Bad Feminist or Bad Writing?: Misunderstood Female Characters
Updated: Dec 9, 2020
By Monika Petrosyan
As any standard English literature class goes, every book I have read has been followed up with a discussion in an attempt to analyze motives, themes, meanings, and of course, characters. We typically end this session of discussion by coming to the conclusion of whether we liked or hated these characters. While some characters in literature, and in film, are unarguably unlikeable, and others are undoubtedly lovable, there remains a small pool of characters whose likeability isn’t completely black or white. These are usually the Holden Caufields of literature, the Damon Salvatores of TV, and the Jokers of film.
For instance, take Daisy Buchanan from The Great Gatsby. The Great Gatsby is known as one of those novels where everyone kind of sucks, and Daisy is no exception to this generalization. She is the stereotypical flirty and beautiful housewife who supposedly chooses to be an oblivious and selfish “fool,” without much regard to her surrounding characters’ feelings or lives. While this could be true to a certain extent, I personally think she gets more hate than she deserves.
One of the famous descriptions of Daisy is the illustration of her melodic voice that essentially hypnotizes men and has them falling in love with her; her voice is so low that it physically draws in the person she is talking to, forcing an intimate closeness; it is emblematic to the type of person she is, as it plays to her awareness of these subtle manipulations she is complicit in. However, she is not acting out of malice. She doesn’t use her charm to use people, she simply allows herself to be this dream-like object of desire. What’s wrong with that? She is a popular rich girl who has had everything handed to her, but she is clearly overwhelmed by this life that she was brought into. No matter how a reader sees the privileged life she is lucky enough to be brought into, especially in that decade, there are certain expectations of Daisy that are just too much for her.
Which leads to the infamous line about her being happy that her child is a girl, and that she wishes her to be a beautiful fool. Many find that this line shows that Daisy chooses to live passively, and though it may be that way, it also shows that she’s not ditzy and completely blind to the real issues that surround her. But what is expected of her? Why do people demand that she do something? Daisy has lived her life right: she was born into high society and played the role of sweet popular girl well. She fell in love with a soldier and when he went away, she moved on and fell in love, married and started a family with another man. While she’s enjoying her relatively simple life with the man she says so herself that she loves, an old fling from her past throws these outrageous parties to get her attention. She’s sucked back into his narrative and he tries to suffocate her with all these rich materialistic items that he thinks she’ll love, but she only gets more and more overwhelmed. She is misunderstood, and while she clearly does some things that are wrong and could have been avoided, she has no other obligation to fix any other character’s problems. She is pulled into this issue that she didn’t instigate, and is blamed for not doing anything to fix it. In my opinion, she is mostly unliked for just trying to live her life.
Moving past literature and onto television, one female character of my favorite sitcom is mostly loved, though I find her quite problematic at times. Donna Pinciotti of That '70s Show is the perfect cool girl. She’s the hot, smart, nice girl next door who gets along with the boys and listens to rock. Most importantly, Donna is a feminist and is often made fun of by her friends for her hippie outlooks. Donna’s feminism is the one aspect of her character that I love; it’s needed, as she points out sexist issues that appear throughout the series.
Donna’s on-and-off relationship with Eric is a central plot point of the show. Eric makes mistakes that are always discussed and dealt with. However, Donna has said and done things that I believe are overlooked. For example, the first time that Donna and Eric break up is because Donna refuses to wear his promise ring, as she feels it is too big of a commitment. Eric tells her that he wanted to gift her with an engagement ring, but realized that it was too rash. Donna tells him to propose anyway and goes through with the engagement. Not much time had passed between these two milestone events, so neither character had undergone some sort of growth and development, they just picked up where they left off. When it comes close to the wedding date, Eric doesn’t show up to the rehearsal dinner because he sees that their future is bleak. All blame is put onto Eric, but Donna herself had packed a suitcase ready to leave Eric, though she ultimately stayed. No attention is put on this fact. She doesn’t take responsibility for her own actions that night.
In addition, Donna becomes a sexist stereotype in an earlier episode when she is mad at Eric for pantsing her in front of all of their guy friends. She tells him that she’s fine and not mad at Eric, but later in the episode, Donna to storm out on him when he jokes about it. She tells him that he should’ve just known, and he asks how to avoid this situation from happening again in the future. She tells him that he will know that he messed up, not because she will tell him, but because she will just be mad afterwards and he will have to figure it out on her own. This exchange bothers me because it’s simply a sign of an unhealthy relationship. Eric worships Donna and doesn't want her to feel this upset again, and she doesnt help him understand her. Instead she falls into the stereotypical female trope where women say they're fine when they're not, and expect their partner to just know that something is wrong. Donna is better than this, and she knows better, yet she doesn’t do anything to actually solve the problem that they have: miscommunication.
There are many other instances where Donna behaves in ways that are not as cool as her character is made out to be. She’s not perfect and she herself is a strong character who deals with real issues at home and handles them beautifully. However, when it comes to her relationship with Eric, she tends to contradict herself and put all blame on him, when she should follow her feminist notions and understand that she too is flawed, and responsible for some of their issues.
Characters who stir debate on whether they are good or bad, moral or immoral, honest or deceitful, tend to be the characters that are written best. Daisy and Donna are two very different women in very different situations, but they are both lovable and hateable, which makes them dynamic and fascinating points of study. There are characters in literature, film, TV, and even real life that we love to hate and hate to love, and those are the characters worth spending time on.