Ahead of the first presidential debate, I seemed to hear pundits left and right repeating that in order to succeed, Hillary Clinton needed to be more likable. Donald Trump, on the other hand, needed to finish a sentence. This makes me unlikably infuriated. While both candidates represent a myriad of policies that will affect US citizens and the world alike, it is somehow important—imperative even—that subjective interpretations of likability filter our perception of Hillary’s policy platform. Sadly, this is not shocking. From the first “smile!” command I ever received, I have known that as a female, I am expected to beam a socially lubricating pleasantness. It’s easy to transgress this responsibility. Not smiling, arguing vigorously, wearing more or less, drinking heavily, being cunningly scathing or hilarious. These are things that, when done in various combinations by women, seem to make the patriarchal structure quiver nervously. Therefore, when women do them, they are deemed unlikable. And in a society where being likable is one of the most important things a woman can be, this can be ruinous. Men, on the other hand, are often encouraged to be unlikable. Maybe they’re unlikable for our own good—the gruff heroes more concerned with eliminating evil than with flashing pearly whites, or maybe they’re uniquely likable thanks to their unlikableness—the hopeless alcoholics with complex problems that we feel intricately compassionate for understanding. You know men, they can be childish or broken human beings and they just can’t help it. But women, in their grave service as vessels of humanity, have a built-in responsibility to be predictably nice.
This is why I loved Young Adult. The main character is named Mavis, like a reliable vacuum cleaner from the 50’s, and she is the most unreliable, mean, troubled, and cuttingly funny female character in recent memory. She is distinctly not likable, and I loved her for it. Played impeccably by Charlize Theron, Mavis is a former High School prom queen who has long since swept out of her hometown in pursuit of more fabulous things in the Mini-Apple (short for Minneapolis and a nod to the glittery lifestyle glorified in Sex and the City). But in the opening scenes of Young Adult, we find that something has gone awry in her transition. The film introduces Mavis plastered, face-down on her couch in a high-rise apartment marked by filthy disarray, her TV notably blaring the gossip of plump-lipped reality stars. Mavis soon receives an e-mail featuring the face of her ex high-school-boyfriend’s newborn baby, and deludes herself into believing it is an invitation to reclaim him and live happily ever after. She stuffs her Pomeranian into a bag and sets off for Mercury, Minnesota.
You might guess that Mavis wreaks havoc in Mercury (a town name synonymous with the planet closest to the sun and the toxic chemical element). In the process, however, the film does something unusual in the realm of unlikable protagonists. It brazenly weaves in the cruel thread of unrealistic feminine standards alongside mental illness and prescriptive social norms. Well aware of her currency as an attractive, tall blonde, Mavis attempts to employ her sexual appeal as the hook to draw Buddy in. There are flashing images of her in a salon, nails being clipped, cuticles audibly, grotesquely, cut away. She layers on a new face-worth of foundation before heading off to meet Buddy. In parting after their meeting, he says to her unwittingly and admiringly, “everyone else changes, but you don’t.” This reinforces her convictions, and also tells us something about her teenage state of mind. Women are supposed to mature mentally while preserving their bodies as replicas of their eighteen-year-old selves. This is a difficult dichotomy to uphold—to take yourself seriously as an adult while shelling out serious money for pastes to fill persistent wrinkles, dyes to cover graying hairs. Yet with the help of this bodily engineering and the response it gets, Mavis is able to see herself as the quintessential rom-com character—a beautiful underdog protagonist destined to grasp the unlikely “love” she has set her heart upon. The different threads come together in a moment of dark comedy as she gazes into Buddy’s eyes, a happily married father, and tells him “We can beat this together” (“this” being his marriage).
Mavis’s struggle is sharpened by the serious and interconnected mental illnesses she is functioning with. She pulls her hair out—trichotillomania—and drinks dizzying amounts of whiskey. Yet, in a way, her mental state and willful ignorance of reality is more honest than the quiet suburban normality staunchly upheld in her hometown. There, characters brush emotions under the carpet and prefer not to confront problems straight on. It is evident that Mavis isn’t the sole creator of her current state of being. And it is also evident that the landscape of her life—rife with delusion and anxiety—is more compelling than the cookie-cutter strip malls and content obliviousness of Mercury. This, in a way, is the coup of the film. Mavis is not subdued by a harsh encounter with Mercury’s reality—she remains an unlikable female start to finish, and delivers an excellent film in the process.