There’s a new trailer out today for Lena Dunham’s upcoming HBO “dramedy” Girls and it looks fine. I enjoyed Dunham’s feature film, Tiny Furniture, and this show clearly has the same tone, not to mention the same cast, as the movie, so if you do the math it stands to reason that I will like the show as well. Besides, Fan Favorite Jenny Slate has a small role in it, I have heard. But one thing that stood out in particular while watching it was the montage of people describing Lena Dunham’s character: “you’re smarter than this,” “you are so self-involved,” “you were always like this,” and “this is why you have no friends from pre-school.” Eek! What a jerk! Now, again, that is basically the character description for Aura from Tiny Furniture, so clearly Lena Dunham is just exploring her “thing,” and even more importantly, that is almost exactly how I would describe almost any 24-year-old (minus the line about pre-school because who on Earth still has friends from pre-school?!). But if you track this “female asshole” archetype (based on the loose information of a web-video TV trailer, but still) alongside many of the “breakthrough” female characters of the past couple years, and here I am thinking in particular of Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids and Charlize Theron in Young Adult, although I’m sure there are dozens of similar if not better examples that will be aggressively pointed out to me in the comments, we clearly seem to be enjoying a moment. And kind of a weird one. Let’s talk about it!
I think there is on obvious reason for this trend that is entirely positive:
Women are simply getting better and more complicated roles. Which is great. Obviously. The world is finally open to seeing a dramatic depiction of a woman who is an actual human being, which means flaws and ugliness. She isn’t limited to simply being a damsel in distress or a romantic ideal or a desexualized paramilitary pseudo-man. You’re allowed to “hate” her for who she is, rather than because of some kind of innate misogyny.
Also, most narrative structures involve some form of redemption, and who better to be redeemed than the seemingly irredeemable? The worse and less likeable a character starts out, the more room you have to bring us on board with their growth and emotional maturation.
But here’s where things get complicated: that second reason doesn’t actually apply. I can’t speak to Girls, but the main characters in all three of our examples (Tiny Furniture, Bridesmaids, Young Adult) do not change or grow or emotionally mature. They end their stories the same way they came in: selfish, self-absorbed, somewhat loathsome. They don’t even have any friends from pre-school left, if you can believe it. So what is this all about?
One could argue that people do not change all that much once they’ve entered adulthood. They’re fixed in their ways, they hold tight to their beliefs in the face of all reason, they calcify, they make the same mistakes over and over again. This may or may not actually be true. It’s just an argument. I mean, sometimes it’s true. And sometimes people totally change and learn and get “better.” But let’s at least agree that a story could be told about someone who doesn’t learn anything, who is unsympathetic, who remains trapped in a personal hell of their own contrivance without even realizing it or making any plans of escape. Fine. Yes. Agreed. But how many of these stories are we going to tell? All of them? Is this all of the stories now?
I’m focussing on female narratives today only because that is what jumped out at me. If you want to talk about the “male asshole” archetype WE’RE GONNA NEED A BIGGER BLOG. This goes back to the first point about women getting more complicated roles. The problem, of course, is that while this may or may not be a trend in movies about men, there are so MANY movies about men that it’s washed away as any kind of “issue” or “question.” Every aspect of the human condition, for better or for worse, for more thoughtful or more stupid, for hilarious or explosions, is covered for men. That’s a whole other topic of conversation. The point is that men are irredeemable monsters in movies, too, but it’s probably not even worth a mention. Because of course they are. They’re MEN! (Ding dong, am I right, ladiiiiiies?!)
But so what is this all about? Is it because movies/TV are a mirror to our true selves and we are all actually assholes and so assholes are what we get reflected back? Is it because of 9/11? What’s up, girls? What’s up, Girls? What’s going on? You OK? You want to talk about it?