Film & TV

“Darker Forces”: In Defence of Unlikeable Female Characters

Image: Killing Eve, Season 2, 2019, Damon Thomas

By Hannah Jorgensen

BBC’s Killing Eve is a spy thriller which follows the dangerous obsession between Eve, a spy, and Villanelle, an assassin. Eve’s efforts to track down Villanelle prove that they have more in common than she thinks.

As an avid watcher of BBC’s Killing Eve, I have a confession to make: I don’t like Eve. I think she’s messy, selfish, and self-destructive. And yet, I’m desperately invested. I watch her make terrible decisions, pursue dangerous situations, and spiral away from any hope of redemption with a delicious kind of fascination. I don’t think I’m invested in her despite her hopeless unlikability – I actually think that her unlikability is what gives her an appeal that you, too, can’t resist. (And don’t get me started on Villanelle.)

I think the reason I’m so obsessed with the women of Killing Eve is that I’ve never seen truly unlikeable female characters before. Even the infamous Katniss Everdeen – socially awkward, closed off, and pessimistic – is selfless, brave and compassionate underneath it all. Everyone likes Katniss, really. It’s as if there’s this unwritten bias in storytelling that female characters are allowed to have flaws, but only to a certain extent – they’re ultimately likeable, otherwise they’re a waste of the audience’s time.

There is no such limit on their male counterparts. Literature and film are densely populated by truly awful men who do equally awful things, yet no one doubts their necessity. When a man is unlikeable, he is worthy of our investment; his terrible traits have purpose and meaning: he’s charming, he’s fascinating. When a woman is unlikeable, that’s all she is.

Author Claire Messud makes a case for unlikeable female characters. When she is asked whether she would be friends with the narrator of her psychological thriller The Woman Upstairs, she responds: 

For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? … Hamlet? … Raskolnikov? … Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? … If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?” 

Messud gets to the point of why stories like Killing Eve work. The unlikeable women, in all their ugliness and imperfection, are uncompromisingly real and alive. They’re not ‘sugar and spice and everything nice’ – they leave a rich, unpleasant taste that we will remember. Their humanity appeals to us because we see something of ourselves in them; perhaps something that we don’t like, a glimpse of the “darker forces” Margaret Atwood defines in driving a good fictional plot. 

When I was a kid, something I heard in a sermon stuck with me. The speaker said, “to like someone and to love someone are completely different things. You can love someone without liking them.” This much is true for how I feel about Sandra Oh’s Eve. Phoebe Waller-Bridge never intended for us to like her, but we do love her, in a strange way. We accept that her flaws and vices are what make her whole, and we see aspects of ourselves in her that we can’t reject. I hope to see more terrible women like Eve in the stories of the future. 

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