Duana sent me an article last week, that we had on the long list of topics for the Show Your Work podcast, about Why TV Needs “Weak” Female Characters, challenging the idea that women must be “likable” and that an “unlikeable” woman’s story is not worth telling. Women, as we know, are held to a higher standard of “likability” than men. Which can narratively trap a female character. Because if your female protagonist is constantly motivated by being liked, how interesting will she be, really?
I thought about this while I was reading the Teen Vogue piece on Donald Trump gaslighting America that’s been making headlines all week. That post resulted in other subsequent posts about Teen Vogue’s place in political coverage to address the surprise and disbelief that commentary like this was coming from a magazine that also recommends nail polish and hacks for pimple breakouts to teenage girls. When I was a teenage girl, I was f-cking UNLIKEABLE. Teenagers are complicated. They make bad decisions. They can be assholes. They are self-involved. They are total narcissists. But you know who recently defended narcissism? Elena Ferrante.
A reader called Meredith reminded me yesterday about Sheila Heti’s recent interview with Elena Ferrante during which she was asked about her justification for narcissism, especially as it seems particularly offensive in a woman, because somehow looking at herself and obsessing about herself is worse than when a man does it to her. Here is Elena’s response:
“I’ve never felt narcissism to be a sin. It seems, rather, a cognitive tool that, like all cognitive tools, can be used in a distorted way. No, I think it’s necessary to be absolutely in love with ourselves. It’s only by reflecting on myself with attention and care that I can reflect on the world. It’s only by turning my gaze on myself that I can understand others, feel them as my kin. On the other hand it’s only by assiduously watching myself that I can take control and train myself to give the best of myself. The woman who practises surveillance on herself without letting herself be the object of surveillance is the great innovation of our times.”
When you apply that perspective on narcissism to the Teen Vogue reader, doesn’t it then make sense that Teen Vogue is putting political discourse right next to the best hair trends for prom? Teenagers contain multitudes. And that’s specifically why they’re so compelling – and one of the reasons they inspire creativity, on television, in movies, and in literature.
My friend Amy Foster published a book a couple of months ago about a teenage girl called Ryn, called The Rift Uprising. She is 17 years old. She is a soldier. She is smart and she is brave. But at times she can be the worst. And selfish. And, yes, a total narcissist. Admittedly there were times that I just couldn’t with her, because I fell back into those old habits, those standards of judgment that we’ve been conditioned to apply when it comes to what we expect from female characters. I realise, though, that Ryn, like Arya Stark, like Issa in Insecure, like Allison in The Affair, is simply practising “surveillance on herself”. More often than not, it makes her unlikeable. But, more and more, unlikeable women are necessary.
Have a great weekend!
Yours in gossip,