Is Marnie From ‘Girls’ the Worst Character on TV?
People love to hate Marnie, Lena Dunham's practically perfect and perfectly despicable, best friend on HBO’s Girls. Could she possibly be that bad? (Maybe not. But also…maybe!)
Isn’t Marnie the worst?
Maybe you don’t agree. Maybe you couldn’t agree more that the impeccably groomed ingrate, with the looks of a young Brooke Shields and the personality of that girl from college you wanted push into oncoming traffic every time you saw her on campus (you know the one), is so diabolically awful that rage consumes you every time she speaks.
Maybe you hate her. Maybe you love to hate her. Maybe you hate the phrase “love to hate” and refuse to characterize your love or hate for her in that regard but, either way, have intense feelings about Allison Williams’s character on Girls.
It’s ok. We all do.
Have you talked to people who watch Girls? Intense doesn’t even begin to describe their feelings about the fallen-from-grace twentysomething with no seeming life ambition beyond whining about the fact that she was broken up with by a pretty weird guy while making grilled pizza what seems like years ago at this point. Like, gurrrl—get over it!
TV fans and critics are used to—conditioned, even—to falling in love with a show, and then wanting to murder one of its most prevalent characters. (Sometimes, literally!) It’s like a micro version of that hate-watching phenomenon we were obsessed with about a year ago when everyone was watching Smash and The Newsroom and then gleefully talking and writing about how the only reason they were tuning in was to bask in their irritation over how bad the shows were.
A crap-load of people (a very scientific unit of measure) watched The Walking Dead each week, all the while proclaiming their passionate distaste for Lori. Homeland fans made ranting about the awfulness of petulant teen Dana Brody into a weekly celebratory ritual. Anyone who still weathers the ever-choppy waters of a Glee episode can tell a tale or two about how a Will Schuester storyline is the most treacherous part of the journey. And thinkpieces on thinkpieces can and have been written about whether we’re all sexist for thinking that Breaking Bad’s Skylar White or Mad Men’s Betty Draper kind of just suck.
So if we’re so used to hating characters on shows we love, why are we so viscerally, deeply, firmly put off by Marnie Michaels on Girls? Further, should we be? Is it OK that we are? Could Marnie really be that bad?
“I would not want to be friends with her,” says Ashley Fetters, associate editor of The Atlantic’s entertainment section. Ha! But seriously. These days that’s a big deal.
It’s the age of Jennifer Lawrence. Celebrities and the characters they play need to fart and binge unapologetically on junk food and watch Real Housewives marathons and be our best friend. They can’t say obtuse things like, “My gosh, that’s so nice. I mean, I don’t think I’m, like, a model, but…” when someone gives her a backhanded compliment about being pretty, like Marnie has done. Or crash her ex-boyfriend’s office party, turn off the music, and sing an impromptu Kanye West song (see: Marnie, last season). Or attempt to close down a party early so she could have a healing dinner for four with her friends who absolutely did not want any part of her julienned carrot and forced catharsis (see: Marnie, last week). Or not shut up about the damned grilled pizza (see: Marnie, always).
“I think especially when it’s a show about young women—all the girls on that show are my age—you judge characters and think about your enjoyment about them based on whether you’d want to be friends with them,” Fetters says. “So I wouldn’t ask, say, would I be friends with Walter White? Definitely not. But would I be friends with Jess from New Girl? Or Mindy on The Mindy Project? Absolutely.”
You could even say that about Lena Dunham, and the Lena Dunham-isms she imbues Girls’ Hannah Horvath with. But not about Marnie. It’s more than just her unattainable beauty. It’s her total lack of self-awareness. Her manipulativeness. The way her unfiltered comments don’t come off as refreshing, but just plain rude.
Let’s take a walk of shame down Marnie’s past actions. When did you start to hate her?
Was it when she showed up at her boyfriend Charlie’s apartment in season one after they broke up, said she wanted to reunite with him, had sex with him, and then decided mid-coitus to dump him again? Was it when she convinced herself that Booth Jonathan was her new boyfriend? Was it when she sort of had sex with Elijah and kept it a secret from Hannah? Or maybe one of the three cringe-inducing singing calamities: the painful Kanye solo, the embarrassing Edie Brickell cover, or forcing Hannah into the duet of “Take Me or Leave Me” that she most definitely wanted no part of.
Maybe still you were a hold out, and didn’t truly reach peak Marnie Rage until she hooked up with Ray, the one Girls character who had been untouched by her tornado of terrible. Maybe, too, you made it until this most recent episode, when she refused to let go of her meticulously planned healing dinner, which she insists would’ve been fun if it had gone off as she envisioned. Seriously. The worst.
But you know what? Maybe, actually, it’s possible that Marnie isn’t the worst. Maybe she’s more complicated than we think.
“I sympathize with her as someone who knows she’s being annoying and sot of can’t stop herself,” says Alyssa Rosenberg at Think Progress. “That’s not a position that anyone wants to be in. I have a lot of sympathy for Marnie, but I also completely understand Hannah’s frustration with her.”
Anne Helen Petersen recently diagnosed Marnie’s annoyingness brilliantly in a LA Review of Books essay titled “Pretty Girl Privilege” (sounds like, Marnie, right?):
We all know that Marnie’s the one you put on the lease. She’s super responsible: she’s the one who wakes up and blows out her hair every morning, who regularly buys vegetables, who always drinks a full 16 ounces of water after coming home from drinking and probably already uses anti-aging cream on her eyes.
Yet the criticisms of Marnie are myriad: she’s boring, she’s annoying, she’s vapid. She’s flatly beautiful and she has an inflated sense of self.
But Petersen takes the “Marnie is so annoying!” cry a step further. “I like Marnie,” she says. “Or, more precisely, Girls’ horrible treatment of Marnie?” What now? She’s so awful that you like her?
Pop culture and contemporary media conditions us to expect the world to be a “prettiocracy,” she says, full of Marnies: “The implicit message of these Marnies? If you work hard — if you have great hair — you will get the things to which you are entitled. The job, the boy, the body, all yours, simply through the force of your American will. You don’t have to have charisma, per se, or even superlative, well, anything — you just have to be you and let things happen.”
But here’s the thing—Marnie doesn’t have that. She’s lost that. She has no man. No job. It’s killing her self-esteem. She’s positively tragic, despite her insufferable nature. “She’s someone who because she’s beautiful and had this relationship with Charlie, she never bothered to figure out what the rest of her life was going to look like,” Rosenberg says. “That’s a terrible thing to do, not develop your personality and skills because never had to, and it’s also a pitiable position to be in.”
That’s certainly a new idea. Maybe we don’t hate Marnie, the way we think we do. Maybe we all just pity her, and don’t know it. “Girls plays on ideas that have been staples in rom-coms all the time,” says Rosenberg. “The marginalized best friend to the pretty girl finally gets what she deserves”—chubby, listless Hannah now has the boyfriend and the good job while pretty girl Marnie is sad, single, and unemployed—“so we’re conditioned to root for Marnie’s downfall by pop culture.”
The episode of Girls airing this Sunday has Marnie hitting what, for all intents and purposes, should be considered rock bottom. It involves pizza and Ray and sadness. Boy, does she hit that rock bottom with a splat.
Now, instead of groaning about how much we hate Marnie when she gets there, we’ll be cheering for it. No longer is it, “Ugh, Marnie is the worst.” Think of it this way: “Marnie is the worst. Yay!”