I will admit: I used to be a fan of Girls. In its early days, the series was honest, messy and relentless, unlike any show about women I had seen or have yet to see. Despite the show’s many flaws, I continue to point to it as the first series I’ve watched that reflects young womanhood in all its uncertainties. Girls is the experience of white women with wealthy parents, certainly, but it reflects young womanhood all the same.
When I talk about the series’ sixth and final season with my friends, the biggest complaint I hear is that the characters have become unlikeable. The titular girls are barely even friends anymore and have descended into their own caricatures, unlike the people thought they knew. And for the most part, I reluctantly agree. I was a fan, but the show has lost me. But being unlikeable? That was never Girls’ problem.
Think of all the television anti-heroes modern audiences have become familiar with: the Walter Whites, Tony Sopranos and Don Drapers — men either incapable of change or only bent on changing for the worse. Walter White cooks meth, causes the death of hundreds of people and poisons a child; Tony Soprano is an adulterous mobster who hides bodies with his
trash-collecting business; Don Draper is a cold, 1960s-era businessman who once stole a dead man’s identity during the Korean War.
All these characters do reprehensible things, put up walls and treat their families poorly. In fact, the more conventionally likeable characters should be their wives, whose entire arcs wrap around cleaning up and emotionally guarding the men in their lives. But still, the public loves to hate Skyler White, Carmela Soprano and Betty Draper — strong female leads in their own right whose reputations often suffer simply because they sometimes get in the way of their husbands’ goals.
Audiences love unlikeable men: mysterious, hardened, violent individuals who do difficult things and make them look easy. And so when we say “unlikeable,” that doesn’t necessarily mean that these characters are people we don’t like. But unlikeable, in this sense, does not apply to women. The hard truth is that audiences of all genders will praise male characters for being unlikeable while decrying female characters for doing much less.
As a female audience member, I don’t want to have to call the women in Girls unlikeable. Simply, it is so easy to call women annoying, to call them flighty and bitchy and obnoxious. But the more I descend into season six, the more I begin to realize what people mean when they say they no longer like Hannah, Marnie and Jessa. Audiences can’t like characters unless they are able to empathize with them — and as is the case for Walter, Tony and Don, the viciousness of these men’s actions are mitigated by being rooted in emotional truth. You only lose an audience when your character begins to make decisions the audiences can’t understand.
It is a hard reality to take that Girls, a show I had loved for its brutal honesty, drank too much of its own blood, grew unrecognizable and emerged back into its last season as a parody of itself. Hannah encountering her doppelganger on a brownstone stoop, Marnie continuing her torturous relationship with Desi, Jessa and Adam magically pulling funds and a camera crew out of a hat to produce a movie — these are ideas an audience could not have swallowed in season one. They are contrived emotions, characters walking in ruts. It’s what happens when writing stays in the writers’ room and doesn’t mold to what’s palatable on screen.
For that reason it pains me to watch Girls now because out of every show in my life it promised to refute the idea of the unlikable woman: to paint young women in startling clarity, doing unlikeable things and still forcing the audience to root for them anyway. But I don’t like the show anymore. And I don’t like the characters.
I used to think that if I stuck through a series long enough, I would be happy I finished it at the end. But that implies a fault in the patience of the viewer, and this time, I don’t think this is true. Because this time, maybe I’m not the one failing Girls. Maybe Girls is failing us.
Zoe Cheng is a sophomore majoring in writing for screen and television. Her column, “Wide Shot,” runs Wednesdays.