Analyzing Unlikable – An Emma Case Study by Cecilia Gray & Giveaway

Mar 17, 2014 by

“I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” ~ Jane Austen

Jane Austen wastes no time telling us that Emma Woodhouse is beautiful, smart, rich, and happy. We’re talking blessed enough to be portrayed by Gwyneth Paltrow. Despite her young years, Emma is independent, successfully runs her home, and is a trusted member of the community: a woman whose opinion matters.

In other words, for the time, Emma Woodhouse is a woman with power.

 

Suck it, Katniss

 

What’s not to like?

A lot, apparently.

In searching for random descriptions of Emma, often-used phrases included: bossy, opinionated, snobby, clueless (not just from that Heckerling remake), annoying, and downright mean.

There is nothing wrong with these descriptions. There’s nothing even particularly false with these descriptions.

What troubles me is how much they yield the resulting value judgment: I just couldn’t like her.

 

What’s to like about positive female dynamics?

 

This is even after accounting for all of Emma’s good traits. We know Emma lost her mom at a very young age. She is incredibly indulgent of her father, who is far too overprotective. She makes mistakes and feels truly sorry to have made them. She’s aware of how blessed she is and wants to share her good fortune with those around her.

Yet still! Unlikable? Why?

Because she’s blessed? Because she’s honest with herself about her good traits instead of falsely (or worse…cluelessly) modest? Why do we consider her bossy and opinionated instead of confident in her assessments? Snobby instead of having standards for herself and her friend?

Now, far be it for me to tell people how to feel. Feelings are what they are.

I’m not the first author to be concerned with the issue of likability in female leads, both in books and television/movies. Both Buzzfeed and Slate recently argued opposite ends of the same spectrum – from encouraging more unlikable characters as necessary to the fabric of our pop culture to championing more likability, particularly in the loftiest of lofty literary fiction. If you like young-adult fiction with “unlikable” characters I recommend anything by Courtney Summers and thus also recommend reading her intelligently thought-out essays and tweets on the matters.

But really, what I want is that when you read a book and you stumble upon a character who rubs you the wrong way, who you find unlikable, that you ask yourself: so what?

 

The sun is a perpetual halo around my head – I don’t have to care what you think.

 

I had a long, drawn out conversation with a friend who hates Emma. Just despises her. Hates her in writing. On film. As personified by Gwyneth. As modernized by Amy Heckerling. So I asked her why. The first answer was what I expected.

She thinks she knows what’s best just because she’s rich.

Well, so what? I asked.

Ten more minutes of this and we dug deep into my friend’s psyche, particularly her feelings about wealth in general and that people who don’t have to struggle for wealth don’t deserve her respect, regardless of other life struggles. She also realized that this belief, whether misplaced or not, had been playing out her entire life – with her friends, coworkers and acquaintances. She’d held onto people and discarded others under the guise of “liking them” or “getting them” when the underlying cause was an inability to respect people who hadn’t clawed up from nothing like she had. She had an inherent disrespect for those who experienced the random act of being born lucky, even if they had proven themselves in other ways. She walked away from the experience a little dazed and a lot more reflective.

The next time you find yourself getting a bitter taste in your mouth when you read a book, the next time you cringe when a character speaks or acts, the next time you hate a heroine – ask yourself why? Then so what? Then so what again.

What you’ll discover is the unlikability has little to do with the character and everything to do with you.

*****

Cecilia Gray lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where she reads, writes and breaks for food. She also pens her biographies in the third person. Like this. As if to trick you into thinking someone else wrote it because she is important. Alas, this is not the case.

She’s rather enamored of being contacted by readers and hopes you’ll oblige.

She’s available everywhere! Otherwise known as  Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube, Instagram and via email at cecilia@ceciliagray.com.

 

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18 Comments

  1. I think when I encounter a character I don’t like it’s because they personify something I hate about humanity in general.

    I must say I’ve never hated Emma. She’s not my fave Austen heroine but I don’t dislike her :)

    • Oooh, care to share a character you don’t like?

      I ADORE Emma so much. She always seemed so sassy and vibrant and able to say what was on her mind and unlike Lizzie (through no fault of Lizzie’s) she was financially independent – I wanted to be her so much whereas while I liked Eleanor, for example, I wanted her to stand up for herself more and same with Catherine – I also wanted her to be more assertive.

      I think we as a society have a weird double standard of wanting to raise our girls more like Emma (independent! smart! assertive! respects herself and believes she deserves the best!) but rewarding them for being more like Eleanor (quiet! more concerned for the benefit of others than themselves!)

  2. I don’t really dislike Emma although most of the times she presumes to know what is best for her friends and family and meddles into their affairs. But in all her attempts, she has a good heart and tries to help them in what way she can.

    • Ya know, I was just having this conversation with someone this weekend, that I truly believe most people have good hearts when they meddle. :) She said I was naïve. Haha.

  3. I love your analysis of Emma! I think when people don’t like a character (or someone in real life), it’s often because of a bias like “He’s rich” or “She’s educated.” They don’t get to know the person underneath that layer.

    • Thank you! I know, riiiight? :) We’re all just people. I know, I know, it’s so groan-worthy but I really do mean it – characters are just our own shades of gray (or “grey” if you are Jessica and spell your name THAT way, hahahaha)

  4. I don’t personally dislike Emma (I actually kind of identify with her and sympathize with her lack of quality friends), but I don’t know that disliking a character is necessarily bad. I think it’s a sign of a well-written character if not EVERYONE likes them.

    Certain personality traits rub people different ways and I’m sure it has a lot to do with our own life circumstances. I wonder how Emma’s personality would be viewed in a poorer person? The money thing always seems to be a big issue in the discussion of Emma especially because the people who she is matchmaking (Harriet in particular) really does have a lot to lose. Maybe if she were matchmaking her peers (which she has basically none of) it wouldn’t come across as patronizing to some people?

    • That’s a really good point – Emma is almost in a Catch 22 because she wants to help Harriet precisely because she is vulnerable, but that vulnerability means Harriet is overly subject to Emma’s influence. Had Harriet been capable of genuinely standing her own ground, would Emma have continued to guide her on a path contrary to her own heart? I truly believe Emma would have acquiesced…

  5. Sophia Rose

    I think you make a good point that issues with characters have much to do with personal taste and experience. I’m not an Emma fan though I don’t detest her exactly. I found her meddling annoying and slightly arrogant since it seemed a game with her when she spoke of her success at it to Mr. Knightley. I wanted her to take what she was doing more seriously b/c it was people’s lives she was fooling with. I was also put off a bit by her envy of Jane Fairfax and her attitude toward the older ladies, but these last too are normal for most of us so it would be like being put off with myself.

    If I give her wealth any though, it is mostly that for me with wealth comes the responsibility to use it appropriately. She seems willing to do that. She gives of her time and her abundance to others. She is a unique heroine for that time in that she is independent and comfortable in her role without a husband or domineering father in sight to make decisions for her.

    I enjoyed the discussion thanks.

    • Thanks for coming by! I do love hearing how other people feel about her – and Jessica is right – Jane Austen’s characters generate such a wide range of feelings in her readers.

      “She is a unique heroine for that time in that she is independent and comfortable in her role without a husband or domineering father in sight to make decisions for her.” <– this totally makes her my role model!!! :) I come from a pretty traditional Asian background so when I was a kid I YEARNED to be out from the brotherly/fatherly thumb.

  6. Stephanie Carrico

    Emma is a favorite of mine. She is one of Austen’s most human characters…with her good and bad traits..just like we all have. She falls somewhere between Lizzy and Anne..she has Lizzy’s sass and Anne’s tender heart. Think she is an interesting character study as we watch her grow and learn.

  7. BeckyC

    I agree that many of the things Emma does can be disturbing, but I take the attitude with her that I like her but don’t always have to “like” her. I often wonder if she will mature enough to have a happy life with Knightley.

    It is a good point that personal taste and experience alter the likability of characters. When reading book reviews, I try to discard negative reviews that only spew personal preference.

  8. Interesting thoughts, Cecilia. I think this can be applied in real life too. Why do some people rub us the wrong way? But my question, then, is, are there no bad people or characters? Must we like everyone? Do we dislike people only because it is our own problem? Just some questions:) Well written article. Thanks!

  9. I have never related at my dislike of Emma as a character to her gender. For me, any person who believes that they should have the right to tell another individual how to live, whether through outright power or manipulation, is reprehensible. I don’t care how pure their motives seem to them or how much they care about the person they are trying to “help.” What makes Emma unlikable to me is the fact that she believes (for the majority of the novel) that she should be able to tell someone else how to live and that she has the power to do it.

  10. This is a really intriguing topic. I don’t think I’ve ever actually disliked the main character in a book (especially not Emma!)—I’ll have to think some more on that one. However, your analysis does remind me of the different ways to characterize a story’s antagonist. Sometimes a book or movie is better because of a well-crafted villain—the character that you love to hate.

  11. I adore Emma. She’s probably my favorite heroine, or maybe second favorite. (It’s hard to top Elizabeth.) Part of what I love about her as a character is that she’s so real. She does have a lot of strength of position and character at the beginning, but she’s got this serious flaw. Directing the lives of people around you is not an attractive trait. But she grows out of it! She starts out with good raw material and develops into a stronger woman by the end.

  12. Oh wow I see the discussion continued! So fun to read everyone’s opinions. (Nancy, I agree soooooooooo much, I <3 Emma!!)

    I definitely want to add I think it's totally fine to dislike a character – the list of characters I dislike is looooong indeed – and that I believe thinking about why you dislike a character is an interesting exercise. I'm a big fan of book club type discussions.

    Have you guys been reading the Emma book discussions from the past few days? Good stuff!!!!!!

    Thank you everyone for coming by!

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  1. Emma Woodhouse: An Unexpected Heroine | Indie Jane - [...] Cecilia Gray, I really love Emma, and for many of the same reasons (you totally stole my thunder, Cecilia, …

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