Over the past few years Netflix has developed a reputation for producing high quality original series, with award-winning shows across a huge range of genres - including multiple series that put complex female characters front and center. While other networks are gradually upping their female leads, Netflix seems to be at the forefront of female-driven shows - most of which have found an eager audience waiting for them.
The streaming service isn't just making waves by building up programming with shows led by women, but by doing something that most female-fronted series still don't: making those lead characters unlikable. Historically, while male lead characters have the freedom to be awful people, female leads are expected to be the kind of women that the viewers would want to be friends with. For example: Breaking Bad's murdering, drug-dealing protagonist Walter White is hailed as one of modern TV's great anti-heroes - a character to root for despite the horrors he committed - while his wife Skyler was the target of a disproportionate amount of hate from fans.
This is part of an established double-standard, one that holds women to a very different set of criteria than their male counterparts. However, Netflix's originals shows are proving that female leads can be just as unlikable (yet binge-watchable) as men.
Why We Don't Always Like Likable
Of course, Netflix does include some very likable female leads. Take The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, for example. Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) is about as likable as they come, with a ridiculously bright and shiny attitude and a willingness to do anything to help her friends. She's surrounded by deeply unlikable friends and colleagues, of course, which just makes her seem all the more enthusiastic and loveable. Kimmy is, in fact, incredibly watchable because she's so very saccharine sweet that it's almost painful - Kimmy may be a extreme exaggeration of the likable female lead, but she's still a solid example. Although both Lillian (Carol Kane) and Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski) are arguably more compelling as characters, a show with either of these awful women at the forefront would simply be less likely to be made.
There are multiple issues with limiting female leads to those who are 'nice', and many of these are to do with the implicit suggestion that women are required to be likable - off-screen as well as on. It's not just an issue with off-screen double standards, however. Refusing to explore flawed and outright unpleasant leading ladies also has a serious impact on the kind of stories being told. At its heart, avoidance of abrasive or ugly personality traits limits the potential scope of the character. We may want to be friends with the standard female lead, who is essentially a good person trying hard to do their best, but we don't always want to watch her. Many of the most compelling and complicated characters in pop culture are far from likable people, so by limiting female characters to likable ones, we limit female-led shows in a much broader sense.
The issue isn't that female leads can never be likable. It's that female characters have long struggled to be anything else. For the past few years, however, Netflix has been slowly introducing different female leads who are anything buy good people - and showing exactly how much more interesting that makes the series that they front.
Starting Slow: Piper Chapman
The first big Netflix original hit with a deeply unlikable lead was Orange Is The New Black - set in a women's prison, with an almost entirely female cast, and the absolutely horrible Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) front and center. Netflix was a little bit sneaky about this one, however, as she started out a very sympathetic character. When Piper is first introduced in the series, it's as the middle-class woman who is having to pay for some youthful mistakes: getting involved in drug trafficking through a relationship in her early 20s. She is, in many ways, very similar to the classic 'likable' female lead at the start: she's thin, white, pretty, well-off, runs her own creative business (artisanal soaps) with her best friend and the support of her husband. Her crime involved international travel and lots of naivete, and her first reactions to the prison system elicit real sympathy.
However, as the show progresses, Piper becomes increasingly unlikable, as her prejudices and lust for drama and power start to come out. Surrounded by women who are lifetime criminals from poor backgrounds, her worst traits come out. By the end of the second season, she has become utterly hateful - and incredibly watchable. Balanced out by the women around her who are significantly better humans (if deeply flawed themselves), this development from a sympathetic character to a horrible one is a formula that has worked well for creator Jenji Kohan in the past (in Weeds). It's also one that is a perfect way to introduce an unlikable lead without putting viewers off from the start.
With the hugely successful Orange Is The New Black under their belt, Netflix did something a little bit different with a couple of characters who are deeply unlikable, but still sympathetic. In both Jessica Jones and LOVE, the lead characters are deeply unpleasant in many ways, but as the viewer learns of their struggles with trauma and addiction, they remain both watchable and empathetic.
Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) is bitter, sarcastic, unpleasant, and an alcoholic. She makes no attempts to be liked, or even respected, and only wants to make enough money to keep paying her rent and bar tab. She doesn't bother with careful wardrobe choices, and possibly most unusual of all, hers is not a redemption arc where she recovers. Instead, she is able to face down her abuser and regain a sense of empowerment, but her personality and her attitude remain intact. Jessica has no patience for anyone, and it makes her an incredibly interesting hero in a universe of bright and shiny superheros.
Similarly, LOVE's Mickey (Gillian Jacobs) struggles with sex addiction, as well as alcoholism, and spends much of the series struggling to be even a half-decent friend to the people around her. Rather than hating her for being so unlikable, however, viewers have applauded the show's refreshing authenticity.