I started to title this post, â€œBraving the Bitch,â€ or â€œFree to Be Bitchy,â€ but I was afraid readers would be offended, wouldnâ€™t read beyond the title and wouldnâ€™t like me as an author.
Such is the dilemma of writers who have the ovaries to write less-than-amiable female characters. In a recent interview, Greyâ€™s Anatomy and Scandal creator Shonda Rhimes told NPR that when she pitched Greyâ€™s to executives at ABCâ€”all of whom were old menâ€”they told her â€œnobody was going to watch a show about a woman who had casual sex and threw a guy out the night before her first day of workâ€”that that was completely unrealistic, and that nobody wanted to know that woman.â€
That woman. The one whoâ€™s not, oh I donâ€™t know, married or monogamous. The one who opts for an abortion both times she gets pregnant. The one who is cutthroat. The one who voluntarily participates in a conspiracy to rig a presidential election or does everything in her power to uphold white male supremacy and patriarchy just to keep her lights on and her employees on the job in a company she started after the First Lady realized she was the other woman. The one you would want as your doctor, because her skills as a surgeon are unmatched, but not as your friend because sometimesâ€”oftenâ€”you just donâ€™t like her.
Rhimes went on to say that she feels like making female leads â€œsympathetic in traditional ways â€¦ is an old-fashioned notion for television,â€ but I donâ€™t think the notion has disappeared from every literary art. I wrote here and here about the summer workshop experience in which my classmates thought the narrator of my memoir was, in short, unlikeable. I wrote a lot about how I believe race played into their reactions, but I hadnâ€™t used this blog to vent about internalized sexismâ€™s role in their critique until now. I was encouraged to fill my book with scenes that demonstrated the narrator was nice, sweet and vulnerable as opposed to mean, vindictive, snobby and judgmental. Female leads in books still have to be likeable, or no one will read the book. My instructors and classmates didnâ€™t say this only to help me improve the story; they said it to increase my chances of the finished story being read. Most of them didnâ€™t â€œlikeâ€ the narrator, didnâ€™t feel sympathetic towards her and, as they explained, no one wants to read an unsympathetic narrator.
Unsympathetic â€œfemaleâ€ narrator was unspoken, and the workshop wasnâ€™t the time or place to debate it, but I donâ€™t believe theyâ€”8 women, one transgendered person and 1 manâ€”wouldâ€™ve made this suggestion to a man. And I think thatâ€™s unfair. If there was a time in my life when I was a bitchâ€”hey, some might not even put that in the past tenseâ€”why canâ€™t I just be a bitch? Can a girl not have an attitude for one chapter? Geez.
As I was conducting market research for my book, I remember reading the reviews on Amazon for Bitch is the New Black, a book mine will be compared to, and knowing the answer is, â€œNo.â€ Some say that Bitch being a collection of essays makes it difficult to sell, but I think many people dislike the narrator and therefore donâ€™t recommend the book.
And yet, Shonda Rhimes found author Helena Andrewsâ€™s voice â€œboth outrageously funny and heart-breakingly honest.â€ She optioned Bitch to adapt it into a movie. Over the past decadeâ€”except for the two years or so I stopped watching Greyâ€™s because I missed Isaiah Washington and I hated Katherine Heiglâ€”I have felt every kind of way about Meredith, Christina and now Olivia. Rhimes has written three-dimensional female characters. Sheâ€™s given viewers an opportunity to peek into the lives of deeply flawed women, and every week, millions of people tune in to find out what they do next.
Maybe if Iâ€™m fearless enough to be so flawed on paper that Iâ€™m not likeable, sheâ€™ll find me some on-screen love, too.
How do you feel about the female leads in Shonda Land? Do you have a favorite bitchy woman in literature? Tell me about her in the comments.