I love Marnie Michaels. I think I am the first person on the Internet to ever say that, and you can find almost anything on the Internet. I’m pretty sure even Allison Williams doesn’t like Marnie Michaels. But I like Marnie Michaels.
FYI: This post might feel dated or irrelevant given that Girls has been off the air for almost a year now, but I’ve been grappling with my feelings about Marnie for a long time and am only just now ready to share this struggle with the world.
People say Marnie is unlikeable. This is a criticism that has often been levelled against Hannah Horvadt, the show’s protagonist, played by Lena Dunham, and it is a criticism that has been leveled against a multitude of female characters throughout history. Female characters, like their IRL counterparts, are expected to be selfless, nice, and morally infallible. We want our characters that way, not because we are actually that way ourselves, but because we are convinced on some level that this is the best possible version of a woman.
In her essay titled “Not Here to Make Friends”, Roxane Gay quotes Claire Messud who says that : “The relevant question isn’t ‘Is this a potential friend for me?” but “Is this character alive?” Roxane Gay elaborates, saying: “Perhaps, then, unlikable characters, the ones who are the most human, are also the ones who are the most alive. Perhaps this intimacy makes us uncomfortable because we don’t dare be so alive”.
For me, Marnie is alive because she represents a lot about 20-something-year-old-hood, which can be myopic, solipsistic, self-obsessed, and selfish. It can also be uncertain and terrifying and raw and painful. Granted, this is only ONE view of 20-something-year-old-hood–a white, attractive, middle-class, able-bodied view at that-but I also don’t believe one character should bear the brunt of having to represent the entire intersectional spectrum. While a fair criticism might be made of the show as a whole for failing to represent the experiences of people of color or LGBTQ youth, I am resistant to making Marnie wholly responsible for this lack.
Marnie Michaels is irritatingly symmetrical and so thin she is sometimes painful to look at. She is undeniably beautiful in the most conventional way imaginable, like a basket of golden retriever puppies. She is the kind of person who carries around a monogrammed agenda and has pens with furry balls and trinkets dangling off the end. She always has good hair and she wears heart-shaped pendants. She is perfect from the outside looking in. But what makes Marnie alive as a character is her chronic dissatisfaction with this perfection. She is searching for a deeper, truer, version of herself and she doesn’t know how to find it.
To this end, Marnie quits her job to pursue a career as a folk singer. She leaves Charlie, the incredibly nice guy who is everything on paper but leaves Marnie cold. Marnie repeatedly takes incredible risks, risks that leave her divorced, broke, heart broke, heckled, wandering barefoot through New York City, more lost than when she began.
Marnie’s most pronounced traits then, are not narcissism, entitlement, selfishness, shallowness, vapidity. Marnie’s defining characteristic is that she doesn’t know who she is. The vulnerability of this reality makes me feel tender for all the searching I did in my twenties. Tender for a young girl who desperately wanted to find herself, so she could be true to herself, so she could make the most of the one life she had been given.
Okay, and here’s one final thing. The great love story of the entire series is not between Hannah and Adam, or Shoshanna and Ray, or Marnie and Charlie, or Jessa and Adam. The great love story of Girls is between Hannah and Marnie. Throughout the entire series, Hannah and Marnie are seen climbing into bed next to one another, usually in the wake of one relational devastation or another. They are always, despite frequent turbulence, each other’s soft place to land. And in the season’s final episodes, Marnie moves upstate with Hannah to help her raise her son Grover. As the audience we are led to understand that this situation is not sustainable, that Marnie will forge on towards law school and Hannah will be left to find a balance between the old life and the new, however it feels significant that Marnie is with her-albeit temporarily-in those precarious first months of new motherhood. Theirs is a love that is unconditional.
Marnie is a character who needs consideration beyond the question of mere likability. It’s a challenge to merely”like” her, but I think if you can see her vulnerability, her courage, and her capacity for love, it’s actually pretty easy to love Marnie Michaels.