On Being Unlikable and Alive: We Read to Find Life in All its Ugly, Beautiful Truth
(This essay was originally written on July 25, 2016. I made some slight edits and added to it for a more complete analysis.)
This morning I am reading, Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay. I’m reading the section of the book titled, Not Here to Make Friends, about how women in fiction, and in life, are judged based on their likability. Gay begins by discussing Charlize Theron’s character in Young Adult. “…an unlikable woman embodies any number of unpleasing but entirely human characteristics. Mavis (Theron’s character) is beautiful, cold, calculating, self-absorbed, full of odd tics, insensitive, and largely dysfunctional in nearly every aspect of her life. These are apparently unacceptable traits for a woman, particularly given the sheer number working in concert.”
Gay explains that the most interesting characters are the most human. Detailing many examples in novels where women are the unbearable doers of all things holy, good, and innocent, she observes that many times critics in literary conversations will rate a work of fiction poorly if the characters are unlikable — “as if literary merit is dictated by whether or not we want to be friends or lovers with those about whom we read.” That “perfect society lady” who “knows how to keep up appearances” stands within the realm of social conformity. Often if there is a woman in a novel that is unlikable, that is, a woman who dares to defy social conventions, who dares to not tolerate a terrible marriage, who dares to speak her truth, one who is honest, angry, or grim, it affects the deemed quality of a novel’s writing. Not surprisingly, it’s usually men who are give “thumbs down” to a woman who breaches patriarchy’s codes of conduct, and the performative lies womxn are coaxed into embodying. And even more not surprising, is the fact that unlikable men in novels are seen as quirky, brooding, or tormented, which adds layer and complexity to them as humans, instead of damning them for it.
Gay goes on to ask, “Why is likability even a question?” She takes us into thoughts about our culture of affirmation where everything we do online is begging to be “liked” or “loved.” She mentions Abraham Maslow, and how our modern day culture seems to exploit one of the elements of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs — that basic human need for love and belonging, that desire to be accepted and affirmed.
“When women are unlikable, it becomes a point of obsession in critical conversations by professional and amateur critics alike.” If women are not acceptable to “polite society,” there must be something mentally wrong with them. But men, on the other hand, are often accepted despite their oddities, their selfishness, their brashness. And we don’t only uphold these men in literary novels, but in real life too. Writers like Charles Bukowski, Allen Ginsberg, Edward Abbey, Jack Kerouac — all men who have displayed a spectrum of flawed characteristics and personality traits ranging from totally, abhorrently misogynistic to just slightly misogynistic.
Gay illuminates this ridiculous idea that women are required to be likable to be worthy of our attention and to be taken seriously by referencing a Publishers Weekly interview with Claire Messed, in which Messed was asked by the interviewer: “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.”
“For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Salem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “Is this a potential friend for me?” but “Is this character alive?”
Gay says, “Perhaps, then, unlikable characters, the ones who are the most human, are also the ones who are the most alive. Perhaps this intimacy makes us uncomfortable because we don’t dare to be so alive.”
What keeps us from daring to be so alive? I think Gay is on to something about this kind of unabashed, unashamed intimacy that leads to discomfort —it’s usually cis white men who are most uncomfortable when it comes to womxn who step fully and unapologetically into their truth and power. Throughout history, there are countless literary examples of women characters who have garnered unfavorable reception all because of their “unrepentant” and “shameless” (Gay’s words) attitudes and behavior. Why does this make people so uncomfortable? Do men feel threatened by this behavior that goes against patriarchal and white supremacist norms? Of course they do.
There are so many times in my memory where I am speaking with a man and I disagree with something that has been said, or I correct him on something, or there is a really telling moment that occurs when I point out how this man has mansplained something to me and I find out where his character really lies. The moment of truth brings with it a palpable feeling of discomfort. I stand there unflinching because I am so practiced at this point — practiced at verbalizing the unbalanced power happening in real time — out of necessity. Because if I flinch, if I break into tears, if I show any signs of “weakness” according to patriarchal standards, then I won’t be taken seriously. Either way, I probably won’t be taken seriously because as womxn we are damned if we do, damned if we don’t, but for my own emotional and mental sake in order to get through those potentially dangerous moments, or potentially socially-damning moments, I have practiced staying firm in my truth. I don’t want to compromise anymore because compromising with men in these situations means compromising my dignity, my humanity.
Having the reputation I do in the outdoor industry is partly because I have made some mistakes in my approach and in the ways I have communicated in the past. I have learned a lot, shifted, and evolved out of some habits that did not serve me. It’s important that we are accountable for the mistakes we have made. At the same time, as a woman, I have experienced harsher judgement and consequences for my occasionally tactless behavior than a man would because our society holds women to higher standards. We are supposed to be poised, perfect, and controlled at all times. We are held to a degree where we are never allowed to say the wrong thing, or act the wrong way.
While patriarchy is at play here, we can’t leave out white supremacy culture’s influence. White supremacy culture finds its ground in obsessing over perfection (if you make a mistake you’re cancelled and worthless), an “either/or” mentality (you’re either likable or not), and in the false belief that there is “one right way.” When mansplainers in my DMs and comment section explain to me how to be “better at social justice” and I don’t take their advice, I am considered completely inept, inaccessible, closed off, closed-minded — a bitch. An unfortunate side effect of our culture that lives nearly entirely online means that we really don’t get a three-dimensional understanding of who someone is. In many people’s minds I will remain strictly “unlikeable,” despite my many “likable” traits. And I’m okay with that because I ultimately cannot control how I will be received. I take in the feedback that will help me improve, and leave the trolls to chew on their own arms.
Roxane Gay takes the reader into thinking about the character Amy in Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn who is according to Gay, “the most unlikable woman in recent fictional memory,” writes Gay. We finally begin to see the truth of Amy as she reflects on how she met her husband, Nick:
“That night at the Brooklyn party, I was playing the cool girl who was in style, the girl a man like Nick wants: the Cool Girl. Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding…Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl.”
My whole young life I have tried to be the “cool girl” because I knew I would face problems if I wasn’t pleasing and accommodating, understanding and acquiescent. I knew that if I couldn’t “take a joke” I would be read as a bitch. I would be read as not chill, but a buzzkill. I know how to play the part of “cool girl” flawlessly. What womxn doesn’t? The story of my life is an ever-internal battle with myself for who will win: the likable and adored “cool girl,” or the unlikable cunt. As I have grown older, I have decided that I would rather be unlikable. To be unlikable is to tell the messy truth. It is to accept the consequences of being fully myself and to be willing to be held accountable.
Today, I allow myself to stop giving energy towards societal conventions that don’t sit right with me. “Unlikable women refuse to give in to that temptation,” Gay writes. “They are, instead, themselves. They accept the consequences of their choices and those consequences become stories worth reading.” Though it makes for uncomfortable situations at times, and there are actual consequences for being unapologetically myself, I no longer have the desire to pretend.
Be a story worth reading. For all that is ugly and honest, I encourage you to be unassailably yourself — unequivocally human. That is where life begins.
On Being Unlikable and Alive: The Sequel
When I wrote the above short essay on July 25, 2016, it was incomplete. Part of my analysis was missing. When it comes to a conversation about unlikeability we must take note that Black womxn are more often cast into the shadow of unlikeability. They are demonized and punished exponentially more than white and light-skinned womxn when they are not perceived as likable when they don’t follow proper social codes of conduct, and when they simply speak their truth no matter how difficult or uncomfortable it is for people, particularly us white people, to hear. It is important to remember what Malcolm X said: “The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected woman in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.” The stereotype of the “angry Black woman” influences the way Black women are perceived today. When it comes to stepping into their truth, Black women face a spectrum of responses from being judged as “mean,” or “intimidating,” to the most dangerous consequences of violence and death for being unapologetically themselves.
The media will twist a narrative to paint Black womxn as unlikeable characters. We saw this happen with Serena Williams during the US Open Final. BBC reported, “…Williams received a code violation for coaching, a penalty point for breaking her racquet and a game penalty for calling the umpire a ‘thief.’ And later, a fine of $17,000 (£13,000). Her reactions to the referee’s calls — which the Women’s Tennis Association has since decried as sexist — were no different from how many top players react in the heat of a championship game.”
Serena Williams has won the French Open, the US Open, the WTA Tour Championship, and Olympic golds medals. Serena Williams is undoubtedly the GREATEST OF ALL TIME of tennis. But despite the fact that she deserves deep respect for all of this, her journey has been littered with heinous racism and sexism (misogynoir). Throughout her incredibly-accomplished career Williams has endured boos, objectification, demonization, and intensely contrived body scrutiny in the form of racially-charged and dehumanizing descriptions.
The historical and current racialized standards of beauty (thin, cis, white, european features, etc.) have constantly been weaponized against Williams. In 2002, Caroline Wozniacki made a disgusting attempt to imitate Williams by stuffing her bra and underwear with towels. It is absolutely horrifying to see such a blatantly racist act be glossed over by most of the media that covered this incident. One writer that picked up on this racist display was Katie Halper of Feministing who wrote,
“Making fun of somebody’s body is inappropriate, sexist, offensive and problematic. But given the history and current-day context of racialized standards of beauty, and the hypersexualization of people of color, when a white woman makes fun of a black women’s body, especially in a way that hypersexualizes her and draws on the stereotype of black women’s big butts, it’s racist.”
White women too often have a hand in ensuring the transmission and buttressing of racist tropes and stereotypes in an effort to demean and dehumanize Black women. White womanhood sustains its false purity and innocence by bolstering false and degrading conceptions of Black womanhood. It is a deeply, racist scam that we need to interrupt. There is real harm caused by our impulses to recoil into our victim role. These impulses are felt, but rarely addressed or accounted for. We will often paint ourselves the frail, demure victims of Black women’s ever-intimidating presence, as if by nature we are the fragile ones and Black women are the looming threats to true womanhood.
Ira Madison III writes about the way we white women like Maria Sharapova create a totally bizarre and false sense of girlhood, which is really just our own unresolved insecurities as white women who have yet to deal with our white fragility. Madison writes,
“Sharapova, who beat Williams twice in 2004, has been unable to do it in over a decade — and it’s clearly haunted her. When referring to Williams, she doesn’t focus on her skill as an athlete. She instead resorts to the type of imagery that is often cast upon black bodies in contrast with white ones…Sharapova writes of first encountering Williams at 17. She follows it up with: ‘Even now, she can make me feel like a little girl.’”
It is our lack of security and our fear of losing power (white fragility) that holds us hostage to this false sense of intimidation. We are societally conditioned to cower and regress into white society’s imagining of a “little girl.” A guise that holds our position in the social hierarchy of white supremacist patriarchy.
This is historically how we continue to prop up structures of oppression that benefit us. We are comfortable in this narrative as old as slavery, where Black women are not seen as women — too strong and rough to be women, but simultaneously weaker and less valuable than men. This is why Kimberle Crenshaw’s coined the phrase “intersectionality.” Crenshaw created the term to define that specific intersection where Black women’s existence becomes invisible, yet highly visible. So visible that we have white women like Wozniacki hypersexualizing and drawing attention to Black women’s bodies in this caricature-like way, yet invisible because we don’t take seriously their experiences as human beings.
Instead of focusing on the issue, whether it’s Williams being disrespected and mistreated on the tennis court by a referee, or it’s Black Lives Matter calling attention to police brutality, there is push-back against these valid and rightful indignations because white society registers any emotions, particularly anger, as irrational. If anger is present, no matter how justified, Black people will always be judged as “too angry,” which allows us white folx to be off the hook from addressing the issue at hand. The anger (that is rightfully expressed and felt) is used against the truth-teller as a way for those in power to avoid accountability. Painting the anger as “irrational” is a get-out-of-jail-free card for the oppressive structures that are in place in our society, and for those of us who unknowingly uphold them. Those of us who don’t want to face the truth and denounce the validity of anger, need to do some heavy self-examination about our role in upholding racist and sexist paradigms.
Most often, when a Black woman expresses anger, she becomes unlikeable. But plenty of people in many facets of our society have expressed anger and yet, they are redeemed. They are not judged as unlikeable. I challenge people to think about a woman they find unlikable. It’s is because they are actually unlikable, or is it because she is simply existing, telling her truth, and being herself?
Serena Williams is not unlikeable. In fact, she embodies fairness, justice, and grace. She exemplifies dignity and comraderie because even when she lost the match, even when the crowd booed Naomi Osaka, Williams told the crowd to stop. She was angry at the referee, at the oppressive systems and behavior she experienced, but she respected and stood in love and respect for a fellow dedicated, woman of color, tennis player. She is a true hero in every way.
In an interview for Bitch Magazine Rebecca Solnit discusses anger and how women’s anger is portrayed:
“…women’s anger is unreasonable, which, of course, ties back to our inability to have authority about and witness to our own lives, [and] not being granted the credibility to have a basis for what [we] say, do, think, and feel.”
As a white woman who, because of my white skin, will be received as softer and more likeable compared to Black womxn, womxn of color, and Indigenous womxn, I know it is my responsibility to validate, honor, and uplift Black womxn, womxn of color, and Indigenous womxn when they speak their truth and tell their stories. When their stories are dismissed I need to demand they be taken seriously. And not only because I hold the power to do so, but also because I know that their stories and their outcomes impact me too. The oppression that impacts them, impacts me. The barriers to their freedom that they face, though different from mine as a white woman, are obstructing my path to liberation. As Rev. angel Kyodo Williams says,
…I know these things to be true: first, liberation never wants anything other than liberation for all, and second, there is no liberation without collective liberation. There is no other way. I wish there were, because I would like to be 100 percent completely free, and I have to wait for you. We have to wait for each other.
I know all too well that that in certain circumstances, it doesn’t matter how I act, what tone I use, or what words I choose to speak. I will always be the bitch, the unlikable one, the anti-cool-girl. At times, there will inevitably be forces in society that will undermine and discredit my experiences and truth simply because I am a woman. While it’s exhausting to keep up the facade of the cool girl, it’s also exhausting to endure constant scrutiny from society when I speak up. At the sam time, it is a luxury to have the ability to opt out of societal norms and speak my truth without pause or hesitation. I find that because my white skin affords me protection, it’s my duty to show all the way the fuck up. Not only is it too much energy and work to maintain a good image in other people’s minds for the sake of social niceties and “keeping the peace,” but I also know that doing this is to uphold what Robin Diangelo refers to as “white solidarity.”
White solidarity is the phenomenon that holds white people back from addressing and challenging racism because of the social rewards one receives for doing so. If you don’t speak up about something racist that was said or done, you will be perceived as likable instead of unlikable, and as someone who is easy to get along with.
In order to be as effective as possible in my advocacy for a more equitable world, I cannot be wrapped up in a culturally-conditioned obsession of how “liked” I am. I refuse to base my validity and worth on my likability. It’s more important that I align myself with my truth, and it’s more important that I honor and uplift the work of Black womxn, people of color, and Indigneous folx who speak their truths, yet are too often the targets of silencing, gaslighting, and misrepresentation.
My life is worth living and my story is worth telling because I am like the unlikable women that Roxane Gay describes: I accept the consequences of my choices.