallible, and, frankly, too human for straight audiences to easily consume.

I think that is also exactly why these “unlikable” queer girls are vital.

An anecdote: The first book I ever read with a queer character was Libba Bray’s 2003 fantasy novel A Great and Terrible Beauty, which features two queer girls, Pippa Cross and Felicity Worthington, classmates at a Victorian boarding school. Both of them are deeply flawed, perhaps too flawed to be viable today, but in many ways I think that was why they spoke to me so much when I was a teenager. Felicity in particular was volatile, promiscuous, and often cruel; I was nothing like her, but I felt a kinship to her that I never had to any other character. We both had abusive fathers and an irrational loyalty to our female friends that I, at least, did not recognize as romantic. I think I saw in her my own ugly, bone-deep anger, something that was not acceptable for a “good” girl to feel.

Perhaps for others, though, Felicity was harmful. Did her promiscuity reinforce stereotypes about bisexuals? Did her history of sexual abuse reinforce myths about “broken,” man-hating queer women? Does her “unlikable” personality encourage readers to find her queerness unlikable, too?

Before you think about the answers, read those questions again. Notice anything?

Every single question is concerned with how straight readers will perceive Felicity. That, in my opinion, is a problem.

For decades, we have fought to earn the most basic rights and respect for the queer community, and we may have to fight for decades more. As a bookseller who has had to smile through interactions with bigots even in some of the most liberal places in the US, I understand intimately the kind of fight-or-flight response we feel when a queer character in a book presents an imperfect image of themselves to the world. We wonder if that image will turn straight readers against us. We spend a little bit more of our time thinking about what they want from queer characters, and a little bit less about what we do.

There are many more Felicities on the shelf today than there were five years ago. Val from Sawkill Girls, a manipulative socialite who is, we learn, unwillingly tied to a dark power. Freddie from The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza, who is haunted by her father’s suicide and her own depression. The cast of A Line in the Dark, all of whom are queer and any one of whom might be a murderer. Then there’s Ksenia from the upcoming Never-Contented Things, a novel in which two teens are trapped in a doppelganger world and their unhealthy relationship with one another.

Without spoiling anything, I think Ksenia parallels Felicity very well. She is a messy, traumatized teenager with too many contradictions and sharp edges. Ksenia sees herself as profoundly unlovable because of it.

I remember that feeling. When I was a teenager, I knew Felicity from A Great and Terrible Beauty was not a “good” girl. Neither was I. I knew that because I’d been told so, again and again and again, by a culture whose sexism and homophobia was so structural that to question it was to self-detonate. I’m still picking out the shrapnel a decade later, and only now do I understand what a lifeline I was given in “unlikable” Felicity Worthington.

I don’t know what I would have done if she had been perfect.

The books I listed above do not concern themselves with what a straight reader will think of their queer girls, and indeed, they would not be such resonant narratives if they did. These stories can be uncomfortable, but they are hopeful, and they are honest — and don’t readers deserve hope and honesty as well as comfort?

But does that justify them? Does it justify any off-putting queer character? Are they worth the risk of alienating straight, cis readers when lives might hinge on how much we can make them like us?

Maybe. And as writers, publishers, and booksellers, we have to grapple with that “maybe.” I think, though, that I am tired of worrying about how straight people will see our imperfections, and am far more worried about the imperfect queer youth still waiting to be seen.

Books Mentioned:

A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand

The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza by Shaun David Hutchinson

A Line in the Dark by Malinda Lo

Never-Contented Things by Sarah Porter