There’s a scene in the first season of The Good Place in which protagonist Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), who believes she’s been assigned to the titular Good Place by mistake, tries to prove to her ‘soul mate’ Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper) that she’s worth helping. ‘Tell me one thing you know about me,’ he quizzes her after they’ve spent the whole day getting to know each other. When Eleanor’s attempt pales in comparison to Chidi’s biography of her, Chidi says she’s too selfish to ever be a good person. The scene then cuts to a flashback of Eleanor in her pre-Good Place life, in which she further renders herself insufferable to her colleagues by reneging on her designated driver duties at after-work drinks.
Eleanor is boorish, shallow, self-absorbed and borderline racist, traits that land her in the Bad Place after all. She’s also one of the latest in a string of selfish female protagonists leading shows.
Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) in Sex and the City, perhaps the most iconic selfish female protagonist, is initially presented as aspirational; she’s a scrappy writer trying to make it in the big city. But she becomes more grating as the show’s outlandishness progresses, especially post-financial crisis, lamenting how her expensive shoe habit means she can’t afford to buy her unrealistically spacious, rent-controlled, Upper East Side apartment while rich paramours bankroll her jaunts across Paris and the Middle East.
When it premiered in 2012, Lena Dunham’s Girls was championed as the heir to the Sex and the City throne, despite the two shows having little in common other than being about four women in New York. But perhaps the biggest similarity between Girls and Sex and the City is not that their respective protagonists are both sex writers, but that Lena Dunham’s Hannah Horvath, too, is a selfish female protagonist viewed through the more modern lens of millennial malaise present in other shows of Girls’ ilk, such as Search Party, Insecure and SMILF.
Dunham has always maintained that Hannah and her cohort’s simultaneous lack of self-awareness and abundance of selfishness was a deliberate plot device. Dunham said in 2015:
We [Girls’ creators] have an essential belief that being complex, annoying and multifaceted is the right of women on television, so therefore to see characters you don’t necessarily adore all the time is hopefully in some ways an inherently feminist action because it’s a form of representation that we’ve been lacking for a long time.
The Good Place’s Eleanor follows this ethos – she’s certainly written as annoying and, especially in flashbacks, unlikeable. Comparatively, Sex and the City lets its protagonist get carried away with the enormous popularity of the show. The show continues Carrie’s wealth-obsessed lifestyle in later seasons instead of grounding her in reality (however unappealing that may be) as Girls does with Hannah.
Women shouldn’t have to camouflage their more unlikable traits in order to be worthy of being treated like a human.
Kristen Bell’s charm and effervescence initially camouflages – or at least makes more palatable – Eleanor’s selfishness, just as Sarah Jessica Parker’s vivacity provides a more likable conduit for Carrie’s self-centeredness during the initial run of the show. But women shouldn’t have to camouflage their more unlikable traits in order to be worthy of being treated like a human or, indeed, to be the centre of a TV show.
Hannah and Carrie are probably two of the most reviled – or at least harshly judged based on the fact that their narcissism and spendthriftiness, respectively, only affect a small pool of people – characters in the recent history of TV. Roxane Gay writes that, when it comes to female characters in this vein, critics ‘require a diagnosis for her unlikability in order to tolerate her. The simplest explanation, of [the character] as human, will not suffice.’
DeWanda Wise’s portrayal of selfish female protagonist Nola Darling in the serialised Netflix adaptation of Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It needs to be examined through a different lens of race and queerness. With a cast of predominantly black and Latinx actors, and set in the rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn neighbourhood of Fort Greene, She’s Gotta Have It follows Nola’s ‘sex-positive, polyamorous pansexual’ dating life. The problem is that the three men and one woman Nola has sexual relationships with are all unhappy with the arrangement and are each pressuring her to commit to a monogamous relationship. By positioning the audience within Nola’s perspective, the show routinely portrays her lovers as unreasonable when, really, it’s Nola’s poor communication and disregard for her partners’ feelings that complicates her relationships.
Bitch editor-in-chief Evette Dionne writes:
Darling’s rules are designed to maintain ownership over her body, her time, and her agency, but when translated on-screen, her decision-making seems primarily rooted in her own insecurities, narcissism, and inability to communicate – all of which must be sidelined to negotiate successful polyamorous relationships.
Despite Nola’s faults, and those of She’s Gotta Have It more broadly, there is something radical about the black selfish female protagonist. Black women in television are so often decentred from the narrative, sidelined to tropes of caretakers or maids (from Mammy in Gone with the Wind to the more nuanced portrayal of Desna in Claws), the sassy best friend (Dionne in Clueless, True Blood’s Lafayette) or the ‘Magical Negro’ (Jennifer Hudson’s Louise in the first Sex and the City film). Because of her rarity, there are heightened stakes involved in criticising the black selfish female protagonist.
There is something radical about the black selfish female protagonist.
As Dionne continues in her critique:
While our white peers can wander purposeless until they stumble on their passion, Black women must be disciplined, have relentless ambition, an aggressive vision, and an intuitive understanding of how to persevere and progress … [Nola’s] ironclad selfishness … is framed as a revolutionary step forward for sex-positive Black women.
Girls, Sex and the City and She’s Gotta Have It first present us with an ideal woman to each show’s demographic: independent, sexually liberated, working a creative job with non-committal hours. As we get to know each character, these traits become less prescriptive, whether or not the show acknowledges that and evolves with its protagonist.
Similarly, the more we get to know Eleanor, the more we accept her flaws and get a larger, multifaceted picture of her as a person, not just a collection of personality traits. On The Good Place Podcast, Kristen Bell says:
I could go big and bold with her, someone who’s a little bit more brash … but I just wanted to figure out someone real that wasn’t phenomenally obnoxious and maintain some sense of charisma so I could get the audience to root for her while she was doing all these terrible things.
But while She’s Gotta Have It, Girls and Sex and the City indulge their main characters’ narcissism, The Good Place outright condemns it in Eleanor. Eleanor is unashamedly insufferable and the show doesn’t try to disguise it as quirky or artistic. Eleanor didn’t have anything going for her on Earth to make us overlook her self-centeredness and that’s why she’s in the Bad Place. In this way, Eleanor is almost a subversion of the selfish female protagonist – the show’s outlandish premise is a study in how much selfishness we’re willing to endure from a woman when her punishment has no real-world ramifications. On the other hand, the very notion that a woman should deserve punishment merely for being self-interested is one I would like to see The Good Place explore as it heads into its third season, focusing more on Eleanor’s personal growth and redemption arc as well as the show’s themes of morality more broadly.
The show’s outlandish premise is a study in how much selfishness we’re willing to endure from a woman.
All of these selfish female protagonists have valid criticisms against them, but it’s a symptom of sexism that we become so enraged by them. Many a thinkpiece (including this one) has been written about annoying, selfish and unlikeable female characters foiling the plots of male protagonists. Remember the vitriol spat at Skyler White, long suffering wife of Breaking Bad’s Walter White, who was criticised for looking out for her family’s needs in a way that didn’t include murder and drug dealing. Meanwhile Walter White, along with Tony Soprano and Don Draper, is a member of the holy trinity of not just selfish but felonious male protagonists who would definitely end up in the Bad Place.
In comparison, Girls, Sex and the City, She’s Gotta Have It and other shows about women are often dismissed as frivolous for not dealing with seemingly heavier subject matter. But even shows that do tackle such topics are lambasted for having unlikeable or unreliable female protagonists, whereas shows about selfish male characters always position their motivations as justified. While we’re getting more shows with women in lead roles, it seems we’re still in an adjustment period away from receiving them as solely concerned with ‘women’s issues’.