While none of the characters on Lena Dunham’s GIRLS have escaped criticism, and Hannah Horvath has received the bulk of it, it’s arguable that Marnie Michaels is considered second worst. Played by Allison Williams (whose personality, like that of Dunham’s, is often assumed to be in line with her characters’), Marnie has received flak for her potent blend of privileged naïveté, desperation, and selfishness. At the shows onset, Marnie was the hardly-working girl who expected the perfect career to fall into her lap—she had her eye on that sparkly package of success and power, but seemed put off by the grunt work it might require. What her career would entail transformed often, too, jumping twenty-something-style from gallerist to musician, with a few stops in between. Her hunger for legitimacy was blatant, but her specific cravings were less concrete.
To want something for yourself so badly like that, especially a vague reinforcement of self-worth in career form, is a universal but oft-denied characteristic. Today especially, we’re told to value those things about ourselves that can’t be quantified—the non-superficial traits society glosses over: a vague sense of inner goodness, perhaps, in place of something as “garish” as outside acclaim. To do otherwise is considered gross—a personal failure in the vein of a Donald Trump-type (though his is arguably on steroids).
So Marnie’s bald inability to hide these less-righteous desires has been grating from the get-go, as she’s failed over and over again to hide her desperation for approval. Critics and commenters have torn her apart for this yearning, one that’s been evident not just in her career search, but in her too-obvious quest to find love (or something that she could at least dress up like it) as well. She wears her insecurity on her sleeve, but the narcissism it’s wrapped up in has colored it more prickly than pitiful (remember the dire attention-plea-cum-music- video from Season Three?) Unfortunately, by fighting so hard to deny that she’s in need of anything at all—always playing defense against the reality of her feelings—her character has isolated both the audience and her so-called friends on the show.
But a character resulting in that much annoyance is usually worth a second glance. What can we learn from the fact that she drives us so crazy?
Well, we’re often just like her (or certainly have been at points in our lives). Better at hiding it, most likely, but not really better people because of it. Marnie is, quite simply, bad at playing the game of life—she’s terrible at hiding her basest desires: for wealth, acclaim or a storybook romance. She’s the exact opposite of “playing it cool,” and it’s difficult for the rest of us to watch her poorly-choreographed mess unfold. We struggle to empathize with her virtuous failings, because we spend every day of our lives trying to deny those very failings in ourselves.