How the chronic fear of unlikeable female characters managed to ruin a fan-favourite show for millions across the globe.
Earlier in the decade, the 60’s-backdrop show Mad Men took the pop culture universe by storm. A wildly successful show, it glorified unruly ways of career growth and made its alpha protagonist, Don Draper – a vicious marketing wizard, a popular male icon for generations to come.
Draper was shown to be a marketing genius with a family he was not particularly devoted to, no questions asked. Why? Because he was thriving in his career! The show was appreciated by most critics and their half hearted feminist critiques made no impact on the unequivocal success of the show.
Barely two years after Mad Men ended, came Marvelous Mrs. Maisel – set in 1960’s New York like the former, with an incredibly similar trajectory. That of an individual hustling to make a career for themselves. The only problem is that this one managed to incite severe flak and criticism for the manner in which the central character rises to power in their career. Why? Glad you asked!
The protagonist was a woman – a wife and a mother of two. And someone, who like Don Draper, did not let that fact come in the way of her career.
“We don’t have the same conversations about ambitious men who are at the centre of their own stories who make sacrifices to get what they want. It’s just accepted as a part of who they are, whereas on our show people say that its a plot hole that the children aren’t onscreen more”
Similarly, if you’ve been an avid #gotfan (like countless others), chances are that your admiration for conventionally ‘unlikeable’ characters like the witty anti-hero Tyrion Lannister is a real thing. Or your morbid fascination with someone like a Jamie or a Tywin Lannister.
Part of this fascination is because these characters were able to sustain their unlikeability and grow into it through the run of the show. But think about similar traits being applicable to female representation in the GOT universe.
How the femme fatale, a force-to-reckon-with Cersei Lannister’s power fizzles out through the seasons up until the final one has her do practically nothing but stand by a window, to spew metaphorical venom on to the world as she sips wine. Not to mention has her whole character taken off the show by a bunch of rocks.
Or how someone like a histrionic Margery Tyrell was practically written out of the show somewhere midway through its run.
And the worst treatment of all – Danaerys Targaryen. How the show runners managed to practically reverse and undo a whole character arc within a span of 6 episodes simply because the final ruler (and the winner) of this game of thrones could not be an unlikeable female character.
The fear of unlikeable female characters runs so high for the creators of pop culture that the show would much rather steer away from everything that made it so successful in the first place; simply to fit in with the status quo of the male dominated universe.
What is it with unlikeability?
When the show first released 9 years back, it boasted of some rather powerful and holistic representations. These characters had no moral compass, ample motivation for scheming and were classic villains, truly flawed and basically, ‘unlikeable’. But most importantly, they were real.
The initial seasons of the show were rather amazingly in touch with the female characters’ development and their innate complexities.
Think about the opposing contradictions of two of the fiercest mothers – Cersei and Katelyn. One with her fearful power and the other with her ideal nurturing. Think about the impressionable Khaleesi’s gradual rise to power and coming into her own as a leader. And the seductress Margery’s feisty ambition to take over the land of Westeros someday. Or the implicit rivalry between sisters Arya and Sansa and how their personality ramifications were so tactfully developed and communicated.
The show runners started out by doing due justice to these, and many more characters. They carefully constructed their character arcs with justified motivations and made space for their growth.
Towards the culminating seasons, however, the heroines of Westeros were increasingly being portrayed as scheming, power hungry, destructive women with no explicable motivations to be so. Essentially, the writers began falling back on tired and sexist tropes so often used to dispose off of ambitious female characters.
Why is unlikeability so attractive in their male counterparts?
When it comes to the likes of Tyrion, Jamie or Tywin Lannister, people love them, or love to hate them. They also have complicated feelings about them. Their sexism, their problematic treatment of women and those inferior to them is generally seen as a nuanced shade of their character. It also leads the way for their subsequent redemption.
Female characters, though, seem to live and die on an arbitrary “likeability” factor.
Clearly, likeability isn’t that much of an issue for male characters. We describe male characters as being likeable, or likeable douches, but too often, male characters get a pass just for existing as men.
Women, on the other hand, must be “likeable” to pass whatever tests have been set up to justify their existence. If they’re framed as being charming rogues, or assassins, or un-nuanced villains, they have to be conventionally “hot” or appeasing to the male gaze.
This complexity of likeability for the female psyche is especially visible in the criticism surrounding Sansa Stark and Cersei Lannister.
Sansa starts out as a naïve teenager who dreams of love, romance, and chivalry. She cares about traditionally feminine things, such as dresses and princesses, and she wants to marry Joffrey and be queen. This is contrasted with her sister Arya, who is a tomboy and wants to fight rather than sew.
Cersei and others manipulate Sansa for their own purposes, because she is seen as an easy target. As a result, she is held captive and abused, but because she still is traditionally “feminine,” in that she doesn’t pick up a sword, people still think she deserves to die for the simple crime of existing without being “badass.” Audiences hate her for her perceived weakness.
But while Sansa has been called into scrutiny for her perceived weakness, Cersei on the other hand has managed to receive the same criticism for being the stark opposite. There’s just no winning for female villains when the audience is only interested in nuanced male ones.
She is just too badass, too villainous. Too toxic to be real. How can a woman who has babies murdered be a mother herself? Contrast this to when her own father is willing to jump this likeable line by trying to get his own son killed and no one bats an eyelid.
However, the jury on which of the female characters had it the worst is still out. My strongest contender? Brienne of Tarth.
A warrior who could put the strongest swordsman to shame. The badass woman that needs no man by her side. The penultimate episode has her running after the ‘love of her life’, begging him to save himself. And the last one has her re-writing the said man’s history to leave him in a light of glory for all the world to see.
Shouldn’t women be allowed to exist beyond the basic ideas of what makes a female hero “likeable”?
Why don’t female villains often attract the same die-hard, redemption-or-bust fan bases? Why are female anti-heroes hated on, while Don Draper remains a beloved symbol of toxic masculinity?
So is there a solution?
Look behind the scenes. Who is making the show? Mostly men. Amongst all the 19 directors that the show saw through its 8-season run, there was just 1 female director. And out of the 73 episodes, the said female director in question directed merely 4 of those episodes. The entirety of the show had only 7 people earn writing credits, two of which were women.
With such few female voices, how can we expect the curation of feminist and empathic narratives?
If the bandwagon of writers on ‘Game Of Thrones’ could have more female voices, maybe then its final episode wouldn’t have been infested with the untimely deaths of all of its strong female characters.
I (and we as a society) can harp on a lot about how this can be tackled. But the truth is there is no straightforward solution. It’s a long journey. But the way to at least embark on the first step of this journey is to encourage more women in the pop culture industry - and everywhere else.