"What ‘Girls’ And ‘Friday Night Lights’ Tell Us About Prettiness And The Value Of Being Interesting"
On February 4, Anne Helen Peterson, whose work you should be following on a regular basis, published a terrific piece about Marnie Michaels (Allison Williams), who began the first season of HBO’s Girls as the character with the most promising career and the longest-running relationship, and by this season, has become a depressed, jobless, dumped wreck. Marnie’s aimlessness has come into particularly sharp contrast with the ascent of her best friend Hannah Horvath (Girls creator Lena Dunham), who began the series unemployed, financially dependent on her parents, and hooking up with a shiftless hipster named Adam (Adam Driver). Marnie may have been irritated by Hannah’s unreliable contributions to their rent and cupboards, but she could at least feel superior to her lackadasical roommate.
That’s no longer the case, and it’s contributing to Marnie’s downward spiral. And I think Anne Helen nailed how Marnie got into this predicament in the first place. She writes:
Marnie spent so much of her life thinking that things would work out when she graduated that she forgot to actually become something. Hannah is insufferable in many ways, and certainly comes from a upper middle class background, but as someone who’s not traditionally “beautiful,” she’s always known that she has to distinguish herself in some way, whether through self-loathing humiliation (seemingly all of the stories in her memoir) or self-effacing branding (“I’m from the Midwest, so I’ll always be fifteen pounds overweight.”)…
But Marnie doesn’t have strong opinions, or anything resembling character. She’s beige. She loves to sing covers. All because she got by for so long on being a pretty girl (and having a long-term boyfriend who constantly reinforced her conception of herself). Until the last year, no one ever said no to her — not her friends, not her boyfriend, not her professors, probably not her mom — which allowed her to age without growing. She’s the female version of the man-child, all pout-face and passive-aggressivity.
The piece struck me again this week when, in part to give myself something that would make me happy as I took up the burden of slogging through the second season of House Of Cards, I finally started my very overdue project of watching Friday Night Lights, the much-lauded drama about a high school football team in the Texas oil patch. And as I got to know the characters through the first half of the first season, I found that one reminded me of Marnie: Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly), the daughter of Buddy Garrity, the owner of Dillon, Texas’ Chevy dealership and the football team’s biggest booster, a prominent cheerleader, and, when the series starts, the girlfriend of Dillon Panthers quarterback Jason Street (Scott Porter).
While in this season of Girls, Marnie is reeling from being dumped by her boyfriend Charlie (Christopher Abbot), shortly after what seemed like a joyous reunion, in the first season of Friday Night Lights, Lyla suffers an even more significant tragedy when Jason suffers a spinal injury during the season-opening game, and has to figure out an entirely new life than the one he had planned. Marnie, in some ways, is beyond the danger stage: her depression hits after she’s already finished college and garnered some job experience, while Lyla is still in high school, with enormous choices before her. But their shock at their losses freezes them in similar ways, in part because they’re similarly invested in their relationships as the answer to all the challenges of adult life.
When Street is injured, Lyla initially insists that he’ll make a full recovery because she needs to believe that’s true. She dives into internet research for inspirational case studies and devotes her considerable powers of motivation to encourage Street to embrace his rehabilitation process. But Lyla’s devotion is a proxy for imagining a future in which her decisions aren’t intimately tied to Street’s. When she tells her guidance counselor Tami Taylor (Connie Britton), who is married to the coach of the Dillon football team, that she always assumed she’s just follow Street to college, it’s awful to watch her finally see the blank that lies before her, to see her awaken to the fact that she’ll have to learn to think for herself.
Marnie has had more life experience than Lyla has, but she’s also bumped up against the limits of where her beauty can take her. Her qualifications and her experience didn’t keep her from getting fired from her gallery job. Her looks and her willingness to be locked in Booth Jonathan’s artistic torture chamber, to attest to his genius, and to host his parties, doesn’t make him want her to be his girlfriend. And Marnie’s prostrations of herself before Charlie actually seem to have made him less desirable to her.
But both young women keep making impulsive sexual decisions, because that’s the only thing they know to do to get the jolts of affirmation that keep propelling them forward. Marnie falls into bed with Ray–or rather, onto his kitchen table in the apartment he’s claimed from Adam and fixed up–after he delivers a devastating critique of her character. She may promise to keep their fling quiet with a caustic “Like I’d advertise this,” but she keeps seeing him. And Lyla sleeps with Street’s best friend, Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch), in part because she can’t convince him to go visit Street in the hospital, but she can, at least, seduce him.
Marnie is buoyed up from rock bottom by the financial generosity of her mother, who is presumably paying the rent on her new, solo apartment in Manhattan. And Lyla still has the grace period that is her remaining years of high school, and her family’s financial stability, to figure herself out. Presumably, both Marnie and Lyla will find ways to develop more concrete senses of self. For Marnie, Hannah’s example may be an irritant, but at least it’s a model she can work off. So far in my Friday Night Lights watch, I haven’t spotted any female equivalents of the nerdy, thoughtful Landry Clarke (Jesse Plemons) who might act as similar spurs to Lyla, though Tyra Collette’s (Adrianne Palicki) hustle is an intriguing alternate model of Dillon girlhood.
None of this is to say that being beautiful doesn’t matter, that the pretty are more put-upon than the plain. But Marnie and Lyla (at least as far as I’ve watched) seem never to have learned the lesson that there’s value to being something more than an ornament, whether to a start-up founder or a starting quarterback. Even before pretty breaks, or pretty fades, there’s something to be said for knowing who you are, and what you want, and how to get it, without having to look in the mirror to be sure.