The Good, the Bad, and the Narcissistic: a Look at the Use of Unlikeable Characters in HBO’s Girls
Television provides a multitude of functions for its viewers. One of which is certainly an escape from their everyday lives. However, it is also true that television is an important way in which people are able to validate who they are. Seeing a representation of one’s life played out on screen is exciting and creates a feeling of identity; a sense that you are not alone in this world. While watching shows that feature beautiful, successful, and genuinely happy people can be a fun change of pace, in reality, life is much messier. HBO’s Girls features four girls in their early twenties, each of whom come from an upper-middle class family and live in New York City. Based on the premise, it is not surprising that Girls has often been compared to another HBO favorite, Sex and the City (Wong, 2012). While there are some similarities, there is a glaring difference. Despite Girls’ popularity, it has been criticized for having four main characters that are each narcissistic, whiney, and all around unlikeable people (Rowles, 2012). While these claims can be argued, it poses an important question: is this a bad thing? Figuring out who you are and where you fit in this world can be extremely difficult. And to say that people aren’t selfish at some points would be approaching life with a much too idealistic view. Girls uses these characters’ stories and not-so-likeable attitudes to provide young women and men with a realistic depiction of what life can be like when you enter the real world, and simultaneously counter the perpetuated idea that what awaits you after graduation is a life of luxury and glamour, an idea that was at the forefront of Sex and the City. To illustrate this point, I will focus on the struggles that the main character, Hannah, faces in the first episode of the series, and compare them to Sex and the City’s main character, Carrie.
One of the most obvious differences between Hannah and Carrie is merely their physical appearance. Carrie is thin with perky boobs, high cheekbones, and toned muscles. Her outfits are always designer and chic as can be. Carrie’s hair is curly and wild in a sex way. She has perfect highlights and her makeup is always clean and beautiful. On the other hand, Hannah is simply an oddly shaped girl. She has small boobs and large hips, butt and thighs. Her body is not toned at all. (If only she had been born in the 1600’s, her body would be a thing of beauty). Her clothes are nothing special and even look crumpled. She rarely appears to be wearing makeup and her hair always seems to be dirty. While it may be exciting to follow a beautiful fashionista as she takes on the streets of New York like a champ, it also gives the viewer a false sense that every young person in New York leads that lifestyle. On the contrary, as we see with Hannah, even the glamorous city of Manhattan houses awkward, chubby, and poorly dressed women who are just trying to make it by. Girls allows viewers to take a step back and remember that the world is made of people of different shapes and sizes (and bank accounts).
Ah, yes, bank accounts. This brings me to my next point. Hannah is a struggling writer. And with that aspiration, there typically comes a bit of economic uncertainty. Since graduating from college two years ago, she has worked as an unpaid intern. Because she was certain it would lead to a job when she started out, her parents agreed to support her until she began earning money. However, after two years and no income, they cut her off. She struggles with being able to pay her share of the rent for her small apartment as well as trying to fund her meals. In Sex and the City, Carrie writes a weekly column for a well-known New York newspaper. She is so successful that many people know her name. While her apartment in the first season is not necessarily luxurious, it has multiple rooms and she lives alone; something Hannah could only dream of in her current state. The cost of living in New York City is insane. In order to live alone in Manhattan, one must be earning a comfortable income. Becoming a writer and living alone in Manhattan are two more examples of the unrealistic lifestyle that Girls attempts to discourage. Although Hannah does whine about her parents cutting her off, the reality for many newly graduated college students is that they have been used to being supported their whole lives. Whether or not you believe that’s a bad thing is not of importance in this circumstance. What matters is simply that it represents how many people her age react to being cut off while attempting to achieve their high-reaching goals.
The final comparison I will make deals with the issue of romantic relationships. In the Pilot episode of Sex and the City we see Carrie and her friends talking about their sexual encounters and relationships. Although there is some talk about what they are unhappy with, it is clear that catching guys’ eyes is not difficult for the four friends. We see this to be true when Carrie has sex with someone she had seen previously and is hit on by one of New York’s most eligible bachelors. However, Hannah is in a situation I believe many women have faced themselves: reverting back to someone who may not treat you well simply in hopes of feeling less lonely. We learn that Hannah’s relationship with Adam is essentially on his terms. Whenever he feels like responding to her he does, whenever he wants to be left alone he simply ignores Hannah. Whenever Adam wants Hannah around, she’s there. These insecurities are extremely common for women. Seeing Carrie being chased after by beautiful and successful men may leave the viewer with the question “What’s wrong with me that no guys ever come chasing after me?” Even if, when we watch the episode of Hannah and Adam having a less than romantic sexual experience, we pity her and know it is not love, on some level, many women can relate.
There is value in having the option to escape reality if only for 30 minutes. But I believe television’s truest good is being able to provide unsure viewers with reassurance that they are not alone. Yes, the characters in Girls complain. Yes, they whine. But their problems are similar to those of many young Americans trying to find their footing. The plots of HBO’s Sex and the City and Girls can certainly be compared; they share many similarities. But to say that the messages of the shows are the same would be wrong. Girls provides an unpopular but realistic depiction of what life can be life, and many times that’s what the viewers need.
Rowles, Dustin. "HBO's 'Girls' and Our Resentment Toward Privileged, White America." Pajiba. Disqus, 24 Apr. 2012. Web. 28 Feb. 2014. <http://www.pajiba.com/think_pieces/hbos-girls-and-our-resentment-toward-privileged-white-america.php>.
Wong, Sterling. "A Critique of HBO's Girls: Labor Mobility and the Problem of Finding a Job in New York City." Minyanville. Minyanville Media, Inc., 19 Apr. 2012. Web. 28 Feb. 2014. <http://www.minyanville.com/business-news/editors-pick/articles/hbo-girls-lena-dunham-twx-mcd/4/19/2012/id/40513?refresh=1>.