Where Literary Legends Are Born

In Defense of the Good Girl


Unlikable girls are having a pop cultural moment. Long relegated to the sidelines as one-dimensional vamps, bitches, and romantic rivals, women who are messy, difficult, selfish, or even out-and-out bad now rule. Consider Amy Dunne from Gone Girl. The women of A Song of Ice and Fire. This trend can even be seen in children’s books and YA: Marie Lu’s The Young Elites trilogy stars Adelina Amouteru, who is not just an antiheroine but an out-and-out villain (she’s been described as “the teen girl version of Magneto or Darth Vader”).

And I love this. Female characters, like real-life females, have long been subject to closer scrutiny for their choices and double standards and icky Madonna-whore dichotomies. And feminist sensibilities aside, let’s face it: flawed, messy people are often just more interesting than yet another perfect princess as good as she is beautiful. There’s good reason for the backlash against kind, virtuous, and upstanding characters. Historically, they often have been pretty damned dull: characters without flaws have no room to develop, and their choices are less exciting if they can do no wrong. But I wonder: does ‘good’ have to mean ‘boring’?

Beware – spoilers ahead!

A lot of people’s textbook example of a female character who’s so perfect she’s cloying is probably Sara Crewe of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess. She wants to be a princess so she can give bread to the poor! She gives bread to the poor even when she’s starving herself! But I would argue that she’s more complex than that. Sure, Sara is superhumanly generous, but she can also be aloof and condescending. She chooses to go hungry because she is too proud to spend a coin that a little boy gave her out of pity. She even tells rival Lavinia that she’d like to punch her in the face! Sure, Lavinia was being a bully, but she wasn’t causing direct harm: Sara wasn’t heroically defending someone, but picking a fight. A Little Princess struck me as someone who 1) puts up a front of stoic virtue for others and suffers a lot more than she lets on, and 2) decides to be good as a strange coping mechanism, a way to feel as if she does have some agency over her situation. There’s something psychologically and morally interesting to me about that.

One of the classic “unlikable heroines” in fiction—and one of my all-time favorite heroines in general—is Scarlett O’Hara from Gone With the Wind. I watched the movie first, and thought Melanie was a boringly nice wuss in comparison. But then I read the book and was startled to realize that she, too, has more under the surface. She not only accepts and even condones Scarlett’s killing of a Yankee, she seems to relish his death—in fact, she’s the one who suggests robbing the corpse! When she mutters on her deathbed that Ashley “isn’t practical”, it’s startling to realize she is in fact capable of ill feelings towards other people, even someone she loves dearly. I’m not going to argue that Melanie is a better character than Scarlett, but the sudden, small hints of long-suppressed disdain and even ruthlessness (when the suddenly docile Melanie starts shrieking over the other women’s rejection of Scarlett…it is something to behold) from a character who seems to epitomize the Victorian ideal of the “angel in the house”…that caught my attention. You know what they say about the nice ones: they’re the ones you really should be afraid of. Also, Melanie gets to like sex, unlike Scarlett. How’s that for subverting the Madonna-whore complex?

Two recent examples from YA: Elodie Buchanan from Sharon Biggs Waller’s The Forbidden Orchid is “staid” and “responsible”, an archetype that’s usually left for the heroine’s less interesting older sister (Jane Bennet, Meg March). But she’s the main character—isn’t that interesting? Ivy Milbourn from Jessica Spotswood’s Wild Swans struggles with being “too nice”, which sounds like one of those flaws-that-aren’t-really-flaws, like being “clumsy”. But when you consider how girls continue to feel pressured to put everyone’s else’s needs before their own, to apologize for every little thing, and to refrain from speaking their minds out of fear of hurting someone’s feelings, it comes across as real and even honest.

All that pressure on girls to be kind and agreeable is what makes unlikable gals so memorable. It’s both shocking and liberating to read about a woman who just doesn’t care about any of that. But I think there’s something equally refreshing and challenging about thoughtfully written characters who reflect an often-unspoken truth: being a good person is hard. Good people, after all, are still people, and people, suck sometimes. That’s why it can be fascinating when even the best of us screw up, or why people even try to be good at all.