‘Girls’: Are We Actually Ready for Female Anti-Heroes?

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"‘Girls’: Are We Actually Ready for Female Anti-Heroes?"

Next week, I’ll start a new regular feature where I discuss Veep, HBO’s new comedy about a bumbling female vice president, and Girls, Lena Dunham’s sly deconstruction of Sex and the City, together, because I’m struck by their riffs on the same themes. But I did want to talk a little bit about last night’s premiere of Girls.

You all, by this point, know that I love the show—it’s all over the top of this blog. But I know not all of you did. Twitterer Rhiannan Root told me she expected “more attitude from the lead. She put up with a lot of BS in the pilot. I expected her to have more respect for herself.” MsCareerGirl said that she “was really disappointed and kinda grossed out by the characters.” I don’t think those reactions are wrong—how much you like Girls entirely depends on how much tolerance you have for the deep well of humor that can be found in grating and pathetic behavior, and how much you enjoy recognizing that in yourself (the answer for me is a whole bunch). But I do think they say something interesting about male and female anti-heroes, and why we have a bunch of the former and almost none of the latter.

The male anti-heroes that we have tend to employ what we understand to be traditionally male traits, just in excess. Walter White’s first step down the road to perdition comes out of a sense that his family will have no means of supporting themselves after he’s gone (an interesting, inherently arrogant assumption that the show’s never convincingly examined, turning Skyler’s attempt at running a business into black comedy). Tony Soprano is excessively decisive. Seth Bullock is preoccupied with honor and justice and defending both. Stringer Bell is engaged in the quitoxic project of turning a drug gang into a legitimate business. All of these are active rather than passive traits, and the characters tend to err when they take action rather than when they delay it.

Hannah Hovarth, by contrast, is an anti-heroine precisely because she doesn’t act, and when she steps, wrong-foots herself dramatically. She puts up with absolutely ridiculous treatment from Adam, who she’s sleeping with but is definitely not her boyfriend. When her boss at the publishing house where she interns dismisses her smugly, she has precisely no response for anything he’s saying (even though she could probably put the Labor Department on his ass). She can confront her parents only when she’s high, and then not with anything close to efficacy.

Passivity, and dependence are all traits that we find humiliating, no matter the proportions they come in, while decisiveness, activity, and standing on principal are all traits we have positive associations with, and so we’re attracted to the people who exhibit them, even when they’re wildly misapplied. The former set of traits is coded as female, the latter as masculine. It’s one thing to respond to a female anti-heroine who is defined as such by her masculinized behavior, whether it’s Sarah Linden’s single-minded focus on her career and bad mothering in pursuit thereof, or Cersei Lannister’s impressive cruelty. Whether a mass audience is ready to embrace a female anti-hero whose anti-heroicness is defined by an overabundence of negatively-coded feminine traits is another question entirely. And it suggests that maybe we’d be better off if we found Tony Soprano’s murderousness less endearing as well.

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