Recently over at the Dissolve, an interview with David Wain about his influences spawned one of their regular “Feedback” columns titled “When the screen becomes a mirror,” Wain and the quoted commenters were discussing Richard Linklater’s Before series and how their reactions to Celine and Jesse over the years were colored by where they personally were in their lives when they saw the films. This in turn led to an extrapolation on that evergreen corner in the garden of feeling things about art: the idea of “likability” and likable characters.
It can be a fine line.
Characters beholden to what audiences will think of them will likely not be very interesting — and yet it’s a normal human emotion to want to relate in some way to those around us, a sentiment that’s extended (and I’d argue only relatively recently) to those we watch and read about. If people will vote for presidents based on who they want to have a beer with, then surely fictional creations are also fair game for such scrutiny. But what about when the characters that you identify with are accused by others of being unlikable? What happens when we see ourselves reflected on screen and don’t like what we see? Should these characters then become examples of how not to live? Is that even a legitimate way to react to them?
I’ve found myself mulling these questions over in my head because we’ve recently seen a significant uptick in the portrayals of women in a particular demographic: mid-to-late twenties, usually city dwellers, often at least somewhat artistically minded, and currently fucking life up in ways both major and minor. Bridesmaids, Frances Ha, and Obvious Child could be generously termed the subgenre’s tentpoles in the movie realm while HBO’s Girls has the small screen locked down. These women, if Internet commentators are anything to go by, are not particularly likable for a myriad of reasons. Sometimes they are too whiny. Sometimes they are too self-involved. Sometimes they are not adequately checking their privilege. Sometimes they are too fat and should count themselves lucky that we ever deigned to watch them be naked.
I am also a late-twenties, city-dwelling, artistically-inclined, occasional fucker-upper woman. I’m privileged in that I’m white, straight, and relatively comfortable. Like Annie in Bridesmaids, I struggle with feelings of self-worth as I watch my friends pair off and get married. Like Frances, I am currently struggling with how to fit my personal aspirations into the day-to-day necessity of affording rent in my obscenely expensive chosen city. And like Donna in Obvious Child, I still sometimes make what Tina Fey once charmingly called “sex mistakes.” And I’m guessing I’m not alone in this. So it’s difficult not to take the criticisms of these characters personally. Girls’ Hannah Horvath in particular, and by extension her creator Lena Dunham, is regularly subjected to a virulent strain of commentary that even meth-cooking kingpin Walter White, a man who (spoiler alert?) regularly and without remorse killed people, didn’t have to put up with. Hannah’s greatest crimes, as far as I can tell, are that she sometimes forgets to take the feelings of others into account and can be a little self-righteous, but this has somehow been spun into an epic and damnable case of pathological narcissism by the armchair psych majors of the world. Even fans of the show may defend it not by expressing empathy with Hannah but by explaining that she’s supposed to be the worst person in the world. This often leads down a prescriptive path that neither the characters nor the work are asking for. Rarely are they given the benefit of the doubt that they’ll eventually grow up; they’re just told that they should. When Hannah’s gynecologist tells her, mid-examination, that “you couldn’t pay me to be twenty-three again,” she seems to speak for all the viewers who watch the show from a distance, believing that they know better. The confusion and solipsism of Hannah is not aspirational, no — but neither is the smug dismissal of an entire generation.
I’m well aware that being offended on behalf of a fictional character is kind of a stupid reaction to have. And perhaps my closeness to them is influencing my feelings. But I like to think that even in my eventual old age I could look back at these characters’ lives with fondness, not pity or annoyance or hostility. When it gets down to it, what’s ultimately most objectionable to me about the question of a character’s likability is that it shuts down the interesting engagement you could have with him or her. It becomes a way to negate their stories, to dismiss them as less worthy of being told. Art need not always reflect life as it is but the best usually does, and such unvarnished explorations of female life have only recently evolved from being transgressive to acceptable to wide audiences.
Girls is particularly interesting in this regard because it features four central characters who all embody distinctive aspects of the mid-twenties urban female. Aside from aspiring author Hannah, there’s Marnie, a beautiful lost girl learning a bit too late that life doesn’t owe her anything; Jessa, a fauxhemian recovering drug addict who can’t stop throwing walls up between herself and the world; and Shoshannah, the girly, motor-mouthed Jewish American Princess who regularly takes her friends to task for their behavior. When the second episode of the series brought them together in an abortion clinic, it wasn’t revolutionary because of the setting but the fact that these young women were being brought together at all, and that they were allowed to be messy and wrong and profane. They didn’t need to be role models; they could simply be, blissfully unaware of the sniping on message boards that their actions were inciting. Taken together they demonstrate that there is a vast amount of variation in character to be had even in the narrow world it depicts (whether or not the show itself always serves them as best it could is a subject for a different essay.) And there are more of these stories out there that deserve to be explored and grappled with, on terms beyond whether or not you would fuck the characters or be friends with them or ignore them at a party.
Those sorts of reactions have little to do with who we’re watching onscreen but have much to say about the viewers who express them. After all, how likable are you?