What makes a good person? The characters on Girls have never been charged with murder, and it’s safe to assume that none of them vote Republican — though I’m definitely keeping an eye on Shoshanna in the future. However, consensus even among fans of the show seems to be that these are awful, terrible people; by and large, the worst of television. In a media landscape lush with wicked monarchs and avid serial killers, how is this possible?
Has this badge of dishonor ever been assigned to, say, Walter White or Tony Soprano? More importantly, has it been deemed detrimental to their respective series? The simple solution to this conundrum is, of course, good old misogyny — after all, Skyler White did get all this stuff hurled at her constantly. But shoving aside the patriarchal filter for a moment — only possible in theory — , let’s dig into what makes these girls so darn quote-unquote unlikable.
Endless think-pieces have been penned analyzing these girls’ actions and motivations individually, ever-mindful of the different shades of self-absorption on display: at the start of the show, Hannah (creator Lena Dunham) sees the people in her life as little more than characters for her stories, and has trouble respecting boundaries — issues bred from a desire to “feel it all”, and her fancying herself a vessel for all of human experience; Marnie’s (Allison Williams) narcissism makes her utterly uninterested in other people’s feelings, and she’s constantly assessing their personal value based on what status they can provide her with — all of it the product of a restless search for external validation (specially from men), the stark contrast between her planned life and her actual one (deprived of all previously-enjoyed certainty), and an inability to ever just relax.
Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) can be dismissive of others when she’s too focused on her own self-improvement, but despite her sometimes-superficial ways she fares pretty well on the spectrum; Jessa (Jemima Kirke) has been known to be manipulative and even vengeful, the aloof, mysterious friend worshipped by her inferior peers, whom she makes sure to treat as such — yet she’s also an addict, a neglected child forced to grow up too fast, getting weary and jaded quickly, driven to find amusement and fulfilment through more nefarious methods. Whether these explanations double as justifications for their actions is for you to decide.
Yet they still have a lot in common. To sum up: the Girls mess up relationships and social situations all the time, hurting those around them and torpedoing their own lives, but that’s usually unintentional. They’re not evil — just socially inept and chronically self-involved. They’re so lost in their own heads, so entwined with their own drama, they only see others in ways that relate directly to them — which leads to their being less than stellar friends, and extremely poor listeners. They’re irresponsible, but rarely willfully manipulative — save for maybe Jessa. They’re only actively mean to each other.
They are often inappropriate and impolite. Their misbehavior can be traced back to their immaturity, to a sense of entitlement produced by a sheltered upbringing. The privileged status of these characters — abrasively white and relatively well-off — has bred a group of tone-deaf twentysomethings who don’t harbor bad intentions, but who are largely incapable of acknowledging the feelings of anyone living outside their own heads. They’re also busy figuring out who they even are.
As Hannah offers to a self-pitying Marnie in the final season, “it can be pretty hard to have observations about other people when you’re only thinking about yourself”. The arrested development of its main characters can gall some viewers, but the beauty of Girls rests always in the unexpected growth, the rare and dim glint of self-awareness. Hannah follows her remark with an examined “I would know”.
It all poses a central question: is ignorance evil? We can ask more of our peers, and the show certainly has, as it’s gone on. But what is the appropriate immaturity-to-mistakes ratio? At what point does obliviousness constitute criminal intent? These are interesting limits, and Girls has spent the last few years testing them with scientific curiosity.
This is a series about self-centered people catching up to the fact that the world doesn’t revolve around them; learning to deal with the latest upset in appropriate, productive ways, instead of lashing out or falling down a self-destructive rabbit hole — so, naturally, those are the scenes we’re going to see, or there would be no show.
Still, with stakes this low, the backlash can seem disproportionate.
Let’s assume, for the sake of discussion, that being self-involved and inappropriate is — mostly — as far as their wicked deeds go. If so, what makes us hate these people so much?
Besides insidious misogyny, part of it might involve a hearty mix of repressed envy and psychological projection: our most self-indulgent instincts roam free in these girls, oftentimes unchecked. Their rampant narcissism and complete disregard for the feelings of others cost them relationships and job opportunities galore, but that might all seem like a small price to pay whenever the show allows them a win. We may resent them for being perfect portrayals of our worst selves and not suffering enough for it. If we can’t afford to be that selfish and disruptive in our everyday lives, why should they?
“I’m an individual”, Hannah asserts in season two, “and I feel how I feel when I feel it”. That sentence is beautifully packed with everything people hate about entitled millennials, and about these characters. These kinds of grand pronouncements are fairly common in the mouth of our heroine, and it’s not hard to see how that might alienate a viewer — especially under the assumption that the show itself is equally incapable of self-reflection. Yet these audience members can often find a surrogate in Alex Karpovsky’s Ray, the voice of reason: “Don’t just think, okay? That’s an extremely unattractive feature of your generation”
But isn’t this outrage not unlike that of an elder sibling when the younger kid is awarded the toy he had always asked for but could never get? Not exactly — in today’s world, it is valid to roll our eyes at egotism, even in its most innocuous form. But could our perception of these girls’ awfulness be colored by our own frustration at having to wise up when they still haven’t?
Here hides one of the chief geniuses of Girls, the double-edged sword it has adroitly wielded since it first premiered, many essays like this one ago: it’s been neither a wholesale condemnation nor a full-on celebration of millennial life, and of these particular people; but both a parody that laughs back at them and a call for understanding, a gentle hand intent on pointing to a core that will spark some hard-earned sympathy. Unlike Hannah, this show has always been interested in grey areas: it doesn’t endorse its characters’ behavior, but lets them live with it, exist in that space, before passing too quick a judgement or offering easy ways out.
Not everyone in the audience can do the same, apparently — but is there no middle ground? Is there no compassion for those who are neither morally bankrupt nor lit up by a halo? The inhabitants of its fictional universe are all “trying”, and Girls thrives in these developmental dead-zones, stubborn in its refusal to behave like a normal TV narrative. Its sometimes frustrating two-steps-forward-one-step-back policy — while true to life — will not work for every viewer, but patience is always rewarded with vindication (see: previously quoted piece of advice about shedding your overt self-importance, coupled with Marnie’s utter failure to adhere to it in subsequent episodes).
When Marnie treats an office full of her ex’s coworkers to the most mortifying rendition of Kanye West’s Stronger to date, it’s hard not to feel for her, even if this is her scheme. When Hannah tanks a job interview with an ill-conceived joke about date rape, that’s her fault; but what a pity, she was doing really well. Maybe these are not the best examples.
The point is that, in the same way that these girls are allowed to contain multitudes — and that, they do — , the audience can contain just as many, and the show sport layers upon layers of self-awareness and tongue-in-cheek-ness — lost in the noise though they may get sometimes. And, isn’t that what being young is all about?
(A concession: there’s a valid grievance to be had about what’s commonly known as “white people problems”, and Girls fits squarely into this category — the difference being that it knows this. Still, what some will see as an opportunity to explore a myriad of themes and cringe-inducing situations, others will interpret as a kind of whining they don’t wish to spend their free time with — and both perspectives are completely reasonable.
If these characters were actually starving, they wouldn’t be able to afford overthinking every feeling and anguishing over existential quandaries, but that allows the show to poke at universal questions that would otherwise be overshadowed by more mundane ones; similarly, Hannah’s botched interview would have probably gone differently had she needed the job to delay eviction, but that scene is a very specific kind of funny. Still, and even though struggle is always relative, one may prefer to avoid these duplicates of folks they’re already forced to endure every day at work, or in the subway. Evil queens still allow for escapism, but these people are too real to be stomached — a testament to the show’s talent, however you feel about it.)
So, are they great or are they awful? In the grand scheme of things, these girls might not be the literal spawn of Satan, but that depends on your moral compass — after the 2016 election, my bar is pretty low. However high they rank within the dark lord’s files, though, there’s no doubt that they’re no saints. And that’s the point.
Isn’t it amazing that these four women have been allowed to be flawed and complicated — and yes, sometimes monstrous — on TV for six years? Isn’t it remarkable that a show led by these girls has enjoyed such a prominent place in the cultural discourse for so long, holding on to it even in its sixth and final season? I would tend to think so.
Also, who isn’t an asshole in their twenties? I mean, honestly.
I’ve made my case, now you rule. Are the Girls good people? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe some of them are. Maybe one day they will be — there’s a reason it’s not called Women. Does it matter? Not really.