In Defense of Marnie

Marnie Michaels, the oldest friend of the Girls main character Hannah Horvath, seems at first to be a hard character to like. She can be severe in her judgments, she almost entirely lacks self-awareness, and she has a responsible streak that borders on annoying. She is constantly mistaking attention from men for personal validation. She isn't appealingly innocent like Shoshanna, funny like Hannah, or urbane like Jessa. But she might nonetheless be the best character on the show.

Marnie has spent the second season of Girls weathering the breakdown of the two most significant relationships in her life: her closest friendship, with Hannah, and her relationship with Charlie, her boyfriend since the age of 19. She also lost her job when the art gallery where she worked went through layoffs (the owner decided to keep an employee who damaged a print because she slept with him). And she lost her home when Hannah kept the apartment they had shared. She has seen Charlie — who was, during the years they dated, a floundering musician of little talent who didn't even fuck her right — immediately acquire a new girlfriend and found a wildly successful tech company whose signature product is an app that prohibits its users from calling or texting certain numbers in their weaker moments ("You were kind of the inspiration," Charlie tells her). Marnie, meanwhile, does what responsible people the world over do, and gets a job. She becomes a hostess at a night club where she has to wear a uniform that makes her look like a drum majorette from a Dov Charney wet dream.

Hannah, meanwhile, has descended into a complete mental breakdown under the influence of only an e-book deadline and the breakup of a months-old casual relationship. She also seems to have lost the job at Cafe Grumpy that was keeping her financially afloat. It's clear that, whatever Hannah's other qualities may be, she lacks many of the most basic skills of adulthood. She ends the second season being cradled like a three-year-old by her ex Adam. Hannah's happy ending is finding a man to take care of her.

Allison Williams, the actress who plays Marnie, once said in an interview that her character's defining characteristic is that she "strive[s] to be perfect at all times." Perfect is not a bad thing to want to be — although admitting it as a life goal does open one up to a certain amount of mockery on Twitter. But let us consider the ways Marnie's drive to be perfect impacts her life. As the author Courtney Martin wrote in her 2007 book Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, perfectionism is not an uncommon plight among her generation of women. It is also not one that is without its psychological tolls:

We are relentless, judgmental with ourselves, and forgiving to others. We never want to be as passive-aggressive as our mothers, never want to marry men as uninspired as our fathers. We carry the world of guilt — center of families, keeper of relationships, caretaker of friends — with a new world of control/ambition — rich, independent, powerful. We are the daughters of feminists who said, "You can be anything" and we heard "You have to be everything."

We must get A's. We must make money. We must save the world. We must be thin. We must be unflappable. We must be beautiful. We are the anorectics, the bulimics, the overexercisers, the overeaters. We must be perfect. We must make it look effortless.

As Marnie herself tells Charlie when he asks her how she's doing, "I'm good. I'm very good. But sometimes being very good all the time feels really bad."

Women — particularly young women — are expected today to perform an ever-widening array of tasks and to assume an ever-greater number of roles. When they do it poorly, we judge them. When they do it well, we call them "uptight." It might be fun to be an itinerant sophisticate like Jessa, who gets to skip town whenever things get too real, or a narcissist scribbler like Hannah, who mistakes her juvenilia for observations that might be of use or interest to anyone besides herself. But someone has to remember what day the ConEd bill is due and what day the gas bill is due and where the checks must be addressed. Someone has to have a job. The rap on Marnie is that she is too "uptight." But in the face of Hannah's fecklessness, how could Marnie be anything other than uptight? Uptight is what we call women who inhabit their many roles efficiently and with grace. Like calling a woman's voice "shrill" or characterizing her requests as "nagging," "uptight" is a word that dog-whistles sexism. Marnie Michaels may these days be called uptight. A generation ago she would have been called sensible. As Elaine Blair noted in The New York Review of Books, Marnie is the one whose name you need to be on the lease.

Marnie's character arc so far has been one of ongoing humbling. Her expectations have met reality, and her façade is cracking. This is a character who, over the course of the series, is being systematically disabused of all her illusions. And we the audience hate her for it — for being so "uptight," for being silly enough to admit to having illusions in the first place — even as we lap it up as entertainment. But there is something noble in Marnie's refusal to let herself fall apart visibly even as the life she was brought up to want — the stable long-term relationship, the job in a competitive creative field, the big-city apartment — is crumbling around her. I think her decision to rise every day and put on her humiliating uniform to pay the bills and be gracious towards Charlie in his sudden wealth indicates something like self-respect. And not everybody has that. Certainly few of us do at just 24.