The awesome folks at Stacked are hosting a series called About the Girls featuring authors’ takes on the representations of girls in young adult fiction. All the posts have been amazing, providing much food for thought, but I can’t get Justina Ireland’s “I love ‘unlikeable,’, I write ‘unlikeable,’ and I am ‘unlikeable'” off my mind. Ireland writes:
There’s been a lot of talk lately of what people are calling “unlikeable” main characters. If you haven’t heard any of the great discussion around unlikeable characters let me go ahead and break it down for you: unlikeable characters in YA (and beyond!) are female characters that are flawed, usually unrepentantly. They have some seriously bad shortcomings, or sometimes just “unladylike” behaviors, and there is little motivation to change their conduct within the course of the novel. That isn’t to say that they don’t change by the end of the story, only that any sort of redemption and improvement of their character flaws is usually secondary to the overall plot.
Unlikeable characters aren’t perfect and they don’t try to be. They know they have faults and they’re okay with it because they have more important things to deal with.
And that is awesome.
The thing that bothers me the most about the conversation surrounding unlikeable characters in YA is that it always refers to girls. It’s totally fine for boys to be complex, flawed, ruthless, ambitious, sexual, cantankerous, arrogant, and cruel (or, you know, human). Any of their unlikeable traits are chalked up to “boys being boys”, “sowing their wild oats”, or any number of phrases concocted to excuse or condone male boorish behavior.
The problem with being put on a pedestal is eventually you get knocked off, and having a warped sense of reality makes surviving the fall nearly impossible. So why are authors expected to develop only “good” characters that serve as “role models” to girls? Doing so harms everyone. It stigmatizes girls who don’t fit the “perfect” mold and gives everybody unrealistic expectations. Demanding idealized representations of girlhood has got to go. And why are girls and women usually making the biggest stink about this?
Truth be told, if I used the prevalent criteria as a yardstick, I’ve been unlikeable my entire life. Depending on who you ask, I’m either ambitious, determined, and opinionated or aggressive, pushy, and mouthy. But honestly, I really don’t care what anyone thinks. While getting along with people is always my goal, I know it’s not possible to be friends with everyone. If you like me, great. If you don’t, that’s fine too. As long as there’s respect, we’re all good. But it’s not my job as a woman to fulfill your likeable fantasies.
I didn’t come to this realization overnight. It’s worth noting that while adults reading YA have decades of experience to filter stories through, young YA readers aren’t grown. Young people, especially girls, need to know that mistakes and lapsed judgement come with the territory. They need to know not everyone has their best interests at heart. They need to know it’s hard deciding between what feels good and what’s good for you. They need to know that love can drive you crazy. They need to know it’s okay to be imperfect. They need to know that no matter what anyone says, you’re worthy. They need to know that expressing a full range of emotions is how you become a functional adult.
The YA fiction that I love to read and live to write features real girls in all their complex, messy, confused glory–girls that I recognize, remember, and revere. And we need more of them.