The 'Girls' Girls: Unlikable or Uninteresting?

by Maitri Suhas

Lena Dunham has faced no shortage of criticism for the "unlikable" characters on HBO's Girls. On Monday evening at the Brooklyn Academy of Music during Unbound: A Literary Series With BAM and Greenlight Bookstore, the Not That Kind of Girl author spoke up about being fed up with the criticism she faces in a time when the male anti-hero rules the small screen. Here's what she had to say:

"We get so many questions about the likability of our characters. But it’s such a weird question to be getting in a world where our favorite television characters are Tony Soprano, Dexter, and Walter White. People are like, ‘He did the drugs for his family!’ and then they’re like, ‘And that girl was mean to her friend, and she should get the death penalty.'" She's not wrong, but I don't know if the problem is that her characters are unlikable or uninteresting, or if I am conflating the two.

At BAM, Dunham went on to say: "It sometimes feels a little bit like we’re stuck in The Twilight Zone when every time Jemima and I or whatever go out and do a panel, they’re like, ‘How do you feel about playing such bad girls?’"

Much defense was written earlier this year of Dunham's use of 'unlikable characters' — Roxane Gay wrote a beautiful, longform piece at BuzzFeed about how unlikable women are really just human at their core, that likability is just a facade that women must put on to be socially acceptable, and yet their flaws are scrutinized and criticized much more than their male antihero counterparts. Gay also points out that in literature the "bad" women are the ones that are uncomfortable, pointing most recently to Gone Girl's Amy, who, beyond being unlikeable, was pure evil.

Of course, at this juncture, much has been discussed of the infamous "Cool Girl" speech in Gone Girl — an act that Amy Dunne loathes frightfully. And I think "Cool Girls" are exactly the types of likable characters which Dunham's critics want her Girls girls to be.

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Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, and Shosanna all have their faults and their charms. Besides my own personal opinions of Lena Dunham (I am still disappointed by the overwhelming whiteness of Girls), I do have to concede that at its outset, the Girls characters were compelling and, for many, realistic and relatable. Their motivations were often unexplained, and it was that kind of "we're just young" attitude that propelled Girls forward. But I think in its third season, Girls went off the rails a bit and the characters became, somehow, satiric parodies of themselves. I'm still a viewer (or reader) that needs characters to have some kind of apparent motivation or explanation for their actions, no matter how disagreeable that MO might be, and I feel that Girls lost that in Hannah & Co.

The names that Lena Dunham invoked ARE vicious antiheroes, and we love to hate them. Don Draper is a selfish bastard. Walter White is a megalomanic. Tony Soprano... Well, you know. But personally, I find them interesting to watch because I can trace the root of their actions. I am by no means saying Dunham is wrong by saying that there is a double standard applied to her characters — there definitely are different and more stringent expectations of women on TV and what is demanded of them. Two of the most notoriously hated wives of television are Betty Draper and Skyler White, but as both Mad Men and Breaking Bad came into their later seasons, their characters became more sympathetic as the male anti-hero protagonists became more loathsome. Betty Draper is the utter embodiment of the feminine mystique; Skyler White is the moral center of a horribly fucked up atmosphere, and her participation in Walter's schemes are simply an attempt to survive.

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But I don't think the Girls characters are unlikable in the same way that Betty and Skyler are; the latter are framed against and antagonized by the male worlds they live in, and I find it more of an effective critique about the impossible standards put upon women. And I think in the first few seasons of Girls, Hannah and her friends' behavior were more apparently conflicted about the vague, stressful journey of being a twentysomething, and so they were still interesting to watch. In Season 3, everyone's story lines just became a repetition of almost senseless behavior. I have hope, though, for Season 4, because I found the end of Season 3 (spoiler alert!) when Hannah seems genuinely inspired to move forward with her writing career to be the realest moment of the whole season. And even though I may not like her, I definitely found that interesting.

Images: Getty (2)