Are We Demonising the ‘Unlikeable Female Protagonist’?
Who is an unlikeable woman? A woman who lives life on her own terms is mostly dismissed by society as unlikeable or “too-forward.” Representation of such women characters in fiction or non-fiction books, cinema etc. always gets that character of a woman playing the bad cop such awful reviews that authors and writers also want to play safe when it comes to writing female protagonists.
However at the SheThePeople.TV’s flagship Women Writers’ Fest held in Pune on December 21, two authors, who didn’t hold any bars while writing about brazen women, Sunanda Mehta and Yamini Pustake Bhalerao talked about just that. While Mehta’s “The Extraordinary Life and Death of Sunanda Pushkar” is a biography, Yamini Pustake Bhalerao’s Indira Sanyal in the “Laundry Girl” series is a fixer, private investigator, hustler, an ex-convict, and a street fighter. None is unaware of Pushkar’s larger-than-life persona and that itself led many to believe that she was arrogant, flashy and nonchalant.
Talking about writing the life of Pushkar, whose life was surrounded by numerous rumours and myths, Mehta says, “She was not someone who fit into the mould that the society had met out for her. She was judged at every step of the way. She spoke her mind, she was outrageous, ambitious, she would talk loudly, crack jokes. And all these things if a man did, it was alright but since she was a woman she was often called a woman with shades of grey.”
“I failed to find a combination of a woman character who is feminine and can also kick some ass. I greatly felt the desire to write a female character who could tick all the boxes which haven’t been ticked before and that was my inspiration”
Mehta revealed that she wrote about Pushkar because she was her friend but another very important reason was to “put a context to her life and to correct a few judgements made so blatantly against her. Everyone judged her when she married Dr Shashi Tharoor at 45 so that was the amount of life she had already led where she had achieved so much which no one knew about and no one even cared to know about. So I really wanted to bring that out for people to know her before making any judgment against her,” she adds. In the book, Mehta says that she wrote about Pushkar’s life as a struggling single mother and the challenges she suffered before she became the “privileged woman of Lutyen’s Delhi” who everyone loved to hate.
For Yamini, the birth of Indira Sanyal’s character happened out of a dearth of badass women characters out there. “We have varied women protagonists being written in India but either the characters are “too good” or too “complicated,” I failed to find a combination of a woman character who is feminine and can also kick some ass. I greatly felt the desire to write a female character who could tick all the boxes which haven’t been ticked before and that was my inspiration,” says Bhalerao.
Mehta also brought out the different colours of Pushkar’s personality as she says, “Sunanda was a kaleidoscope and everyone who had met her had different things to say about her which ranged from her being warm, friendly, nice to outrageous etc. So when I was writing about her I felt that she could be all of these things without being judgmental. And on different occasions, different sides of her personalities became dominant.”
“She was not someone who fit into the mould that the society had met out for her and she was judged at every step of the way. She spoke her mind, she was outrageous, ambitious, she would talk loudly, crack jokes. And all these things if a man did, it was alright but since she was a woman she was often called a woman with shades of grey.”
On women characters being hated for the same rogue-ish character, that society loves if that character is a man, Bhalerao says, “Sanyal in the series is an imposter, she does all kinds of things that if we see that kind of character written with a man at the centre of it, we would love it because we lap those characters up in films too. While I was very sceptical when I was writing the character mainly because I did not know how it would be received but the first feedback that I got from the publishers was a very positive one as they said that this is something that we have not read. This character was something that we had not read before those are the majority of the comments I received on my books.”
The unlikeable female protagonist may be rare and a new-find but she is here to stay unfiltered, at least in the literary world. As much as we portray the women in our books on the women that we see in our real lives, we would realize that we’re all complicated, broken and twisted in our own unique ways so painting all women characters with the same brush is an injustice no less.