my favorite bookish b*tches

The word bitch often gets deployed against any woman, fictional or not, with more personality than a 1940's animated Disney princess. It seems as though the list of acceptable qualities in a woman that make her "likable" keeps getting shorter, while the ways in which she can offend grow ever more numerous. Sometimes there's a clear double standard at play: the level of selfishness, ambition, or independence that's acceptable in a man is a mark against his female counterparts. But sometimes, a female character really is bitchy—and that's okay!

To me, whether she's good or bad, a bitch is always interesting. Maybe she's the villain, or hasn't made up her mind if she wants to be one yet. Maybe she's just gotten tired of everyone else's nonsense. Or maybe she's a fundamentally good person forced into making unthinkable choices, ones that she could never win. Regardless of their personal narrative, I think it's time we celebrate the bookish bitches we love—or love to hate. Each of them is complex, challenging, and make a story more compelling because of their presence in it.

Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

One of the genuine villains on this list, Mrs. Danvers is terrifying! Her attempts to drive away the second Mrs. de Winter range from the annoying (that snide tour of Manderly!) to the downright nasty (encouraging her suicide). Rebecca de Winter may have been a terrible person in her own right, yet it's Mrs. Danvers' continued obsession with the dead woman that causes so much strife between the newlyweds and nearly results in their deaths. That's also what makes her such an enticing villain to read. She's exceptionally clever, playing on Mrs. de Winter's insecurity and Maxim's blindspots to try and right the disorder in "her" home. A formidable adversary incapable of seeing reason, Mrs. Danvers' true power over readers comes from how real she seems from her very first words. 

Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Before I ever read the book, as a child I adored Vivienne Leigh's portrayal of Scarlett O'Hara. The character only grows more complex in Mitchell's oversized novel, full of flaws that might earn praise were she born a man instead. Where some female characters must either apologize for or eventually be cured of their selfishness, Scarlett remains unrepentant throughout her life. This doesn't come without consequences of course, but there was something very satisfying in watching, then reading about, a woman taking full advantage of her situation time and again with no apologies.

Amy Dunne in Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

The quintessential modern example of a bookish bitch. Does her scheme push the envelope of credulity? Of course! Are there strong indications that she isn't just a spurned woman making a point, but a psychopath that enjoys the license she thinks a man's benign failings or moral misbehavior grants her? Heck yes! But she also serves as a witty and insightful commentary on what dating and relationships look like for a contemporary woman, with plenty of catharsis to go along with it.

Mrs. Coulter in the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman

This woman just might have the best character arc in the trilogy...and there are a lot of good ones in His Dark Materials. In the first novel her actions are so evil that not even the glimpses of love we do see her express are enough to mitigate them. The truth about her relationship with Lyra constantly conflicts with her morals and political loyalties, finally coming to a head in the third and final book. It was such a delight seeing her make an appearance in the first prequel novel, La Belle Sauvage, although I still wish she could have gotten more attention in the original series. Even as a secondary character Mrs. Coulter was complex and complicated, a woman whose actions you could understand even when it was impossible to support them.

Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

Another undisputed villain, Umbridge frightened me more than Lord Voldemort ever did. What I love most about her character was how she could show young readers that not every authority figure has their best interests at heart. Titles and affiliations aren't always used for good and it's important to speak out—or even act out—against abuses of that power. I also appreciated that making Umbridge's character a woman was its own sort of gender parity. Rather than write her character as a man, Rowling takes all these symbols traditionally associated with women—twee clothing, the color pink, cats—and turns them rotten from the inside out. She might not get the same depth of backstory that many of these other female characters do, but personally speaking I would love to know what led Umbridge to pursue the path that put her in the place we found her during Order of the Phoenix and beyond.

Rielle in Furyborn by Claire Legrand

MY CHILD. HOW DO I WRITE ABOUT YOU WITH CAPS-LOCK TURNED OFF? Ahem. You know who Rielle reminds me of? A grown-up Lyra Belacqua from His Dark Materials. She's impulsive and has a high opinion of herself, the combination of which can sometimes get her into tremendous trouble. But those two traits are also what bring her to shoulder great burdens in the interest of keeping her friends, family, and home safe. One of the big themes I zeroed in on while reading Furyborn was the importance and value of intentions; both perspectives touch on them, but I thought Rielle's storyline dealt the with concept more heavily. Watching her grapple with what she wants to think and feel and happen doesn't always cast her in a flattering light, but the contrast between her desires, her actions, and reality is a large part of what makes Furyborn so compelling.

Cersei Lannister in the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin

My second favorite woman in the ASOIAF series (behind Sansa Stark, ofc), Cersei perfectly embodies weaponized femininity. Bitter over the differences in treatment between herself and her twin brother Jaime, she spends most of the series paradoxically taking advantage of the stereotypes in Westeros and trying to prove that she is capable of so much more than a "normal" woman. She is both a victim and a victimizer, using the injustices perpetrated against her as justification for the awful things she does in turn. Cersei is a fascinating look into how rampant misogyny can affect women who lead relatively comfortable lives in a way that courts and repels a reader's sympathy.

What's your take on "unlikable" characters? Do you think the term gets used differently for men versus women? Who's your favorite complex character?

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