on the subject of likability
Lately I've been making my way through Roxane Gay's collection of essays, Bad Feminist. While I'm mad at myself for not buying this book sooner, I'm enjoying her writing a lot, and how bold she is. One essay in particular has stood out to me, titled "Not Here to Make Friends" which is about the importance of unlikable female protagonists. Gay makes a comical albeit true point about reality television programs towards the beginning of the essay, noting the one female who makes the inevitable declaration "I'm not here to make friends," which sets her up for the edits that producers will make before the episode airs that depict her as bitchy and/or unkind. But by Gay's standards, the aforementioned reality show contestant is only being human by making her intentions clear.
There is so much pressure on women to always be friendly, and have a pleasant demeanor, and when we reveal (whether it be intentional or non-intentional) that we have traits outside of the realm of these embedded social cues, we are collectively deemed as problematic. In the opening of her essay, Gay recalls a note that a classmate left in her high school yearbook, that described her as "mean." This led to a reflection of her own behavior as a teenager and an adult. "I was being honest (admittedly, without tact), and I was being human," she said, "It is either a blessing or a curse that those are rarely likable qualities in a woman."
From an early age, I've been known to say exactly what I'm thinking, which has admittedly gotten me into trouble on a few occasions. Growing up, I was the sharp-tongued daughter, living in a household where whoever had the last word won the argument. I had to be quick-witted to defend myself. I cursed a lot for emphasis.
However, I rarely let this side of me show in academic settings. There was immense pressure placed on me to be held in high regard by my teachers. In high school, all my peers saw was the way I looked - I might as well have been associated with any shy, nerdy girl-next-door character in those teeny-bopper movies who has a crush on the hunky male lead and wears a lot of cardigans. I always carried around a Moleskine emblazoned with stickers. My cheeks were naturally red from spouts of acne. You get the picture. On one occasion a male classmate even called me "a quiet little church mouse" which frustrated me. I didn't like being stereotyped. Whenever I did make a sarcastic comment, everyone around me would be shocked. But I didn't say the things I was thinking for shock value; I said them because they were a part of me. Being outspoken was, and always will be, important to me.
One day during my junior year of high school, a debate ensued in my AP European History class. My team was up against a classmate who had an infamous way of speaking - he would end his Kerouac-esque stream of consciousness by raising the pitch of his voice to make it sound like a question. It took a significant amount of energy out of everyone to mask their contempt for him. As for me, I was tired. And annoyed. Suddenly I heard, in the driest tone of voice imaginable say, "Was that a question, or a novel?" The class erupted into quiet snickers and Oooooooh's and I realized the voice who made the comment was none other than my own. My teacher's mouth dropped open. I placed a hand over my own mouth, surprised that comment slipped out of me so quickly.
"Grace," she said in mock-seriousness, "I will not tolerate such hostility in my classroom." Which resulted in me spewing apologies. But upon later reflection, why should I have had to apologize for being bold enough to say what everyone else was thinking in that moment? Why did I have to say sorry for being bold, for being human, and for leaving a minor infliction in a seventeen-year-old boy's ego? Maybe it was for the sake of still being in high school, for feeling like I didn't have a choice but to stick with the reputation that was slapped on me the moment I stepped into those hallways. I wasn't willing to free myself from the burden of likability until college, or able to reach the level of confidence that matched the scene in 10 Things I Hate About You where Kat Stratford smirks upon being made aware by her guidance counselor that her classmates think she's a "heinous bitch."
I had another class with the guy I supposedly insulted later on that day, and he said in a whiny voice "Why are you so mean to me?" Which of course resulted in me apologizing again, but I didn't think I was being mean. I thought I was just being honest. But because I was honest, it made me unlikable.
Like Roxane Gay, I've struggled as both a writer and a person with wanting to be liked and wanting to belong. There are communities in which I've sought out acceptance - writing communities, academic communities, social communities. I've had to be extremely careful and censor myself over the years, especially since that incident my junior year of high school. I'm not going to walk into a room and declare "I'm a bitch! Have at me!" but that doesn't mean I'm going to be a doormat, either. While of course I'm an advocate for kindness and treating others well, that's irrelevant to the part of my personality that adheres to speaking and writing my own truths. For the sake of women everywhere, in both fiction and reality, honesty should not be synonymous with bitchy.
Gay cites the character Amy from Gone Girl as an example of an unlikable character. Amy's "Cool Girl" monologue in the film is ultimately her rejection of being the woman her husband, as well as an exclusively male society, wants her to be. In Gay's words, unlikable women refuse to give in to the temptation that Amy expresses her disgust with - the temptation to be "the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn't ever complain."
The most important point to take away from "Not Here to Make Friends" is that while unlikable women are obsessively criticized, they remain themselves, regardless of the consequences. Not only are these women and the choices they make worth reading, but they are worth knowing, especially now, in a climate where women are becoming more vocal about the issues that matter to them.