Twenty minutes into Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s acclaimed series Fleabag, our distraught and grieving protagonist confesses her greatest fear: “I have a horrible feeling that I’m a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist.” The first time I watched this scene, it felt like a revelation. There were other women in this world who felt angry, narcissistic, and occasionally obsessive, as I did. Someone else feared that they might be the worst kind of woman: an unlikeable one.
Fleabag is just one of many morally ambiguous female protagonists to grace our screens in the past two decades. From The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo to I, Tonya, it seems the film industry has never depicted so many abrasive female characters. Perhaps the most famous example is Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne, a psychopathic murderer who fakes her own death and pins it on her husband, weaponizing her whiteness and wealth at every step. When Gone Girl was released, it sparked massive debate over whether its narrative was misogynistic, misandrist, or somewhere in between. Today, for better or worse, much of that debate has dissipated. Amy Dunne’s monologues have reached iconic status, and Gone Girl has been simplified to a feminist revenge tale. It has become the epitome of the ‘Good for Her’ trope, paving the way for female-centric horror films like Midsommar and Ready or Not.
On Tik Tok, compilations of “female rage” in film and television regularly garner millions of views. Teenagers congregate in the comment sections, articulating a solemn respect for women scorned, from Hidden Figures’ Katherine Goble Johnson to Euphoria’s oft-maligned Cassie Howard. It seems that young women cannot get enough of their own anger. But what does this fascination with female rage tell us?
For one, it speaks to the importance of having women behind the camera as well as in front of it. Women like Emerald Fennell (Promising Young Woman), Micaela Coel (I May Destroy You), Chloe Zhao (Nomadland), and Maggie Gyllenhaal (The Lost Daughter) have all received deserving critical acclaim for their depictions of contemporary womanhood. The success of their works stems from their commitment to brutal honesty.
I argue the trend of female rage is also an articulation of the contemporary female experience. According to a recent study from the Center for Disease Control, one in three teenage girls seriously consider attempting suicide, and they are twice as likely as their male peers to report lingering feelings of sadness. RapeCrisis.org estimates that one in four women will experience sexual assault in their lifetime. When enduring trauma feels like a rite of passage, no wonder the teenagers idolise Amy Dunne.
In reality, the “unlikeable female character” is a fundamentally flawed premise. Unlikeable women are not irredeemably unlikeable. They are merely complex in ways traditionally reserved for men. They are bad mothers and bad friends; they are villains and antiheroes in equal measure. Most importantly, these female characters do not have to be sympathetic for their narrative to be worth depicting. As women produce, write, and direct their own work, these characters are given space to emerge.
In the first season finale of Fleabag, our protagonist’s grief and self-loathing finally overwhelm her. She wallows in the pain of her past mistakes. “Either everyone feels like this a little bit and they’re just not talking about it,” she weeps, “or I am completely fucking alone.”
As we enter Women’s History Month, I opt to celebrate womanhood in its entirety. I celebrate the angry, sad, selfish, frustrating, cruel women, my fellow “unlikable” women, the women that cry as they watch Fleabag and realise they’ve never been alone; in fact, we are everywhere.
We are waiting for our stories to be told.
Image: “Rosamund Pike” by David Alexander Elder is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.