Quick: name a female protagonist in a novel who comes to mind as someone you had a strong connection with.
You have her in your mind? Okay, fabulous. Name five things about her you admire and three things you don’t like about her. When you encountered any of those three things you didn’t like, did you consider tossing the book aside?
What about TV shows? Think of a female protagonist on a TV show who you love and feel connected with. What do you like about her? What do you dislike about her?
Most importantly: do you believe that you could find the value in a story about a female character changing something about herself if that female character has some unattractive qualities at the beginning of the story?
I have seen several books succeed with female characters who have traits some would say are undesirable: Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple features a mother who (heaven forbid) still wants a sense of personal fulfillment and doesn’t care what the other fundraising obsessed moms at Gaylor Street School think of her, Eleanor Oliphant is
Perfectly Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman has a heroine who doesn’t understand fashion, doesn’t care, and loves her Marguerita pizza and handle of cheap wine on weekends.
When it comes to shows, we see the post-apocalyptic Handmaid’s Tale. June has plenty of unpleasant qualities that emerge after Season 2, but I don’t hear anyone talking about those because that might be too openly sexist.
Then, we have shows like Fleabag that went away for a while but came back. Unsurprisingly, the main character, “Fleabag,” isn’t always easy to love. She has a history of trauma, some kleptomania, a blunt approach to people, and zero tolerance for being unsatisfied in bed.
I’ll state the obvious about fiction: the main character needs to be flawed. They won’t have a character arc if they aren’t. Nobody’s obsession with every woman being a mirror of the perfect mother changes that.
Here’s another interesting thing: most of the male characters in stories are ridiculously flawed and still admired. Omar in The Wire has a cult following and he’s a gang leader who probably doesn’t even know how many people he has killed. Adrian Monk has OCD so bad that he can’t maintain normal friendships.
Jack Reacher is such a weirdo that all he can commit to is his toothbrush. (Speaking of which, I really hope he’s changing that monthly.)
If it’s a male character, we are willing to forgive infidelity, alcoholism, even murder. If it’s a female character who doesn’t understand why make-up is important or who maybe complains about something at some point in the story, she’s just whiney.
Is this really where we want to be in 2019?