On Feminists’ ‘Likability’ Problem

If there is an “adorable” way to talk about the wage gap, the war on women’s health, and the everyday sexism I’ve experienced everywhere from academia to my neighborhood streets, I certainly haven’t found it.

I’ve been happily riding the Jennifer Lawrence love train since Winter’s Bone was released in 2010. She’s gorgeous and talented, she’s the face of one of my favorite designers, and she and director David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, Joy) are a match made in award heaven.

But beyond all that, women like me shamelessly fangirl over Lawrence because, in her, we see our own propensity for not taking life too seriously. There’s a lovable air about her boldness, an ease to her “shock value” that never feels contrived.

So last week, when J-Law penned an essay on being “likable” in the Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner Lenny newsletter, I snapped to attention. As it turns out, even the girl who flips off the camera with one hand while clutching an Oscar in the other has reservations—more specifically, about how to call out Hollywood sexism (especially when, Lawrence adds, her “problems aren’t exactly relatable”) while still remaining likable.

Revealing that she made significantly less money than her American Hustle co-stars because she “[closed] the deal without a real fight,” not wanting “to seem difficult or spoiled,” Lawrence guesses that her male co-stars never had such concerns while negotiating fiercely. She wonders, “Could there be a lingering habit of trying to express ourselves in a certain way that doesn’t ‘offend’ or ‘scare’ men?” As a feminist writer on the Internet, I don’t wonder. I know that this delicate balancing act is probably the biggest challenge of being a woman vocal about women’s issues.

The first column I wrote for Role Reboot was a reflection on the Ben Roethlisberger rape allegations, published in the summer of 2014. From the perspective of not only a female Steelers fan but someone who is relatively hard to offend, I examined the resulting rape jokes and argued that victims of sexual violence were being used as mere fuel for rivalrous banter. I used a few anecdotes for support, including one of a homemade “No Means No” Steelers T-shirt given to me by a friend.

The point of that anecdote was to shed light on how our perceptions change as we get older: how after hearing so many personal stories of sexual assault in my 20s, I couldn’t continue to participate in old boys’ club humor that dismisses women. Instead, even though I had gone out of my way to treat that particular story with kid gloves, I ended up hurting my friend’s feelings and feeling terrible for having written the piece at all. My aim to contribute to a larger conversation on why we use the word “rape” to establish victory and dominance in areas like sports and video games was overshadowed by personal offense.

As I continued to write on subjects like domestic violence, dress codes, street harassment, and birth control regulation, I received praise from many male readers. They sent messages and sought me out in public, thanking me for my level-headed approach to discussion. One friend even dubbed me “Glenda the Good Feminist,” I imagine in contrast to someone like Boston College professor Mary Daly, whose axe-wielding stance on the posters advertising her 2007 campus visit haunts me to this day.

Unfortunately, for every guy who “gets it,” there has been a plea to lighten up, a suggestion to stop writing if I want to find a good man (let that one sink in for a minute), and an accusation of reverse sexism. I even got to join the ranks of women harassed online every day when a former journalist for The Washington Times flooded my inbox with MRA garbage and then, once I blocked him, took to trashing me in his blog. No one objects when I write about workers’ rights for teachers or what it’s like to be an adult child of divorce, but apparently not wanting to be shouted at to smile on the sidewalk constitutes radical misandry.

I’m convinced this is because Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn is right: We love the Cool Girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer…while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot.

From the goofy faces to that infamous sex toy story on Conan, Jennifer Lawrence has Cool Girl down pat. If I step back and look at my straightforward communication style, mostly male social circle, and enjoyment of traditionally masculine activities and media, I can see why these traits are agreeable. Cool Girl (we might also call her Strong Woman) is accepted above all for her effortless blending in with the old boys’ club. But when she uses that admired frankness to draw attention to gender-specific issues, it becomes a problem.

Of course, striking the perfect balance between strong and likable isn’t a hurdle unique to actresses and writers. Hillary Clinton spent a considerable part of her 2008 campaign dodging criticisms that she wasn’t likable enough to be President, and these concerns linger even today. Adrienne Kimmel, who contributed to last year’s Keys to Elected Office: The Essential Guide for Women, observes that female politicians like Clinton “need to be likable to be viewed as qualified, and those two are inextricably linked. But for men, those two qualities aren’t linked at all.”

Similarly, unlikable female characters in film and television do not go over well with audiences, in contrast to beloved-yet-ruthless leads like Walter White and Frank Underwood. “We are in a culture that really doesn’t embrace female anger or allow an outlet for it without a woman seeming hysterical or shrill,” Rosamund Pike says in reference to her Gone Girl character Amy Dunne, whose deep anger stems from a lifetime of failing to meet her parents’ impossible expectations. Nick Hornby, who wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Wild, notes that the “years of reducing women to functional paths” are finally opening up to spaces for more complex female characters. “They’re pretty, and they’re capable of pulling a guy out of some kind of slump, and that’s it,” Hornby says. “So when you see a woman who is actually a person, then it challenges audiences who are used to seeing something different.”

“I’m over trying to find the ‘adorable’ way to state my opinion and still be likable!” the Lenny letter concludes. Jennifer, if there is an “adorable” way to talk about the wage gap, the war on women’s health, and the everyday sexism I’ve experienced everywhere from academia to my neighborhood streets, I certainly haven’t found it. Like you, I don’t intend to keep searching.

Keep speaking your mind, girl. You’re more relatable than you think.

Chelsea Cristene is a communications associate and English professor based in Washington, DC. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, and MamaMia, and runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen. Find her on Twitter.

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