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Debating the 'L' word - likability

Sunday, March 8, 2015

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By Leslie Gray Streeter, The Palm Beach Post

Reese Witherspoon may long have been America’s sweetheart, but Cheryl Strayed, the real-life woman she plays to Golden Globe-nominated perfection in “Wild,” is far from sweet.

She’s a damaged, broken person whose lifetime of cheating, betrayal, drug abuse and other emotional missteps, topped with the devastation of her mother’s death, propels her on a harrowing 2,650-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. As the movie version of Strayed walks, her past flashes back to her in jagged pieces.

She’s raw. Relatable. Infinitely complicated. But nice? Not even.

In 2014, does a female character’s likability matter to audiences like it once may have? And are those audiences more willing to accept those complications, regardless of whether they come in a formerly sweet package?

Palm Beach Atlantic University film professor Alex Wainer says there have always been complicated female characters — he cites Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth’s “evil inspiration” and feels that “by the end we don’t hate her as we see her tragic end … Perhaps our culture still hopes, expects, believes women to be the more morally sensitive of the sexes, less poisoned by testosterone and therefore more conscientious. Men and women can sometimes be bad in similar ways, but, more often, are each bad in their own ways.”

It’s the ways in which those differences are portrayed and then internalized that has sparked an increasingly active debate about likability — or lack thereof — in fictional ladies in movies, TV and literature. The “L” factor has been conjured in discussions of some popular current and complicated characters such as Viola Davis’ blisteringly brilliant (and possibly unbalanced) attorney on ABC’s “How To Get Away with Murder,” Lisa Kudrow’s vain, unflappable actress in “The Comeback” and Julia Louie-Dreyfus’ Emmy-winning role as the conflicted vice president and now president on “Veep.”

But the acclaim for those characters exists at the same time when Lena Dunham is, now four seasons into HBO’s “Girls,” still asked whether her self-involved and struggling 20-somethings are likable, as if that’s a qualification of whether we should care about them. But the same network’s one-time signature character, straight-up murderer Tony Soprano, was considered dynamic and exciting.

“These aren’t even valid questions,” says Melissa Silverstein, founder and editor of the influential website Women and Hollywood.com (http://blogs.indiewire.com/womenandhollywood/). “They aren’t asking Lena ‘How did you come up with (her character) Hannah?’ (But) the more women we see behind the scenes and in power will lead to even more women in power making decisions. We have to keep our foot on the gas and keep up the momentum and cyclical change.”

In getting caught up in fleshing out characters based on gender, rather than just trying to make them interesting, period, both audiences and filmmakers can get in their own way. Filmmaker and University of Texas-Arlington lecturer Patty Newton recalls how “one of my male students wanted to write fully realized, multidimensional female characters, and he wanted to know how to do that. I said ‘Write them as a man and then change the name.’”

This past January, in a column in Slate magazine called “What’s So Bad About Likable Women?” Willa Paskin writes of “a plague of poorly developed female characters outfitted with symbols of likability — good looks, one-liners, adorable flaws — instead of personalities,” and so the existence of “difficult, intense, nasty women” like “Gone Girl‘“s Amy, for instance, “challenges sexism and our understanding of how women can behave. To be socially inappropriate is a greater sin for a woman than a man … and these fictional characters force us to recognize and grapple with that imbalance.”

It’s that imbalance that makes “Mad Men‘“s deeply flawed, faithless, petty self-sabotaging Don Draper sympathetic, while his ex-wife Betty, whom Wainer describes as “fascinating in her pettiness but also victimized by the men in her life,” doesn’t always get the benefit of the doubt. Or, he says, why actor Bryan Cranston, who embodied the cancer-stricken teacher turned cold-blooded meth drug lord at the heart of “Breaking Bad,” is considered hard-core and cool, while Anna Gunn, who played his long-suffering wife, Skyler, and “her horror and desperation in trying to save her family from the man she thought she knew,” got hate mail and death and rape threats.

The problem, says Silverstein, is that we’re asking the wrong question — Should we focus on whether someone is “likable” or whether they’re “human,” with all the complications, flaws, back story and opportunities for redemption that entails?

“I feel that we get caught up in this narrative of how woman should and shouldn’t be in film but we don’t have (those conversations) about men. Why are we putting female characters in a box?” asks Silverstein, who recently interviewed the real-life Cheryl Strayed, who “literally walked herself back to life” on her harrowing hike.

“What ‘Wild’ does, and what Reese has done, is be very deliberate in looking for material that would take her as an actress to new levels. What she was seeing is that there are not (enough) fully formed characters onscreen today,” she says. “The statistics show that we, as women, are not the protagonists in films but we buy half the tickets. We need to demand to see ourselves. (Witherspoon) has taken herself on an adventure as an actress, stripped herself emotionally down. It’s a human story, not a female story.”

So where is that momentum of powerful women who might insist on fully fleshed-out characters? Silverstein admits that “the numbers have been stuck, but TV, at least, is clearly moving the right direction. We need to push beyond where we are in the conversation.” She cites Ava Duvernay, recently Golden Globe-nominated for directing the Martin Luther King biopic “Selma,” as evidence of that positive movement.