“Good girls go to heaven. Bad girls go everywhere” has always looked cute on a coffee mug; it could also be the unofficial motto of one of the biggest lit-world booms of the past decade: the rise (and rise) of the unreliable female narrator.
In best-selling novels like The Girl on the Train, Gone Girl, The Woman in the Window, The Wife Between Us, The Silent Patient, and Luckiest Girl Alive, they’re more than slippery or hard to read; they rage, they scheme, they drink to oblivion — and sometimes, yes, they kill.
Murder, of course, is a capital crime; but so too, it still often feels, is an unlikeable woman, even in the second decade of the 21st century. When female presidential candidates are labeled shrill or nasty or damningly, unconscionably “persistent” (nevertheless!); when female bosses in the workplace walk a razor’s edge between projecting calm authority and wanton bitchery, or kindness conflated for weakness; there can be real catharsis in novels when female protagonists are allowed to be human in every messy, wildly imperfect sense of that word.
“When I sold [Sharp Objects] in 2006, no one wanted it,” Gillian Flynn told EW last year. “They said men don’t like to read about women, and women don’t like women like this woman. We’ve come a long way, but it’s important to have this vocabulary. It’s dangerous to pretend women don’t have anger.”
It’s also not helpful to the cause to pretend that all these books are great literature. The writing sometimes can be schlocky, lazy, or underdeveloped; the twists defy logic and reason; the characters lay flat on the page, paper dolls with paper problems.
But at their best, they open a Pandora’s box too long unexplored — a well of real and sometimes deeply ugly feelings that are no less universal for coming in the inconvenient or uncomfortable form of xx chromosomes.
Gin for breakfast, when you’ve just lost your job and your man? Spying on the neighbors because you’re too pathologically terrified to leave your own home? Maybe not the coping mechanisms a therapist would recommend, but fair. Framing your own husband for your murder, and then an ex-boyfriend, too? That’s not only felonious, it sounds like some kind of double jeopardy, and also a pretty good indicator that you should probably stay single for a while.
Whether or not these women qualify as role models isn’t really a question, though; in almost every way — socially, morally, legally — they clearly don”t. But what they do offer besides (hopefully) distraction and entertainment is permission: to empathize with extremes; to put ourselves inside the minds of characters we might not otherwise try to understand. And in the process, maybe, find a better understanding of our own unpretty thoughts.
“You pour your darkest thoughts onto the page,” Girl on the Train author Paula Hawkins said to EW in 2015, “and millions of people can see how weird the inside of your mind is.” We have seen it, and now we can celebrate it too.
More of EW’s best of the decade: