The novelist Jennifer Weiner told The New Yorker this week that she feels ostracized from the literary community because she likes to write warm, likable female characters. Weiner was responding to writer Claire Messud’s recent suggestion that “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble.” It was a lit-world version of a long-standing feminist maxim that well-behaved women rarely make history. ”In many ways, likability is a very elaborate lie, a performance, a code of conduct dictating the proper way to be,” wrote Roxane Gay at Buzzfeed last week. To want to be liked is to conform to often-sexist expectations. “Women adjust their behavior to be likable,” as Jessica Valenti once put it, “and as a result have less power in the world.”
We all want to live in a society in which women are allowed to be critical, complex, and imperfect — not vapid, people-pleasing automatons. But something about this dismissal of likability doesn’t sit well with me. Maybe it’s because, even for those of us who are quick to apply the “hater” label to our detractors and move on without batting an eye, it seems impossible not to crave others’ approval on some level. I’ve read the research — which clearly states that success and likability go hand-in-hand for men but not women — yet I refuse to accept the fact that my options are to be a successful bitch or a well-liked failure. I’ll always admire the Martha Stewarts of the world for unapologetically chasing professional domination, no matter how many employees are crying in the bathroom. If I’m honest, though, I don’t want to be these women. Or work for them. I want to be both successful and liked.