What’s not to love? The new wave of ‘unlikable’ women in film

From Olivia Colman in The Favourite to Nicole Kidman in Destroyer, a wave of female characters are challenging what makes a woman ‘likable’

The L word is in the news again, this time because of Democrat senator Elizabeth Warren’s decision to run for the US presidency. “A common observation of Warren is that she’s simply not likable enough to win the presidency,” said the Daily Beast. “There have been questions about whether Ms Warren is ‘likable’, a word that tends to be used in regard to female candidates rather than men,” said the Finacial Times. And Politico tweeted: “How does Elizabeth Warren avoid a Clinton redux – written off as too unlikable before her campaign gets off the ground?” And so on.

Ironically, in 2016, Warren was perceived as “infinitely more likable than Hillary”. But now she has thrown her hat into the ring, commentators are lining up to remind us how uncomfortable they are with powerful women, and also how uncomfortable they are with admitting it – since their doubts are invariably couched in terms such as “there have been questions about …” In other words: “Many people say …”

It got me wondering about what makes a character in the movies likable or unlikable. After all, an entire screenwriting manual, Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, is named after “the scene where we meet the hero and the hero does something – like saving a cat – that defines who he is and makes us, the audience, like him”. And no, I don’t think Lt Ellen Ripley would be nearly as popular a character if she had left Jones behind in the Nostromo to get blown up. But on GamesRadar’s list of 50 Most Likable Movie Characters, only seven are women, and of those seven, only Fargo’s Marge Gunderson strikes me as a genuinely likable person, as opposed to irritant, doormat or nanny. Yes, Mary Poppins has many fine qualities, but being likable isn’t one of them.

Recently, we have been seeing a new wave of unlikable female protagonists. It kicked off with 2016’s highly divisive Nocturnal Animals, starring Amy Adams as a character who was “not easily likable”, in the words of film critic Barry Wurst. And not everyone, it turns out, is a fan of Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite. Sure enough, reasons given include (and I didn’t have to dig deep for these examples) “Not liking any of the characters”; “wholly unlikable female characters”; and “everyone in this film is a varying shade of unlikable”.

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