In Ron Rash’s 2008 novel Serena, he creates a female character who is so ambitious and ruthless that she seems devoid of moral considerations. It is a stunning accomplishment in an era when readers clamor for likability. Frankly, I think likability is overrated in fiction. I believe the likability complaint is mostly used as a way to dismiss strong female characters. Really, no one cares all that much if male characters are likable.
As an example, this weekend I watched a portion of Glengarry Glen Ross, the movie adaptation of the David Mamet play. Both the play and the movie received showers of awards and praise from critics and audiences. Rightly so. It is an excellent portrayal of greed, desperation, and hubris. The characters are despicable, but fascinating. They are also men. I have a feeling that a female version would not be quite so successful. Always Be Closing is a fine motto for a group of salesmen, but I doubt it would fly for a group of women. I envision Alec Baldwin’s female equivalent reminding the ladies on the sales floor to smile. Always Be Chipper, perhaps? Always Be Cordial? Always Be Charming?
Readers and audiences love spending time with despicable male characters: Gordon Gekko, Ignatius J. Reilly, Humbert Humbert, Walter White. Feel free to add to this list. The possibilities are endless.
In my first novel, I wrote about a difficult, selfish female character. My editor asked me to make her more sympathetic and I tried. People still hated her. Some people wondered why I would write about someone so unlikable. I justified my choices by pointing out that she was a victim of time and place and that her present choices were based on a hard past, but the truth is I wasn’t worried about her being likable; I wanted her to be interesting. It didn’t occur to me that she needed to be the sort of woman you’d invite over for coffee or wine. In the same book, I wrote about a difficult man and no one asked me why he was so unlikable. Maybe it’s because he was weak by the time we met him and he died before the story ended. Or maybe it’s because he was male.
What is so enthralling about a despicable man? Why can men get away with being greedy and dishonest and mean and selfish, while a woman who wants anything more than a husband must be tempered with fragility or loss or good humor?
As you may have guessed, I am no longer exclusively talking about fiction.
In Serena, Rash never attempts to soften his anti-heroine. She outwits every man in every room including her husband. She gets what she wants with methodical, ruthless, and often underhanded tactics. People suffer and die because of her actions, many of which seem rooted in nothing more than a desire for revenge. She goes after an innocent woman and her child out of pure spite. She goes after her own husband when she senses a hint of weakness. Serena is tempered with one bit of loss—the miscarriage of her child. Even so, her thirst for power was on display well before she became pregnant. And Rash resists any temptation to make her a sympathetic character. I admire the hell out of him for that.
I find myself wishing more women who seek power would take a cue from Serena. Stop trying to make yourself softer and more palatable. Find your opponent’s weak spot and exploit it ruthlessly. If your husband is an albatross, cut him loose and don’t look back. Find a way to kill the snakes that threaten your livelihood. Keep your enemies close and in your debt. Have at least one person on your team who is fiercely loyal and has nothing to lose. People don’t like you anyway; go ahead and earn their hatred. Never apologize. Never forgive.
I find myself wishing for and rooting for brash, unlikable women on the page and in the world. I want more of them. This is petty, of course. It’s the opposite of “when they go low, we go high.” Probably it makes me sound bitter. Probably it makes me seem unlikable.
Maybe I should revise this blog post to make myself seem more sympathetic in the final reading, but I suspect it wouldn’t make much difference.