One of the most interesting parts of Girls is what we see when we watch ourselves watch the show. Noticing when we, the audience, cringe or laugh or love or hate provides insight into our own biases and beliefs on a wide range of social issues. As the show's title indicates, this series is a remarkable Rorschach test for our attitudes towards gender.
Lena Dunham is (duly) applauded as a feminist icon for her thought-provoking defiance of gender norms on television: how women are supposed to look, dress and behave. By showing off a lifelike and imperfect figure, she forces us to reconcile with our own expectations of the female body. She brazenly and repeatedly shows that Hannah is not nurturing or maternal. (In fact, seeing her place her hands on her belly in imitation of Caroline's pregnancy caused some cognitive dissonance for me.) She is not sweet. She is not emotional or empathetic in any of the ways that her sex is supposed to be. This behavior is a statement and is perceived as such. Lena Dunham is exercising the freedom to be hated, the same kind that brought us Don Draper and Walter White. And equally powerfully, she makes us recognize how repulsed we can be when a woman harnesses that trait, how quickly our assessments of her go from "cold" to "sociopathic."
Marnie, on the other hand, is underrated in terms of how provocative her character is. She performs femininity in all of the ways that Hannah does not. Her body is slim and lithe and her face conventionally lovely. In fact, she looks strikingly like a Disney princess, the first role model of most young girls. She holds herself and her life to the impossible standard that is expected of young females. "If things can't be perfect, maybe they could be as close to perfect as possible," she says at one point. Her openings on episodes 4 and 7 show her exercising and her planning her friends' visit as montage dedications to her Type A personality. Rather than being rewarded for fulfilling these ideals of women, she is punished. She is described as pathetic, insecure, and "the worst" by her friends. She is dumped twice in a season. She is the least favorite character of everyone I have ever watched Girls with.
What does it mean that our discomfort about Hannah's departure from gender expectations is matched only by Marnie's performance of them? What does it say about us that we are repulsed by the protagonist and her foil with equal fervor?
It seems that Hannah and Marnie have become the Madonna-Whore complex of feminine ideals. Hannah defies them, Marnie embodies them and both are faulted.
Perhaps we could call it the subject-object complex, as these roles have defined the two women this season. Hannah is unshakably the subject of her own story. She writes almost exclusively about her own experiences. She is often shown as completely devoid of empathy. In episode 4, she appears (offensively) unable to grieve for her editor David's death. After all, the only feelings that Hannah can access are Hannah's and at that moment Hannah's feelings were concern about the future of her book. This effect was highlighted by her unsuccessful attempt to play the object in last night's season finale. It showed her following a beauty magazine's instructions on how to apply eyeliner. Instead of being "Eye Poppin' Gorgeous", the black makeup slopes downwards at the outside corners of her eyes, giving her the appearance of a Pierrot -- the sad clown of Commedia dell'Arte.
Marnie, on the other hand, is willing and even eager to be an object of the male gaze. In the movie of her own life, she would still be more likely to play the love interest than the main character. She sings (preferably on a stage) at every opportunity, and we get a sense that this is not motivated by a deep love of music. Her ploys for attention yielded some of the series' most cringe worthy scenes.
This binary was made especially evident in last night's season finale when the two women went to visit their respective love interests in their dressing rooms. Hannah expressed gratitude that Adam led her to art. (And even this had questionable authenticity; was Hannah just trying to turn Adam's opening night into a celebration of her success?) Marnie's path, however, is opposite. Music is her means to an end, and that end is Desi's affection. Her sense of fulfillment from being kissed was visibly deeper than her feelings of achievement after a successful performance. Her voice quivered as she used "recording an album" as a thin excuse for Desi's girlfriend about their relationship.
I've turned off many an episode of season three exasperated with the two women, but perhaps it is time that the audience turns this exasperation on itself. Our expectations of women create these polarizing reactions. And our feedback to women being as they shouldn't and as they should is equally bad.