Long Reads

Why we should all take heart from 2018’s most-liked female TV stars

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Kayleigh Dray
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Emilia Clarke in Game of Thrones

A list of the most-liked female primetime TV stars has been released – and, significantly, it seems society is finally ready to embrace the world’s “unlikeable” women.

We are all taught, from a very young age, what little girls are made of: sugar, and spice, and all things nice.

As Suzanne Clisby and Julia Holdsworth explain in their novel, Gendering Women: Identity and Mental Wellbeing Through the Lifecourse: “[Young] girls are rewarded for certain behaviours, such as ‘being good’ and not being disruptive and that more outgoing behaviours such as speaking out and being disruptive attract censure from both peers and adults”.

It’s no wonder, then, that the word ‘nice’ has, for a very long time, been intrinsically linked with the word ‘likeable’. However, this misplaced assumption often means that women feel it’s their duty to go above and beyond to make others feel comfortable. To remain polite, courteous and accommodating, no matter what. To dress as society expects them to. To smile on demand. To laugh off inappropriate jokes. To constantly apologise, even if they’ve done nothing wrong. To let men do all the talking (to interrupt them or speak up would make us “difficult”). To, above all else, stick to the boringly inoffensive roles that society (read: the patriarchy) has given us.

Of course, the long list of sexist expectations which come with the word “nice” has famously extended into fictional representations of women. For decades, we have been plagued with poorly developed female characters outfitted with symbols of likeability. They’re the one-dimensional foils and romantic leads who are placed within a story to talk to and about men – and, notably, made up of nothing but good looks, one-liners, and adorable flaws.

However, it seems we’re not the only ones who are sick of these sexist tropes. As Emily Blunt famously told The Hollywood Reporter, there is no descriptor an actress likes less than “likeable”.

“There’s just so much judgement with women,” she said at the time. “You have to be pretty. You have to be ‘likeable,’ which is my least favourite bloody word in the industry… what does that mean? To be witty and pretty and hold it together and be there for the guy? And he can just be a total drip?”

Thankfully, though, attitudes are changing. This year has already seen a plethora of awesome female-led films – including Three Billboards, Black Panther, Lady Bird, Avengers: Infinity War and I, Tonya – find critical acclaim, and there are countless others scheduled for release in 2018.

The small screen is working hard to shatter stereotypes, too: in fact, the TV shows generating the most conversation online – such as Call The Midwife, The Good Fight, Jessica Jones, Big Little Lies, The Handmaid’s Tale and Westworld – repeatedly boast complex, multi-faceted, flawed and, above all else, interesting women. No wonder, then, that the 2017 Emmys proved to be the year of the woman on TV.

All of this seems to be impacting society’s opinion of what makes a woman “likeable”, too, if this year’s list of the most-liked female TV stars is anything to go by.

According to the Q Scores Company (via TheWrap), Paula Perrette – who has played goth forensic scientist Abby Sciuto in NCIS since 2003 – is America’s most-liked female primetime star on TV, with a score of 44.

Second on the list is Taraji P. Henson (otherwise known as Cookie Lyon, the matriarch of the Lyon hip-hop family in Empire), who has a killer 36 points to her name.

And the eight women who line up behind Perrette and Henson, all of whom rate well above average in Positive Q Scores, are all similarly intriguing choices.

Check it out:

3) Emilia Clarke, Game of Thrones: 35

4) Mariska Hargitay, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit: 34

5) Viola Davis, How to Get Away With Murder: 32

6) (tie) A.J. Cook, Criminal Minds: 31

6) (tie) Millie Bobby Brown, Stranger Things: 31

8) (tie) Paget Brewster, Criminal Minds: 29

8) (tie) Linda Hunt, NCIS: Los Angeles: 29

10) Kaley Cuoco, The Bang Theory: 27

Against a backdrop of the “likeable” cardboard cut-outs, most of these women stand out for playing difficult and intense characters (let’s not talk about Cuoco, whose BBT character is portrayed as the archetypal “helpless blonde bimbo” needing to be saved from her pedestrian life by the show’s oh-so-intelligent male leads). They stand out for challenging sexism and our understanding of how women can behave. For being socially inappropriate (the greatest sin any woman can commit). For forcing us to recognise and grapple with that imbalance so often played out between men and women on screen.

However, while this list is definitely promising, there is still more work to be done before society fully embraces all that comes with being an unlikeable woman. Look at Alexandra Burke, who was voted off Strictly Come Dancing – despite being a talented dancer – because she came across as “smug”. Or Christine Bleakley, who was criticised for not being as “warm” as the TV presenter she was covering on maternity leave, and saw her entire career thrown into jeopardy as a result

Look at Amber Heard, who was dubbed a “gold digger”, “bitch” and “fame-whore” for accusing her famous husband of domestic violence (despite the fact she had video and photographic evidence). Or Rose McGowan, whose Twitter account was disabled after she publicly named her rapist. Or Gigi Hadid, who was branded “unladylike” after lashing out at the man who physically assaulted her. Or all those other thousands upon thousands of women who have been criticised for being ‘bossy’, ‘hormonal’, ‘nasty’, ‘drama queens’ and ‘bitchy’.

So what can be done about it?

Well, firstly, we need to change the conversation and rewrite the vocabulary we use to empower women and not let others define us: female strength is something to be celebrated and encouraged, not diminished by unfair labels to undermine their passion and drive.

Secondly, we need more books, films and TV shows to veer away from writing in a lone female antihero – or a ‘Smurfette’. Instead, they need to follow the lead of Big Little Lies, The Handmaid’s Tale, Jessica Jones, Orange is the New Black, Infinity War and GLOW, and focus on bringing the sisterhood to life on screen. 

We want to see more women empowering one another on screen, more women fighting back, more women lifting one another up, more… well, just more women.

Thankfully, this is something which Hollywood is actively trying to make happen, both through the Time’s Up initiative, and by creating great material for women from all backgrounds. There’s We Do It Together, the non-profit production company which has been created to finance and produce films, documentaries, TV and other forms of media, all uniquely dedicated to the empowerment of women. 

Then there’s Margot Robbie’s production company, LuckyChap Entertainment, which again aims to create more women-led films and television shows. Krew Boylan, Rose Byrne, Jessica Carrera, Shannon Murphy, and Gracie Otto founded The Dollhouse as an all-female independent production company, with a goal to produce stories about women made by both experienced and emerging filmmakers.

And, of course, Reese Witherspoon has founded two companies to help even the balance: Pacific Standard, a production company, and Hello Sunshine, a multimedia company.

“I started a production company five years ago to create more roles for women onscreen and behind the scenes” she told CNBC.

“Today I have something like 23 projects in the works driven by great female characters of different ages and races. There is a film about an astronaut, a film about the entrepreneur who invented Barbie, and a film about the young, brave American girls who were the first women to serve alongside Special Ops in 2010 in Afghanistan.”

It goes without saying that we have a responsibility to support these projects: in doing so, we will tip the balance away from the toxic messages hidden within the seemingly innocent “nice girl” narratives. We will change the stories being served up as truth. We will shape society’s ideas of who women really are. And we will force all those other directors and producers, who have yet to follow Witherspoon and co’s good example, to present the world through a different, more humanised lens – and stop peddling sexist bulls**t.

With this in mind, we can’t wait to see which female actresses will make the list next year.

Anyone else have a feeling that the future is only going to get brighter for unlikeable women?

Image: HBO