On the most recent episode of GIRLS, Adam’s unusual sister Caroline shows up, creating plenty of anxiety for him, and lending to the tension of the episode as she acts out in various ways. I appreciated her presence, as it provided some context for Adam’s own occasionally befuddling characteristics, along with his complex relationship with women. I love reading television reviews for certain shows because I find it fun to delve beneath the surface of an episode, to mull it over some more and see if there are new revelations to be had. But one comment in The Atlantic’s review (which is formatted as a conversation between a few of their editors) struck me as glaringly ignorant. Discussing the introduction of Caroline, one editor, Jim, states:
All I’d say about this character is she seems consistent with the Girls universe in which everyone is, to their core, bad. And I don’t know what that’s meant to say, if not to be just funny. It can’t be how Lena Dunham feels. Or how lots of people feel, or that everyone actually is bad. It can’t be that.
Huh? There is so much wrong with this statement. For starters, deeming someone who is at the least mentally unstable, if not actually diagnosed with a mental illness (which is highly plausible), as simply bad is incredibly diminishing. Sure, Caroline does things throughout the episode to cause a scene: she manipulates Adam and Hannah and has an overly aggressive personality (especially during her dancing-next-to-Ray moment)—but coupled with this are tender moments where we see a person so blatantly struggling with their own flaws, so genuinely ashamed of their own warped behavior. Does that mean her behavior should be excused? Excused isn’t even a relevant term here. What this character needs is serious help, but she’s not a bad person. Nothing about this episode depicts her as entirely coherent, yet conniving and cruel, which to me would somewhat justify calling her bad. Instead we see someone who isn’t thinking clearly, who is highly emotional, and emotionally unstable—most likely resulting from a legitimate illness, given how long Adam hints this behavior has gone on.
It makes sense that Adam might be less than understanding of this. Family members have a tendency to struggle with their own relatives setbacks. It is often harder for us to accept those closest to us as flawed, and to not react simply with anger where, with anyone else, we might respond with a bit more compassion. Because these issues quite literally hit home for us, they bring up our worst memories and our own insecurities. Having an unstable sister doesn’t necessarily make you yourself unstable, but it gives you a much more complex relationship to that instability than someone who simply watches it from afar. Shame and resentment are very real responses to having a family member behave in a way you don’t ‘approve’ of, or you feel is ‘out of control’ – and even if those behaviors stem from a diagnosed mental illness, it doesn’t mean they’re any easier to swallow. People ask themselves “why did he/she turn out that way, if I turned out okay?” They want it to be a behavioral choice because that’s easier to understand, and it’s something that can be fixed. Mental illness, conversely, still confounds most of us—we know it exists, but we’re not always sure why or how or where it came from. There are rarely clear-cut answers to these questions. Anger is a much easier response than the very deep sadness that can come over you when you realize that a person might never change.
Caroline was not placed on this show purely for laughs. Say what you will about Lena Dunham but she doesn’t strike me as the type to simply snicker at mental instability. Sure, we all do really dumb things as we tiptoe into adulthood, we can all be unstable, sometimes to comedic effect, but it is usually more nuanced than that. Especially in the case of someone like Caroline, who yearns for attention to such an extent that she will put up with physical abuse from a boyfriend, and proceed to cut herself when Adam and Hannah don’t harbor enough concern for her. Sure, it was funny at first to see Caroline standing naked in the bathroom, much to Hannah’s surprise, but it quickly became sad when her hand started bleeding and we began to see a much deeper inner struggle play across her face. This was not ridiculous behavior—I have heard of many situations along these lines and have had friends and acquaintances go through them. Mental illness, or instability, whatever you’d like to call it, tends to make itself known most strongly in people’s early to mid twenties. It is scary for all of those involved, and extremely difficult to accept. So that is why Caroline is in this episode, and why she makes sense in this episode—not for easy laughs, but because, for all of the GIRLS characters’ erratic and sometimes strange behavior, we’re not worried about any of them on a level that we might be for someone like Caroline. And not to address a character like her would be to miss out on a very real aspect of adulthood, something that most of us experience (not necessarily in ourselves but in others).
I don’t think GIRLS is a perfect show, or a perfect commentary on this period in our lives—but achieving such a feat would be nearly impossible. All of our experiences are as alike as they are significantly different. What GIRLS does well is highlight how incredibly fucked up a lot of people are during this period. Writing them all off as “bad” people is harshly misguided, whether mental illness is present or not. You may not approve of their behavior, you may not fully understand it, but none of them are sitting around plotting or acting cruelly on purpose. Half of the time the characters are clueless, as many of us can be when it comes to our own behavior, and the rest of the time their so-called weird actions highlight deep insecurities, traumatic pasts, etc. This is reality, which yes, on television may be blown up at times for effect, but at their core, the characters and their actions are not that unusual or unrealistic.