0WLMACHINE, AKA, THE PLACE WHERE WE CONSTANTLY HUNGER FOR FEMALE KUZCOS, JACK SPARROWS, HOUSES, SNAPES, BETELGEUSES, SHERLOCK HOLMESES, SHREKS, DEADPOOLS, VS, HAN SOLOS, GRINCHES, SCROOGES, (AND SO ON) IN MOVIES AND TELEVISION. WE HUNGER. WE THIRST. WE HUNGER AND THIRST FOR YOU, LADY.
Yes, there are occasional female antiheroes. There are a lot more of them in books, which is unsurprising given most readers are women and isn’t it that most writers are women too? Anyway, whatever. What we know for sure is that there’s a YA series with a female Sherlock Holmes and it’s glorious.
We want more unlikable women in movies too, because we’re flawed, and sometimes, we’re the unlikable women that we want to see in the world, and it would be nice to be able to escape into a movie for ninety-odd minutes with an antihero who just does whatever she wants and maybe learns a lesson on the way. But she doesn’t have to.
Although there aren’t as many flawed female characters somewhere on the spectrum of being unlikable as there are male characters, there are a few notable unlikable women I (erm) can think of, lately, so, here’s a list.
And here’s a disclaimer: I like all of these unlikable women.
And another one: your mileage may vary. Maybe you see these characters as extremely not unlikable. That’s fine. I don’t. And I like them anyway.
That said, here’s the list.
And there are spoilers – most of these movies are fairly recent, so be warned.
Lee Israel in Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Quick summation: a solitary middle-aged biographer struggling to pay her bills or to get her current project published has a talent for writing quick witticisms that sound like dead famous people, so she commits a lot of fraud by creating false historical treasures. She is also not very nice, and she has a cat.
She’s based on a real person, and the movie is based on the memoir she wrote based on some real-life events. I’m not sure how much this movie deviates from her book and how much her book may deviate from real life, because I haven’t looked into it yet, but, here are some bullet points about Lee (movie-Lee):
- She does NOT make an effort to be nice
- She has a cat, whom she loves
- She makes one friend, whom she treats moderately well, in my opinion (may be up for debate)
- She has one love interest who she ends up being quite cold to, and regretting it, and that lady was super sweet
- Redeeming factors: she’s nice on occasion to Jack, who is homeless and has better social skills than her; she loves her cat (I know this is supposed to contribute to us seeing her as isolated and not good with people, and I’ve made this joke about myself with regards to my own affinity for cats but, OK, hang on, interlude: if you can empathize with, care for, and love a little cat, you can do the same with people. Doing one does not preclude you from doing the other. Frankly, my friendships (for lack of a better word) with cats have done nothing but make me a better person and have brought me into contact with other people as well as helping me to empathize with people better, so, whatever, world at large. Cats are good for people, should people take care of them properly); and the crimes she commits are committed out of necessity. Also, they aren’t that bad. At the end when she says, “I’m not sorry,” or, something along those lines, but concedes that no matter how unsorry she is and no matter how good it made her feel to have her work appreciated while committing fraud, it wasn’t worth it, I nodded along. I’m not saying what she did was right. It just… isn’t that bad.
- It’s really not. In the grand scheme of things? Come on. It would have been much, much worse for her to end up homeless or for her cat to continue to go without medical care. Saving some dead famous people having witticisms they didn’t write attributed to them falsely and people with more money than sense spending it on something inauthentic is not worth anyone’s destitution. Sue me, that’s my opinion. I told you I’m sometimes unlikable.
- Things that are, admittedly, hard to look past: she is overly rude on occasion to people. And there’s a wrenching scene where she and her friend clean out her apartment, which she has let get into a major state of unsanitary. It’s a scene that makes her pitiable, and it also makes her kind of unlikable, which I’m uncomfortable about admitting. If she were mentally ill or unable to do minimum standards of care for herself (and the cat), then I’d have lots of sympathy, but she is capable of cleaning. It shows her cleaning. Still, I’m weirded out by that scene and by what it made me think about her.
- I don’t care that she committed fraud, I care that she let garbage rot for way too long in her home. I… I don’t know. Don’t trust my opinions.
Tree Gelbman in Happy Death Day
Quick summation: A partying sorority girl keeps waking up and it’s the same day, only the twist is, she keeps getting murdered by a weirdo in a baby face mask and she has a limited amount of time to solve her own murder and escape the loop. She starts out not very nice at all, but, out of necessity, she gets better.
The reason I didn’t add Phil Conners of Groundhog Day fame to that top of the post list is because here she is.
I love Tree. I’d die for her. Some notes of note:
- She’s a very stereotypical sorority monster girl. She’d be the villain in Sydney White or She’s the Man or The House Bunny or another one of those movies. There is a counterpart to play that role in this very movie, though, and her name is Danielle. Unfortunately, Danielle is kind of a shallowly written character, but, fortunately, Tree reflects that she isn’t nice to her sorority sister at all, and also, even though Danielle has motive to murder her and is one of Tree’s top suspects in her own murder, Danielle isn’t the murderer.
- She’d also be the girl who dies near the beginning or maybe the midpoint of a typical horror movie, and she’d stay dead. Not so, here.
- There’s a reason for her nastiness: the pain of grief. I’m not opposed at all for there being a reason for an unlikable woman’s unlikability, nor am I opposed to her figuring it out over the course of the film and becoming redeemed, which is what Tree does.
- While the movie does make a point of Tree’s overt sexuality at the beginning when we’re supposed to dislike her the most, its handling of the whole ‘staying over in Carter’s room’ situation proves that it’s a smarter movie than to simply want to punish women for being sexual. Tree assumes that Carter “took advantage” (raped) her when she was blackout drunk the previous night, which explains why she’s so brusque with him for almost the first half of the movie, until she finally yells at him about it. He tells her that he “obviously” wouldn’t have done that, and that he just didn’t want her to choke on her vomit or something. After that, she warms up to him and he eventually helps her on her quest to solve her own murder.
- The movie vilifies the fully adult, married professor doctor she (… and someone else) are sleeping with. Tree is almost immediately remorseful about her actions as soon as she sees his wife, and his wife isn’t the murderer either. The movie portrays doctor professor whatever his name is as being an unfaithful patronizing casually misogynistic donk, which is fun, because often these types of characters are protagonist-types.
- Tree gets to be funny as well as unlikable. I really like this movie.
Abigail in The Favourite
Quick summation: She’s from a formerly wealthy family and has fallen on hard times (very hard times), so she comes to the court to get a job since her cousin is Queen Anne’s Favourite. She gets a lousy job but then proves to be capable and also cuttingly ambitious, so she moves up in the world, and she does some questionable things, and she loses her humanity a little.
She was my favourite in The Favourite, and I am not sorry.
- I am annoyed at the part at the end where she hurts the bunny for kicks. This movie uses animal cruelty to depict the loss of humanity that comes with ambition and the cutthroat pursuit of ambition, and I’m not here for it. There are other ways to show that, which would make any movie easier viewing for me, personally.
- That aside, I like Abigail’s journey. I like the frank ambition. I like how calculating she is. I really like that “sex scene” that takes place on her wedding night. As an ace, I watched that and thought: “There it is, my favourite sex scene ever.”
- The only thing is, I’m not sure about the end of this movie. I think we’re meant to understand that, despite the fact that Abigail got what she supposedly wanted, and despite the fact that Anne got what she supposedly wanted, neither of them actually got what they wanted. Abigail can’t control Anne the way Sarah did. And Anne may have wanted to punish Sarah, but in doing so, she removed her from her life, which is not actually what she wanted, replacing her with someone less devoted to her than Sarah always had been, ultimately. And… I like it, but also, I’d have preferred a more triumphant ending for Abigail. One without the animal cruelty, because no one hurting a rabbit for kicks is any shade of triumphant, ever. I realize that a triumphant ending would be less nuanced and thought-provoking, but I like what I like.
- This is, like with Lee Israel’s crimes, an example of something where I don’t really think what she does is that bad. She does a few bad things, sure, but she does them out of necessity. I couldn’t help rooting for her.
I could have written about the other two here, but I like Abigail the best and she’s the one with the clearest arc that goes upward to power, so, I’ll leave it at her.
Nadine in The Edge of Seventeen
Quick summation: She’s always struggled to make friends, then she made one best friend, then they grew into teenagers and she finds her BFF having sex with her older, much more popular brother, so she like, scorch-earths her relationships and lashes out at a few other people besides. She has a kind of heart-warming friendship with the English teacher who she is also mean to. Eventually she fixes everything.
- She is SO. MEAN. And SO. SELFISH. I love her.
- Nadine’s horribleness is also, like Tree’s, connected to the pain of grief. It’s also connected to who she is in general though, as she was always a little unpleasant even before her father dies.
- Ralph Breaks the Internet stole its central conflict from this movie.
Amy Dunne in Gone Girl
Quick summation: on the morning of her wedding anniversary, she goes missing. Things don’t look good for her husband, who is bad at behaving like a normal bereaved husband, mainly because he hated her so much in the end and wanted a divorce and is sleeping with his much younger student. It turns out Amy’s alive and framing her husband for murder. Unlike every other woman on this list, this is actually a cold-blooded killer criminal genius. The things she does are irredeemable, and a lot of fun to watch.
I’d die for Amy.
- So… right off the bat. What Amy does is wrong, obviously. She commits terrible crimes over the course of the film. But it’s so much fun sitting back and watching her do it.
- She frames a man for murder. His “crime” is being an unfaithful patronizing casually misogynistic donk. She frames another man for kidnapping and rape, and then murders him. His “crime” is being a patronizing controlling obsessive casually misogynistic donk.
- Those are not crimes worthy of murder or being framed for murder, but hey, there are no shortage of movies from many eras depicting women being brutally murdered, and sometimes raped or sexually humiliated as well, for the “crime” of being overtly sexual in whatever way the movie could get away with showing, or moderately unlikable, or annoyingly powerful while being female, or being “incorrectly female” to borrow a phrase from Hannah Gadsby, so, I’m not going to apologize for getting a kick out of this one instance of men having terrible things done to them for their comparatively less terrible actions.
- This movie contains my other favourite sex scene.
I’M SORRY OK, IT’S A WELL-MADE SCENE. And the music really brings it together. Really sets the mood there.
Well, there it is. There are a few others, of course. But that’s what I’ve got so far.
Do you notice that there are no Disney protagonists on this list? The only one who approaches it would be Merida, and I wouldn’t put her on here because Merida was right (#MeridaWasRight).
Disney. Live action Emporer’s New Groove and cast a woman as Kuzco.
Or the next princess doesn’t start off fully nice.
Thanks so much.