Flawed Women, Fearless Writers
Bad Girls

Image by Resident On Earth via Flickr/Creative Commons

I started to title this post, “Braving the Bitch,” or “Free to Be Bitchy,” but I was afraid readers would be offended, wouldn’t read beyond the title and wouldn’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, Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal creator Shonda Rhimes told NPR that when she pitched Grey’s to executives at ABC—all of whom were old men—they told her “nobody 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 work—that that was completely unrealistic, and that nobody wanted to know that woman.”

That woman. The one who’s not, oh I don’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 sometimes—often—you just don’t like her.

Rhimes went on to say that she feels like making female leads “sympathetic in traditional ways … is an old-fashioned notion for television,” but I don’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 hadn’t used this blog to vent about internalized sexism’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 didn’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 didn’t “like” the narrator, didn’t feel sympathetic towards her and, as they explained, no one wants to read an unsympathetic narrator.

Unsympathetic “female” narrator was unspoken, and the workshop wasn’t the time or place to debate it, but I don’t believe they—8 women, one transgendered person and 1 man—would’ve made this suggestion to a man. And I think that’s unfair. If there was a time in my life when I was a bitch—hey, some might not even put that in the past tense—why can’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, “No.” Some say that Bitch being a collection of essays makes it difficult to sell, but I think many people dislike the narrator and therefore don’t recommend the book.

And yet, Shonda Rhimes found author Helena Andrews’s voice “both outrageously funny and heart-breakingly honest.” She optioned Bitch to adapt it into a movie. Over the past decade—except for the two years or so I stopped watching Grey’s because I missed Isaiah Washington and I hated Katherine Heigl—I have felt every kind of way about Meredith, Christina and now Olivia. Rhimes has written three-dimensional female characters. She’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 I’m fearless enough to be so flawed on paper that I’m not likeable, she’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.

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2 thoughts on “Flawed Women, Fearless Writers

  1. Thanks for writing about this. This reminded me of something Emily Giffin said at a writing conference I attended one summer. In her book “Baby Proof” the female main character doesn’t want children. The first line of the book is “I never wanted to be a mother.” She said the folks working with her on the book urged her to change the first line because it would immediately turn off readers and cause them not to like the main character and thus not read the book. But she didn’t. Yay Emily and go Shonda!

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