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?

Comments (99)
  1. I don’t think Gabe is enjoying his trip to L.A., you guys.

  2. But not everyone who is a jerk in real life all of a sudden has an epiphany and becomes nice, in fact I think it would be fair to say that most don’t

    • You know what Ian, I think you just might be right. All this time I’ve been wondering why I’m not a better person, when all the while it has been because I’ve never had the sudden epiphany I needed to spark a change in me. Perhaps if I could ignite that change myself without someone having to show me just how much the things I do hurt other people, then I could become the change I wish to see in the world. Right!?……. HAHAHA WRONG! FUCK OFF, GANDHI!

  3. I’m a dude, so it seems inappropriate for me to be an asshole here. Ladies, please one of you tell Gabe that this post includes the following typos:

    - “I think there is two obvious reasons for this trend ”
    - focussing

  4. Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids wasn’t a female asshole, was she? She was a wreck, but it wasn’t because she was a huge jerk to people and stuff. She was in a variety of situations that were terrible, and only some of them were of her own design.

    AND she changes by the end of the movie. SPOILERS She moves in with her mom, she starts perking back up again, Megan McCarthy slaps the hell out of her and talks her up, Wiig puts aside her differences with Rose Byrne to locate Maya Rudolph, she apologizes to the cop guy, she ditches Jon Hamm, etc, etc. She finds hr self-worth again by the end of the film.

    • I thought this too. I may need to re-watch it to see how she doesn’t change?

    • Wiig’s character definitely changed, but subtly. There wasn’t that huge “breakthrough” moment that a lot of movies have. I think it’s to the movie’s credit that it avoided a complete resolution and just hinted at the character’s growth. I think that movies have just become really lazy about resolutions, so that they need to be made condescendingly obvious (which is sometimes ok, but has become too much the norm).

      • I think her change was “subtle” because she wasn’t that big of an asshole to begin with. I watched Bridesmaids a few too many times and I haven’t seen in the Annie character what Gabe apparently saw. Certainly not comparable to Charlize’s character in Young Adult. But that’s just me. Perhaps I’m a bigger female asshole than I think.

    • Word, girl. I haven’t seen the other two movies, but Kristen’s character is on the road to change by the end of Bridesmaids.

  5. lets be even more specific and point out that this is an archetype specifically about middle to upper class white women who tend to fail to live up to their potential as friends, lovers, and careerists. i also think it has a lot to do with the US economy. i am also high on dayquil. good comment!

  6. The world is finally open to seeing a dramatic depiction of a woman who is an actual human being, which means flaws and ugliness.

    I think that answers the question right there. Because the depiction of women as fully realized human beings in film is relatively new, there’s bound to be a period when the focus for both filmmakers and audiences is on the flaws. In a way, it’s a fun new toy to play with. I suspect that when the newness of it wears off and it becomes less of a novelty and more a matter of fact, we’ll get to see a more diverse range of character arcs for women as well.

    • i feel like fully realized female characters are not a “new” thing. and i also feel like the lady asshole genre isn’t new either, but might be new in the comedy realm. i mean, the queen lady asshole of them all is scarlett o’hara. but to me i feel like it’s not necessarily the character that is interesting to me but the situations that are interesting to me- these female characters are about failure, especially failure to “have it all”, which is a distinctly feminist concern regarding balancing self, family, and career. and what i was trying to say earlier about how i think it has to do with the economy- i feel like there wasn’t space for this type of comedy until there was general widespread acceptance of the fact that failing is something very easy to do in today’s society. like, for instance, in bridesmaids, wiig’s character had a failed business, and, to me, that was where a lot of her insecurity came from. and something that a lot of people talk about is how this recession has been feminizing / emasculating to a lot of males, because early trends saw males getting laid off in droves, while women were being retained (because we work for less yaaaaaaay). so social norms were in upheaval. which is also where i think some of this space comes from.

      my brain is really mushy y’all, i’m sorry. this is totally one of those conversations i would love to have in person with people rather than try to type out all my gobbledegook on the interwebs.

      • What’s amazing (frightening? disheartening? inspiring?) is that you high on cold medication create more coherent and articulate arguments than I do sober! I want to stand up and applaud what you just said!

      • So will the men take the comedy jobs back when the economy gets better? Just kidding, we’re all going to die on December 21st.

    • But, isn’t it a little strange that in depicting women as “fully realized human beings” we’ve skipped directly from submissive/one-dimensional to three-dimensional and basically awful? Maybe that’s not real progress? Idk!

      Full disclosure: I will watch Girls.

      • No, it is real progress. It’s just not all-the-way-there progress. Which is why we call it “progress” and not “mission accomplished.” And personally, I love a good fictional female asshole. For now, it’s still rare enough to be refreshing.

        But I was going to say that perhaps the reason why that trend seems so popular to Gabe right now is because even in older fiction the Evil Lady archetype was the one who was actually closest to being a fully realized character whereas the Pure and Beautiful Girl just had things dropped into her lap a lot? Like the Evil Queen actually plotted and proactively sought out her goal of killing Snow White, whereas Snow White just sort of waited around to be kissed back to life or whatever.

        So maybe this “trend” is just like one “step” in the “process”?

    • Kind of like how, and I’m not criticizing here, Judd Apatow opened the floodgates on the Man-Boys; but thank god that’s pretty much over now.

  7. I have lots of thoughts on this. First off, I haven’t seen Tiny Furniture. So…there’s that. Secondly, I didn’t think Kristen Wiig’s character in Bridesmaids was nearly as loathsome as Charlize Theron’s in Young Adult. I thought Wiig’s was just so depressed and pathetic and it seemed more natural (or forgivable) for a depressed, pathetic person to be self-absorbed and annoying. Theron’s in Young Adult was just an asshole and self-involved in a way that seemed separate from her depression/pathetic-ness. Plus I think Wiig’s changed at least a little by the end whereas the moral of Young Adult was (paraphrasing Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s critique of Bruckheimer protagonists) “never stop thinking you’re awesome. if you do stop and think ‘maybe I’m not awesome’, just go back to thinking you’re awesome again.”

    I also think there’s something to be said for character traits that make someone interesting as a character but not to be friends with IRL or hang out with even. I always felt this way about Carrie Bradshaw in good ole “always there to help an argument about women” Sex and the City. She’s the most self-involved and she’s always turning the conversation back to her problems and it’s so annoying, but part of that is just a narrative device to drive the story forward, I think.

    In summary, I’m going to watch Girls because I think it looks good even if the characters might be unlikable.

    • the girls trailer made me laugh at least 3 times, good enough for a watch.

    • What does it say about me that the three movies I saw last year and identified with the most were Bridesmaids, Young Adult, and Tiny Furniture? Especially Young Adult. I feel like I’m the only person who loves and cares about that movie as much as I do.
      (Oh, it means that I’m an asshole? Cool.)

      • HI this definitely wasn’t supposed to be a reply to your comment, the internet just hates me today. K BYE.

        • I am a man-person, and I too greatly identified and sympathized with Kristen Wiig’s character in Bridesmaids, as well as Charlize Theron’s character’s more grounded (barely) attitudes in Young Adult. I mean, Mavis was in a deep dark place that got darker and darker, so there was a certain point in the film where it dropped off and she became spectacle, but still, I really loved Young Adult.

      • I loved Young Adult too, a lot. I don’t think you’re necessarily an asshole for identifying with Charlize Theron’s character in it. She was certainly an asshole, but she was also a human being (as much as any fictional character is, or maybe more than a lot of characters are, because she was a pretty fully realized character), and although her depression and alcoholism don’t justify her actions, they provide you with insight as to how she feels and how she’s capable of the horrid things she does.

        I think to an extent, identifying with a character like Charlize Theron’s in Young Adult just means you’re empathetic.

      • Yesss, “Young Adult” was awesome and underrated. Except I saw it suuuuper hungover and there was so much boozing in it that it started making me nauseous and I actually had to leave the theater to go puke and come back.

        Um, I guess I “identified” with it.

      • It definitely means you’re an asshole because only an asshole could love a movie about an asshole! This is because we are Ladies and we only love the things we identify with! Chocolate! Babies! Periods!

        P.S. I loved Young Adult too! But fiction-wise, I just don’t care about redemption as much as a good story.

  8. backlash against annoying formula + rise of internet culture [aka self absorption] = movies about female assholes

    movies about female assholes + time = comedies about female assholes

  9. I think there are a lot of very good points here that I am a bit hesitant to discuss further because Gabe writes good and me not write good. But it is good that lady characters get to be shitheads in movies, and are getting better, more human portrayals in general.

    I think part of the problem is that, if this makes sense, lady characters are so very often viewed through the ‘lady character’ lens, rather than being allowed to be a lady., whereas gentleman characters are just ‘characters.’ So that a lady character who is a shithead is a lady shithead, whereas a gentleman character can just be a shithead without gender playing such a pronounced role in how we view the character.

    tl;dr Gabe writey yaaaay, lbt writey sad makes

  10. I’ll aggressively point out that Gabe forgot the best example of the female asshole character that never learns:

  11. to keep this from being just like a congressional panel on women’s reproductive rights, i’ll go ahead and ask: ladies?

  12. “Women! I should of known. I was wondering who was taking all the plum roles.” — Dane Cook.

  13. I think it’s probably because of like, you know, postmodernism or something.

  14. You forgot to mention Sex And The City 2. Those ladies were some straight up assholes, too!

  15. I blame Chelsea Handler.

  16. I think you have to consider the source – are we supposed to agree with these judgments of Dunham’s character or is the point that the people calling her out on this are just as self-absorbed, self-pitying, etc?

    Also, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that assholes are “all the stories now”, but I do think there’s a major difference between depictions of female assholes and male assholes (gross, but that’s the term we’ve chosen here). Male asshole stories, of which there are many (obviously), are often wish-fulfillment fantasies that let the assholes be the heroes, or at the very least experience few repercussions for their asshole behavior. The female asshole, on the other hand (archetypally, not anatomically) is almost always berated, humiliated, and punished for her self-absorbed behavior, often by her own self. Why the lack of redemption for these characters, even in stories written by women? I think it has something to do with that emphasis on the female asshole’s need to punish herself and be punished for being such an asshole, whereas that impulse is very rarely seen in analogous (jeez) male asshole characters, who are often given narrative arcs focused on growth and redemption.

    I’m optimistic about GIRLS, because it doesn’t look like it’s going to spare anyone. But Dunham’s definitely one of the self-flagellatory female assholes, if TINY FURNITURE is any indication, and while that may be a necessary step in the evolution of female archetypes it also seems in danger of becoming a stagnant cliche.

  17. To answer the question posed in the title of this post… Yes. Probably.

    • Why would I even need to read the article?! Gabe, have you been outside? Have you ever interacted with other things? Okay good, then you know the answer is that everyone is terrible. The only people who should ask this question is:

      1) Hermits raised by wolves
      2) Babies under 6 months of age but not all babies because a lot of parents are assholes.
      3) Aliens visiting on their first probe mission
      4) Aliens visiting on follow-up probe missions who probed a Hermit on the first go-around who happened to be very pleasant actually. It’s pretty hit or miss with Hermits
      5) Anthropomorphic animals who have been given passage from Toontown into reality
      6) Time Travelers from the future if the future isn’t full of assholes
      7) Inanimate Rocks

  18. I’ll tell you what is terrible…this martha maycy mally mandy movie ad. Too much.

  19. Oh. So you did NOT know that women are human? Or….what’s the argument here? Because, yeah. Women are human and I know that’s craaaaazy. 3 very different films. Young Adult was written by Cody Diablo, if that’s even a real thing, so we can just leave it at that. She’s terrible. I said it. Lena Dunham’s ‘Tiny Furniture’ is yeah, a 24 year old and the post-college WTF thing, which is also covered very well in ‘Kicking & Screaming’ by Noah Baumbach and is still a very valid, very real thing regardless of gender. It’s also btw really one of the most honest, hilarious films I’ve seen in a very long time so monsters, queue up. (Netflix instant, the new Box Office Weekend.) ‘Bridesmaids’ we should just be happy with because FINALLY. It’s hilarious, every performance is aces. And it’s written by and about women. ONE. One movie. ONE. That made it to the Oscars, that adds to everyone’s LOL401k. The character doesn’t grow much but we’re, what criticizing that now? Please see every Bukowski book ever written. My point is this: finally, we have some female voices. Give them some god damned room to create.

    • But I think what Gabe may have been saying is that when they do have room to create, they are creating loathsome female characters? And also, we’ve had female voices for a while. Now that more people are actually paying attention to them, it matters what they say? I don’t know, I’m probably kind of an asshole.

    • I agree with you, Blondie. I think it’s sexist to lump these three movies together because they have female leads and then to make a sweeping generalization about how all three characters are assholes. I don’t see Annie in Bridesmaids or Aura in Tiny Furniture as assholes. (I haven’t seen Young Adult yet, but from the trailer/premise, it does seem like Charlize Theron’s character an asshole.) Annie has really low self-esteem and is not dealing well with all the bad things that have been happening to her. And Aura is trying to figure out what to do with herself and where she fits in post-college. Yes, these types of stories have all been told before and will continue to be told in different ways from different perspectives. Men have been doing so for decades, so I think we can give women a few more decades to hash it out?

  20. I actually just watched Tiny Furniture and enjoyed it to a point. There was also a lot of cringing for knowing way too many people that have been in situations like that. Especially the last 15 minutes (the scene in the pipe) which were a bit excruciating because you know that it is based on an actual event. And, to be fair to Dunham’s character, everyone in that movie was an asshole. Not just the ladies. It was an equal-asshole movie across the age and gender divide.

  21. I think this new female asshole archetype might come from this generation becoming self-aware as they get older. And, part of that is recognizing the new extended adolescence that 20 and 30-something Americans have. Teenagers are assholes, and adults who act like teenagers are bigger assholes. We’re used to seeing men being immature, so women in these roles are a novelty and filmmakers are taking advantage of that. I thought Young Adult was great as was Miranda July’s The Future which dealt with similar themes.

  22. ALSO, can i say that i enjoy this trend far more than the pixie-twee girl thing? Zooey Deschanel has kind of beaten it into the ground.

    • I am so with you. I’d much rather see a lady asshole than MPDG.

      • you guyyyyyyyys, should i write an academic article analyzing the economy of the past ten years through female tropes in film? because obviously MPDG’s, which ruled cinema in the late 90s and early 00s, are symbolic of the economic excesses and the idea of every young man could leave home and stumble into greatness.

        also just for funsies the hooker with the heart of gold trope so popular in the 1980s could easily be viewed as how the culture at large viewed wall street excess. and it couldn’t be hard to figure out how to talk about welfare queens.

        this is either the best or worst idea i’ve had in a bit.

        • Best. Best x 1000000 (unless all your ideas are solid gold, and this is the least shiny of your golden thoughts. In which case, damn.)

          • thanks! i dunno about solid gold, but i’ve got a running list of kinda silly articles that i want to write. thinking about publishing a fake journal of them with a friend eventually. just have to get around to actually writing them….

          • I’m not kidding. I’ll buy a subscription to that fake newsletter.

          • Southernbitch, I have received your proposal, I have read it and I Love It. Yes. Proceed.

            I wouldn’t spent actual money on a subscription (sorry!) but it could be like that Gaga Stigmata blog, which blew me away when I first read it in 2010 (Full disclosure: I haven’t visited it in a while so I can’t attest to what’s come of it since inception, but here, start at the beginning if you want or don’t whatever: )

            Are you a real academic, or like me, a recreational academic too lazy to go to grad school and do homework yuck? Kudos either way!

          • YOU GUYS it is totally midnight and i definitely drank nyquil earlier but i had this great realization- what film won allllll the awards at cannes the year after the economic crash of 2008? ANTICHRIST. that film is so over the top in how it views female sexuality and guilt! think about the climax in that film (pun intended!) what does it meaaaaaan other than i need to go to bed. but yes, economic crisis and female film characters, true thing! if i weren’t writing a thesis already i would write this one. (hopefully that answered your question, commentatrix- i am a real academic, but a pretty half assed one.)

      • things badideajeans and i have in common: Rose is the worst, as well as MPDGs.

        high fives all around.

  23. Oh man, I remember listening to a This American Life episode years ago about a guy who was an asshole, and he ultimately realized he was kinda fine with it.

    Oh yeah, that was Gabe.

  24. To me it seems that each of the movies mentioned in the post have a clearer continuity with their respective niche genres than with some vague idea of “Movies featuring strong female leads,” as Netflix would put it. I think that this fact combined with a desire to recognize the opening up of more roles to women has resulted in some of the confused debates along the lines of, “Is poop jokes good or bad for womens?” It’s great that women can inhabit lead roles previously written for the George Clooneys and Matthew Perrys, and I think we’d worry a lot less about the nature of those roles by admitting that the characters are often pretty stock based entirely on the niche genre, not because women are now in on it.

    There will always, of course, be some difference in writing a part for a man vs. a woman, but I don’t think this accounts for the perception that women characters are being unduly written as unsympathetic. Look at Leslie Knope. She’s sympathetic as hell. Same goes for the characters in Bridesmaids. They all turned out to be pretty likeable, in the end. And that’s because those are light comedies.

  25. Gabe, I can’t believe you watched so many episodes of Entourage and that other Entouragish asshole show and only now realized that everyone is an asshole. What makes me mad is that you’re only calling this phenomenon out when it has two XX chromosomes.

  26. What about Liz Lemon? What’s happening with her?

  27. I can’t believe that as enlightened/modern/educated as everyone is/should be these days, that we are STILL talking about gender.

  28. I don’t agree about Annie in Bridesmaids. There’s definitely some maturation there in her relationships with Lilian, Helen and that Irish dude.

    Haven’t seen Tiny Furniture, so can’t speak to that.

    Mavis’ lack of growth, though, was the best thing about Young Adult. The moment towards the end, when she’s talking with Patton Oswalt’s character’s sister, and the sister asks what happened to her shirt. You can see, for a second, Mavis’ facade beginning to crack. It’s a really great moment from Theron, showing a character whose been invulnerable up until now laying her weakness bare, if only for a short time. Then the sister says something about how pretty she is or whatever and she’s pulled back. It’s not just good acting by Theron, it also shows that delusional people got the way they are because of other people insulating them, because they want to feel special too (see the sister asking Mavis to take her to Minneapolis with her.)

    Also I’m 23, and I’ve known my two best friends since pre-school.

  29. The main thing I find (and like) about these roles is that they are not blaming women for not developing intellectually & emotionally, I think they are just showing the reality that from a cultural standpoint, there isn’t that much presented for women to be interested in.

    In Young Adult, Theron’s character is unlikeable because she’s never developed herself past high school. We watch her preening herself and trying to look attractive again and again after waking up disheveled and still drunk, chugging diet coke (which i actually thought was pretty cool, because, fuck people), messing with her boob pasty things, and she constantly has the Kardashians or some shit on in the background of her life talking about parties and ‘boys’ and how hard it is to be hot. I thought the film did a good job of showing how women have a very limited scope of shit they’re supposed to do with their lives. Women are supposed to like clothes and doing their hair and popular romance movies (since that’s the only genre created for women, because for some reason films with intelligent or complicated plots about stuff other than romance is not something women will relate to?). They’re not supposed to pick up a book that isn’t commercial fiction, and they’re not really encouraged to take up hobbies outside of trying to find a dude. Mavis is a product of this. She’s not someone who was encouraged to think critically by her parents or anyone else growing up, she was popular and didnt have develop herself to get what she was told she was supposed to want.

    But I think she DID change in the end, apparently unlike most people who viewed this. I feel like people thought just because she was immature, unkind, and thoughtless in many ways before and after that it was impossible for her to have had character growth. She went through a really self-destructive confused phase, culminating in her trying to win back her married father of an ex-boyfriend, and realized how ridiculous it was. She dealt with some things from the past that were holding her back, she was humiliated & she got over them so she could feel better about moving forward in her own life.

    • You’re totally right, ghost wankerer. I love your observations of what Mavis was conditioned to think she wanted and what he qualifiers for self worth are, and she definitely got herself into and out of some very destructive shit over the course of the film. She did definitely learn something about herself in the process of butting heads with Patton, her parents, Patrick Wilson and everyone in-between. She also had to finish that final book, which very much was the only justification for her to still think with a “high school” attitude. She didn’t necessarily learn how to not be an ‘asshole,’ which I agree wasn’t ever supposed to be the arc of her character in the first place.

      In short: Yeah, what you said!

  30. We are all self absorbed assholes, yeah. Unless, of course, we want something or aren’t allowed to be assholes for some reason. These characters are us but with exaggerated traits, because that’s what they teach you to do in writing class.

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