I don’t have fully formed thoughts around this yet. But when I find my mind wandering on this topic, three movies/books stand out to me.
- Gone with the Wind
- Hunger Games (the trilogy)
- Millennium Trilogy (you know; The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, et al.)
All three feature strong-willed female leads who are unethical (as the situation often demands). You could probably write a thesis on this. I’m not going to do that. Probably. Despite doing unlikable things, we like these characters. I don’t think we would if they had not been victimized.
Scarlett O’Hara is an underhanded, greedy, vain young woman. She is cruel to Melanie. She constantly tries to steal Ashley. She does whatever it takes to get Tara back. In the context of the novel, however, she’s a riches-to-rags-to-riches Southern Belle, and that “to-rags” part of the equation, where Sherman decimates the south, gives her the justification she needs to be all those things and be likable. Well, she’s still kind of unlikeable, but we get on her side.
Katniss Everdeen is probably the least ethically ambiguous character of the lot. We can be pretty sure that if she wasn’t a participant in the Hunger Games, she wouldn’t kill people. She has the capacity, but it’s very likely she would never get so instigated that she would lead a massive rebellion without being made a participant. In the book, however, the character isn’t particularly likeable until she survives (sorry, spoiler – but you already figured that much out). She’s kind of gray and stern – we wouldn’t care one way or another about her if she wasn’t involved in the games.
Lisbeth Salander is easily the least likeable character of the three. At a young age, she tries to kill her father. She is violent; she lies. She is a sociopath. But because she’s been a victim her whole life, we cheer for her.
You can argue that without the victimization, there wouldn’t be a novel for these characters. Their stories could be summed up: “They were born. Some things happened; nothing remarkable. They eventually aged and died.” But I suppose the question then becomes, why is a story about a strong woman inherently uninteresting? Or is it? COUNTER ARGUMENT: Madam Bovary. Emma Bovary isn’t very likable. She’s not victimized so much as trapped by a loveless marriage (yes, I know that’s pretty crappy, but it’s not quite up to par with the other novels presented here). I think there’s more to think about right here.
Do we need women to be victimized in order to feel comfortable liking a strong female character? If Lisbeth Salander was the way she was (exacting revenge on men who devalue women), without watching her father beat her mother and all the subsequent abuse, would we be comfortable with her? Would we think of her as anything other than a bitch? What about Scarlett? Katniss would be completely unremarkable if she wasn’t a victim. Is the underlying message that a woman can be strong only if she has a stand-out reactionary reason for it? And if she isn’t reacting to something, she may be boring or just a nasty person?
I haven’t gotten this all sorted out quite yet in my mind. I’m not sure what the masculine corollary is. It doesn’t seem like a man needs to have hardship to be both strong and likeable. If he experiences hardship, he just becomes tragic which evokes our sympathy more than anything. Like James Bond before the movie with Daniel Craig – he’s a bastard but everyone loves him. After Daniel Craig we find out he loved and lost and now he’s just a man struggling bravely to not get hurt again (by being a bastard). I haven’t read any of the 007 books, btw. I don’t know where women like Daisy Buchanan and Tess d’Urberville – who are neither strong nor particularly likable and ethical – fit in.
Reactions? Arguments for and against?