*Note: Contains spoilers about the Netflix series You, Wattpad books Playing Dead, Dark Sanctuary, A Dark Fall, Into the Dark*
My lovely work assistant and I recently binge watched You on Netflix (not while we were at work, I might add, just in case my boss or associated people ever read this) and were having daily convo updates on what we thought of the latest episodes we had both watched the night before.
Now, I’m not going to regale you with a step by step of our convos, but, her reaction to Beck really caught my attention.
‘Oh my goodness, that Beck girl!’ she said, ‘How annoying is she? That girl deserves for Joe to kill her.’
I found myself nodding my head.
WAIT. WHAT? I nodded my head in agreement? Why did I do that??
I mean, sure, I’ll admit I did find her annoying at times, but what was Beck doing that was so wrong that the girl deserved to be killed? And why did I find myself agreeing with my assistant?
Of course, anyone who has seen the show will know that it’s mostly skewed in Joe’s favour. We get most of the story from his POV. We get his thoughts, his feelings, we laugh along at the funny things he says and we root for him when it’s looking like he might get caught. And to top it off, let’s face it ladies, Joe is very easy on the eye. We’re given a guy who is clearly creepy to the max, but good-looking, and Hell, all logical thought goes out the window. Suddenly we’re praying for the next girl to be his victim… because, well, quite frankly, that woman is just NOT good enough for our much-loved obsessive stalker-killer!
I’m poking fun at all this, of course, but REALLY, ladies? Is this what we have been reduced to? Do characters, and specifically female characters, deserve to get killed just because they’re cheats or flaky or because you just don’t like them?
What the writers and producers of You did was very clever. We need to be intrigued by Joe and need to somehow become attached to him to keep things going (and get to that all important second series before Netflix hit the cancel button), and while I don’t assume to know what kind of discourse they were looking for, it has reminded me a little bit of the furore involving the Ted Bundy Tapes and the subsequent Zac Efron biopic of America’s favourite hot serial killer. We had the same thing with Jamie Dornan’s character in The Fall. More examples of this fascination with good-looking killers who, and I will shout this loudly, WILL KILL YOU BECAUSE YOU ARE A WOMAN.
Okay, I’ve gone a little off tangent in a way, because this post isn’t about Joe or Ted or even Jamie Dornan (more’s the pity, eh), but it is about female characters and how we react to them. You might be wondering why I’m even discussing You here, because I primarily post about books and writing and the Wattpad experience and you would be right. As it happens, watching You came at the same time as I received a tirade of comments on two of my Wattpad books where readers were berating my female characters for their actions and decisions, so it seemed like perfect timing to bring up what I’m now calling The Guinevere Beck Problem, or The Art of Hating on a Female Character for Not Being Perfect.
One of the very first female characters I ever wrote in my incredibly amateurish Wattpad book, Dark Sanctuary, makes ALL the bad decisions. In hindsight, I know I made huge mistakes with that character, but I still maintain that because she had experienced so much horror and loss in her life, she had developed an innate ability to not trust people, even those who were obviously trying to help her. That distrust often found her ultimately taking the wrong route in life and putting herself in more danger, much to my readers’ frustration, and often anger.
Years down the line from posting this on Wattpad, I’ve become slightly numb to the negative comments, and I definitely don’t take them personally, but a couple of recent comments did make me stop and think ‘What? Really?‘
It went a little something like this:
‘I hate her now. I hope something bad happens to her.’
‘I hate her, I hate her, I hate her.‘
Sarah’s crime? Daring to put her trust in, and kiss a man that she connected with through similar life-experiences (and in the readers’ eyes, betray the vampire she was meant to love, even though he had bitten her and left her unconscious and then, deserted her, without consulting with her first to discuss the reasons why he had to leave…. damn, take a f-ing breath Lindsey).
Isn’t interesting that because she kissed another guy (and, I might add, only the 3rd guy she had ever kissed in her whole entire life) a reader can hate her enough to want her to suffer? What happens to us as readers when we turn against female characters so much because we don’t like their decisions, that we wish harm on them, whether emotional or physical?
Likewise, in Playing Dead: Book One of The Whitechapel Chronicles, the kickback my main character, Megan, receives when she cheats on her husband, is markedly different to the reaction her husband receives when readers realise he has done just the same (and actually, far far worse than just committing adultery).
Why do we admonish female characters so much, when we are far less vocal about a male character’s misdemeanours and crimes? In Dark Sanctuary, the male MC was a vampire who had garnered a small personal fortune by charming and then killing rich women. In Playing Dead, Megan’s husband is an adulterer and killer, and even signs away the life of his wife to pay for his own crimes. Neither of these characters earn anywhere near the kind of reaction that my female characters do. How is it we overlook a male character’s faults and errors, and yet we hold our female characters to such high standards?
Of course, now I completely understand that this is fiction and fictional characters we are talking about, so I’m no way suggesting I have a bunch of sociopathic readers on my hands who wish harm on others (at least I hope not haha). Also, I am always aware that as readers we do get passionate about stories and this passion can play out in many ways – adoration, frustration, love, happiness, grief, anger – and what are books without passion?! But, this compulsion we have as readers to go that extra mile with our disapproval and sometimes, hatred of female characters is something that constantly intrigues me.
Fellow Wattpad writer, Scarlett Drake, author of The Persistence of Memory, A Dark Fall and Into the Dark (amongst others), has talked recently of also receiving negative commentary against her female MC’s, Alex and Eloise. Interestingly here, It’s Alex, the middle-class Doctor who gets most negativity out of the two (even though Eloise does have an affair). She’s wrong for being indecisive, she’s wrong for over-thinking things, she’s wrong for not staying with the male MC after discovering he’s a drug dealer (and of course, directly implicit in whatever happens to those people who take the drugs, the very people that Alex could end up treating as a Doctor), she’s wrong for taking a sip of wine when she didn’t know she was pregnant, and wrong for keeping her lover in the dark about that pregnancy (even though he has a ton of shady secrets himself). I’ve even read some of the comments myself and it’s pretty shocking that, from mostly female readers, so many are willing to condemn Alex for her actions, when it’s quite clear that Jake has done far worse. Why do we expect perfection from female characters, but not from the male characters?
In the case of You, Beck wasn’t perfect, but so what? Delve a little deeper and by the end of the series we saw many of the reasons why she surrounded herself with fake friends, why she struggled to hold down relationships with men, why she cheated. But what did she do that was so bad that we might want her to get killed? By the time the series had finished, I found myself feeling very guilty that I had so easily let myself be manipulated into disliking her and not having empathy for her. Even without getting a better understanding of who Beck was until the end, why did I so quickly assume the role of judge, jury and executioner?
As authors, are we guilty of raising up our male characters onto a golden pedestal, to the detriment of our female MC’s? What role are we playing in creating the ensuing negativity? Of course, as I’ve said above, authors (and in the case of TV, screenwriter, directors, producers etc) do at times intentionally manipulate readers to love a character so much that they can seemingly do no wrong, even if we are quite clear about their flaws. But, in many cases, as readers – and I class myself as one of the guilty ones here – we are highly critical of female characters to the point where we wish they would do a Thelma and Louise off the edge of a cliff.
I’d love to know your thoughts on this, whether reader or writer. Have you experienced The Guinevere Beck Problem? Did you intentionally set out to create this kind of reaction on your readers, or do you think the reaction was unjustified? As a reader, have you ever reacted in a way (like I did) where you found yourself wanting the female MC to take a walk alone down a dark alley in the hope she’d meet a nasty end? Or do you see beyond a character’s flaws and try to find empathy with them, even if you don’t agree with their decisions?