Why a “relatable” character for some is an insufferable one for others
Nothing livens up a TV show like a complex main character. Great shows like The Sopranos and The Office rely on the uniqueness of their leads to keep the audience engaged in the story for multiple seasons. But as transcendent as a main character can be, they don’t HAVE to be the most interesting person on the show. Take, for instance, Malcolm in the Middle. On that show, Malcolm is easily the most boring member of the Wilkerson family. Hell, a character doesn’t even have to be likable to be a good lead. Take Bryan Cranston’s other show, Breaking Bad. In that series, Walter White sells meth and wears a fedora. Clearly, someone you do not want to hang out with.
What’s IS important is for the main character to be relatable. There needs to be some aspect of the character that the average person can connect to and understand. Arrested Development works not because Michael Bluth is the most interesting character. It works because he is the only person that seems to be acting logically in the midst of constant chaos. His relatability comes from everyone knowing the feeling of having a crazy family. This relatability also is needed for unlikable characters to ground them in something that still makes them a regular human in the audience’s eye. Dr. Gregory House could garner sympathy because he had the cane and the painkiller addiction. Even though he was an asshole, those shortcomings humanized him.
But what if the main character isn’t engaging, likable or relatable at all?
I recently finished watching Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (GLOW) on Netflix. It’s a solid show that uses wrestling to describe what it was like to be an actress in 1980s Los Angeles (and through the transitive property, what it’s like today as well). The lead of the show is Ruth Wilder, played by Alison Brie. Ruth is a twenty-something actress that is thrust into a start-up wrestling promotion and must navigate the slew of interesting characters. This includes about a dozen other women wrestlers (with varying levels of sanity), a creepy director and a man-child producer whose only skill is blowing through his mother’s money. While everything was set up for interesting storytelling, for me the series was never enjoyable as it could have been because I simply did not like Ruth.
In a nutshell, it’s because of her inability empathize with the people around her and inability to understand the dynamics of the situation she’s in. It’s revealed in the first episode that she is sleeping with her best friend’s husband. She doesn’t seem to show any remorse or guilt for those actions until her friend confronts her directly in public. I guess I was supposed to feel sorry for her but I had nothing. Throughout the first half of the season, Ruth treats interacting with other characters like a toddler trying to eat spaghetti. In one of the mid-season episodes, a sign of her “growth” was her beginning to respect and acknowledge another character’s preferred identity. Am I supposed to be impressed that you figured out something the rest of us understood back in episode one?
Where have I seen this before?
I’ve fell this way about main characters on other shows/movies but what made GLOW interesting was its executive producer, Jenji Kohan. Jenji’s other big Netflix series is Orange is the New Black. So it’s no coincidence that the lead characters form GLOW and OITNB are so similar. Just like Ruth, Piper Chapman was basically clueless/indifferent to how her actions were affecting other people for the majority of the first season. By time she started figuring out how the prison worked, I was already disgusted by her stupidity.
Another reason I don’t like Piper and Ruth is the fact that they are often surround by smarter, more interesting characters on both shows. Often they are women of color whose engaging stories are crammed into a couple of minutes of B-storyline instead of being the main focus of the episode. In OITNB you have: a mentally unstable woman whose illness was partially exacerbated by her being the only black child in a white environment, a Russian immigrant who is in jail under the false pretense that she’s protecting her family business and a pregnant Latina inmate who is in the jail with her mother. GLOW features a black stunt-woman with no wrestling experience but is tasked with training the other women when the coach leaves, an Indian girl with an encyclopedic knowledge of wrestling than studies Pre-Med in her free time, and a woman that identifies herself as a wolf. Any one of these women would make for a more interesting lead character to base the same show around. So why are we stuck with all-America girl next door when we could have a fresher perspective.
It goes back to the reliability I mentioned earlier. One of the techniques to make a main character relatable is to make them “normal.” In America, normal means white. But whiteness is not my problem. Let’s go deeper. In Hollywood, if a TV show or movie has too many women, it’s considered a “woman’s show.” Also if your show is on Netflix, you can assume your viewers are probably middle to upper class and tend to be younger. So when you put it all together, the target audience of the show is young, middle-to-upper class, white women.
Once again I don’t have a problem with that demographic, it just that the issues resonate with this group don’t quite resonate with me in the same way. The perfect example of this is Lena Dunham’s HBO show Girls. I was super excited to watch when it first came out. A Judd Apatow produced TV series with a then 26 year old show runner focused on twentysomethings in Brooklyn. For the first time, I was going to be able to watch a show created by someone with my perspective on the world. But as season one went along, I got frustrated watching the constant parade of abusive relationships and unearned entitlement. I quickly dropped the show because I didn’t connect with ANY of the characters. At the insistence of some of my white, female friends who loved the show (some going so far as to say that it perfectly described their lives), I tried to go back during season 2 but left again after the emotionless Donald Glover storyline.
This is my real issue with these shows.
We can all agree that a person’s physical appearance dictates how society will treat them. For white women, the negative stereotype is that they are naïve and clueless to the world around them. There was literally a movie named Clueless that perpetuates this. This isn’t true for all white women, yet it is a stereotype that is often used to makes character more “likable.” On both the TV screen and in real life, ignorance should not be used as an excuse for one to ignore other people’s struggles or worldviews. It’s not cute. It’s not relatable. It’s just frustrating to have to empathize with a character wouldn’t empathize with me in the opposite situation.
Overall, I like GLOW and OITNB, despite my disinterest in their main characters. There’s nothing wrong with having a white woman as the focus of a TV show, let’s just stop glorifying Beckys for clumsily stepping out of their comfort zone (not a shot a Crazy Ex-Girlfriend BTW). Shows like Veronica Mars and Jessica Jones have shown that you can portray a young, white, woman as more than just oblivious to the world around them. And shows like How to Get Away with Murder and Jane the Virgin have shown us that you can also make a woman of color the focus of a show with commercial success as well.
Let’s expect more from our white, female characters because ignorance should never be an excuse.