On Sunday, another season of watching the four most unpleasant people on television — Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshanna — will commence. So, which one are you?
The correct answer here is none of the above.
"I don’t hope anything happens to Hannah or Marnie or especially Jessa, because 'Girls' forgets to offer any payoff or engagement as a TV show," writes Washington Post TV critic Hank Stuever explaining his dissatisfaction this season. "The characters seemed selfish and abhorrent when they were well-meaning but lost and pampered college graduates? Check them out now that they are full-blown self-dramatizing narcissists," Slate's Willa Paskin adds.
Having watched a few episodes this season, I have to agree. I gave up trying to empathize with these challenging humans beings around the second episode of Sunday's two-part season premiere, when Marnie creates a fuss about not being invited to pick Jessa up from rehab, and then admits that she really didn't want to go and would have liked it if no one went. After that, I started to enjoy the show a bit more.
Unlike the benchmark HBO show about girls before it, no one is exactly claiming to be a "Marnie" or a "Hannah" as much as they are bemoaning how aggressively unlikeable and un-relatable these women are. In fact, I'd venture to say that this season of Girls is a cutting antithesis to decades of television shows that were built on the premise that you wanted to be the characters you see on screen.
From Marys and Rhodas, to Blanches and Dorothys, Zachs and A.C. Slaters, Carsons and Teds, of course, Carries, Samanthas, and Charlottes (and to a lesser extent, Merediths and Cristinas), there's been a long-standing pop culture tradition of identifying yourself as a television character. Like a baggy sweatshirt, that character fits you, and you fit that character, faults and all.
Also not a coincidence: that these "this is me" characters are very often female leads on shows that have a predominantly female viewership; that Girls is a female-driven dramedy; and that there seems to be more attention and think pieces paid to the utter unlikable-ness of the girls of Girls than say, the protagonists of Mad Men or Breaking Bad.
That brings us to this unavoidable question of whether this "pick-a-character" identification phenomenon is just a female thing. And further, does that mean that Lena Dunham's characters are a sign of progress?
Part of the reason that there seems to be less "I'm a ____ (fill in a male character)" among men is that men have never had a show that carried the weight of representing men the way Girls or Sex and The City does or has with women. Male characters have always dominated television.
A female-led show is still an anomaly, and female characters are still a minority on prime-time television. A 2012 study from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, found that when you look at speaking characters in prime-time comedy only 31 percent are female, only 22 percent of shows had a gender-balanced casts, and that as a whole, 37.5 percent of women appearing on screen were "thin" compared to just 13.6 percent of men. And in TV writers' rooms, the gender gap is still pretty wide.
The lack of female characters puts unbelievable pressure on female-driven shows and female-dominated casts from executives to produce characters that are relatable, likable, and what executives think is "right." An example of that: Shonda Rhimes, the creator of Grey's Anatomy and Scandal, revealed this year that executives had warned her that the main protagonist of Grey's Anatomy was too slutty.
And the lack of women and minorities on television and other mediums also may put pressure on writers to fight against stereotypes (oh man, Looking is going to be awesome). Perhaps it's as small a change as changing the color of a character's hair to fight the dumb blonde idea or making an Asian woman a writer instead of a math genius or a surgeon.
The final product are likable characters who then, perhaps unfairly, represent an entire community of people. During a Marvel panel at New York Comic Con this year, a panel of comic book writers (who work in one of the more progressive mediums you can find) explained how they would like to eventually write freely and be at a place where they didn't have to be careful with their characters' race, gender and sexuality.
We aren't at that point yet. But Girls, Dunham, and her pack of aggressively unlikeable narcissists, especially that asshole Marnie, might be one of the steps to getting us there.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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