I regret a lot of things about the premiere of HBO’s seminal comedy series Girls, which, as of this week, is 10 years old. I regret the near-sighted conversations around the show’s lack of diversity. I regret that certain critics misinterpreted the characters’ narcissism. I regret fatphobic viewers criticizing Lena Dunham’s choice to be nude frequently on the show. I regret Dunham eagerly volunteering to be the poster child for white feminism. I regret that a pretty innocuous, ultimately beautiful show about female relationships will forever go down in history as “polarizing” and “controversial.” I regret not knowing all the particulars of Dunham and Christopher Abbott’s alleged beef that led to him exiting the series after Season 2.
Surprisingly, the thing I regret the most throughout the entire Girls hullabaloo—a thing that genuinely keeps me up at night—is the fact that Allison Williams never received an Emmy Award or even an Emmy nomination for her singular work as Marnie Michaels, the elusive, neurotic best friend to Dunham’s equally neurotic Hannah Horvath.
As of late, the internet seems to agree with—or maybe just wants to rehash—my estimation of Williams as a comedic genius regarding her contributions on Girls. A clip of the actress performing an awkward, acoustic cover of Kanye West’s “Stronger” in Season 2’s penultimate episode has gone viral on Twitter over the past year. And a screenshot of Williams smiling aggressively with a microphone in her hand has become its own meme. I also think there’s a creative line to be drawn between the brilliance of that scene and Amanda Seyfried’s cringey rendition of Lil Wayne’s “How to Love” on Hulu’s The Dropout that’s also gone viral of late.
In the episode titled “On All Fours,” Marnie decides to soft-launch her music career at her ex-boyfriend Charlie’s (Abbott) work event, which she earnestly frames as a present to him. It’s an equally amusing and queasy experience listening to her sing West’s bars in her high-pitched, Disney-princess voice and watching her bop up and down to an eerie drum beat. She even modifies one of the lyrics to “you can be my white Kate Moss tonight,” as if she decided the word “Black” would be inappropriate on the way there and wasn’t concerned with the obvious redundancy. Overall, it’s an effective snapshot of all the chaos bubbling beneath the surface of this seemingly put-together, professional-looking woman.
Describing the essence of Marnie with a few adjectives is tough. She’s the type of woman you’ve either experienced a million times or fortunately have never encountered. And if you have, you know her simply as That Girl. She’s that girl who lets a man destroy her life every few months but wants you to be empowered in your relationship. She’s that girl who needs a boyfriend or a man pining for her at all times. She’s that girl who uses every social gathering as an opportunity to flaunt her singing talents. She’s that girl who assumes she’s worldly because she has a liberal arts education. She’s that girl who considers herself a good friend for planning you nice birthday parties but will fuck your ex-boyfriend. She’s that girl who wears an Ann Taylor dress to a warehouse party.
Maybe this isn’t as much of an instantly recognizable archetype as I’m making it seem. But it speaks to Williams’ portrayal of Marnie that her neat presentation, self-sabotaging behaviors and occasional maturity felt cohesive, readable and easy to categorize without being broad. You never got the experience of narrative whiplash watching her from week to week, like when you’re observing literally any character arc on Euphoria. She was a mélange of contradictions that made complete sense, as most human beings are (at least the interesting ones).
One of the most feminist aspects of Girls is that the writers never dedicated too much time explaining why the women were as frustrating as they were in their approaches to relationships, work, and everyday decision-making. With Hannah, for instance, we got brief, darkly funny revelations about her childhood and her experiences with OCD. But Dunham and the show’s writers were never interested in painting these elaborately traumatic backstories to make sense of her messiness or demand immediate empathy when she became too unlikable. In the case of Marnie, there are a few nods to her abandonment issues from her father. And her mother, played superbly by Rita Wilson, is a certified nutjob who we can only assume passed down some of her traits. But for the majority of her arc, viewers are simply forced to buckle in and hope that Marnie eventually arrives at a sane place.
The six-season ride through Marnie’s dysfunction is challenging, sometimes infuriating, and deeply entertaining. Throughout the series, we see Marnie hook up with multiple friends’ exes, enter a destructive marriage with her musical partner Desi, distance herself from her central group of friends until she desperately needs their company again and display casual, frequent acts of narcissism—eventually coercing Hannah into co-parenting her child. And Williams brings a specificity to each of these scenarios that keeps her from being a one-dimensional, petty mean girl.
In addition to the hilarious “Stronger” cover, I think a highlight of Williams’ performance on the show is an iconic episode in Season 3 titled “Beach House” where she arranges a weekend getaway for herself, Hannah, Jessa (Jemima Kirke) and Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) that gets hijacked by Hannah’s gay ex-boyfriend Elijah (Andrew Rannells) and his group of friends, culminating in an epic fight between the women. So much of her performance in this episode feels indebted to the writing and vice versa. You’re immediately clued-in on the shallowness of this “bonding” trip by Marnie’s tone and her quick, exasperated glances at the women as she’s instructing them during activities and forcing them to have fun. Despite how generally affable Marnie presented herself, Williams always found a funny distinction between when her character was performing friendship and genuinely being a good friend. Comparably, she was great at conveying how fragile and insecure Marnie was, whether enduring a massive heartbreak or some small inconvenience—like in an episode where she and Desi are performing at a brunch in a restaurant and some kid whining in the corner completely rattles her.
Suffice to say, the lack of awards love Williams and the other supporting actresses of Girls received has puzzled me since the show’s finale in 2017. While I think Adam Driver was deserving of the three Emmys he was nominated for in the Supporting Actor category, the highlighting of his performance, while Williams, Mamet and Kirke were also doing excellent work and went ignored, put a bad taste in my mouth. It seemed like voters were partially giving him credit for partaking in a women-centered project. Likewise, the careers of the titular girls have not really popped off in the same way as Driver’s, who’s been nominated for two Oscars since the show’s end and is officially one of Hollywood’s leading men. Williams got to experience Oscar buzz (not particularly for her performance) when she co-starred in Get Out in 2017, but the success of the movie didn’t transform her into a film star.
Ultimately, the hammer-and-sickle side of me knows that these industry awards are not important and should be abolished in their current form. It’s more about the acknowledgement and appreciation at the core of it. Likewise, in this economy, it’s probably better to have a performance memorialized on Twitter as opposed to a televised ceremony that no one apparently watches anymore. Williams may not have walked away from Girls with any trophies, but at least she’ll always have proof of her comedic brilliance (and singing chops) floating around the internet.