The Appeal of the Problematic Female Protagonist

Written by Katherine Page

Graphics by Ariadne Danae Chavez Salinas

If you are chronically online, you have probably heard of the term “femcel.” Maybe you’ve met someone who self-identifies as a femcel or have even been told that you are one. I have been told that I am a femcel. I received this comment not because I have the stereotypes of being overtly critical of men or a toxic individual but because I had just finished reading what has been categorized as a “femcel” book- or simply a book with a problematic female protagonist.

Originally, femcel was a term that stemmed from its counterpart, incels, and initially had to do with complaining about and criticizing men, misogynistic groups, societies, and women with “pretty privilege.” Today, it has grown into something beyond simply being a “female incel.” Now, femcel culture exists more as an aesthetic. It is less to do with actually hating or criticizing men and more with quintessentially “messy” female archetypes and living in the world as one. It revolves around specific aesthetics, media, music, and personalities. Femcels have particular traits. But one characteristic they possess has moved beyond something that just femcels do and into something other people are exploring: reading literature with problematic female protagonists.

As someone who lives on BookTok, my feed is filled with this book genre. I have found myself reading Otessa Mossfeigh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Eileen; Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Susanna Kaysen’s Girl Interrupted. My most recent read was A Certain Hunger by Chelsea G. Summers. But this is only the surface of the many books that have gained popularity because of the femcel movement. I personally don’t identify as a femcel, but I found myself being sucked into these types of books. Most of them I finished pretty quickly, even though most of them weren’t books I usually read. So what was the appeal of these books? What makes problematic female protagonists such an appealing thing to read about? I have offered three potential answers to these questions:


There, of course, is a surface-level answer that most people seem to favor. Many people find this appealing simply because… it’s real. In media, and especially in literature, women tend to be romanticized. Reading about women through the male gaze at every turn is exhausting. And even when they aren’t through the male gaze (which is always very superficial; women tend to exist as objects or a plot device and nothing more), they’re boringly feminist. They are too strong and independent to be relatable to most women, who are strong but also messy and make mistakes like everyone else. The problematic female protagonist is appealing in the sense that they are human. And for many women, including myself, it is refreshing to read a book where a woman is as human, lost, chaotic, toxic, and intricate as the readers themselves. 


Another answer could be that the problematic female protagonist gets to explore sides of women that aren’t always explored. Most women fall under specific categories in media– the seductress, the caregiver, the mystic, etc.– and don’t deviate from that. But femcel books allow deviation and tend to execute it well. In A Certain Hunger, the protagonist is a female psychopath who murders and eats her victims. I found that book interesting simply because I had never consumed a piece of media that had a female psychopath in it. The Bell Jar, published in 1963, became popular because it was one of the first books to accurately portray a feminine type of sadness. Perhaps the appeal of femcel books is the opportunities it presents to the readers. The chance to explore the multi-dimensional-ness of women the same way it is explored in men. The opportunity to psychoanalyze Dorothy Daniels (the protagonist of A Certain Hunger) the same way we psychoanalyze Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. 


My favorite explanation, and perhaps the one I relate to the most, is that the problematic female protagonist allows women to understand their emotions. Feminine anger and feminine sadness are often overlooked. And when it isn’t, it is always on a surface level. Women get sad because they are simply women, and they are emotional. The complexity of that sadness is never explored, and women grow up without noticing the depth of their feelings. I know that this is something I went through, and I found myself enamored by the complexities of the emotions of the problematic female protagonists. I was devouring the pages where their feelings were explored and explained. I felt a sense of connection to their sadness and anger and jealousy, and boredom. And, of course, there is also the appeal of reading about women crazily acting on these emotions, something we would never do. Watching them exist in an extreme manner when we sometimes can’t. In a world where male philosophical voices are amplified, it was nice to see a woman who understood how I felt about everything and nothing at the same time. 

Whatever the appeal of the problematic female protagonist is–whether it is the realness, the deviation from the standard archetypes, or the exploration of women’s emotions–this genre of literature is here to stay. It is easy to box in these books as simply a genre that women are starting to enjoy, but it is slowly becoming more relevant because it gives women a space to read and learn about new ideas. It gives them an opportunity to explore themselves. There are a lot of real-world applications that femcel books are giving to women, and it is growing beyond “just a genre.” Whether or not you identify as a femcel, you will probably find yourself reading one of their books sometime in the future.

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