In Defense of Jessa

Illustration for article titled In Defense of Jessa

Jessa Johansson could be described as the resident bohemian on Girls—that is, if she stayed in one place long enough to actually reside there. Beautiful, enigmatic, and "unsmotable," she radiates the kind of confidence that—especially when paired with a giant Louis Vuitton duffle bag—could easily be read as the grating sense of entitlement of a rich girl. But overall, the quality that attracts people to Jessa is the same that repels them: she just doesn't give a fuck. As Bret Michaels would say, this is the thorn to her rose.


Introduced to us in the first episode as the polar opposite to Hannah's other best friend, the type A Marnie, Jessa dropped in on their lives after traveling the world on what would appear a to be a glamorous itinerary of whimsy (she maybe went to Amsterdam, definitely shucked pearls in Bali where she met a surfer before winding up in France). But now that we're a little more familiar with how she operates, we know that she probably wasn't going where life took her, but instead running from it entirely. Living with no regard for conventions and rules is great until you're forced to deal with the inevitable consequences of your choices.

But Jessa, as a character, is like a Rorschach test. What you think about her says more about you than it does her. She can pull off hats and she doesn't have a Facebook account. Does it annoy you that she's trying too hard to be "different"? Or do you find it refreshing that she marches to the beat of her own drum? Does that piss you off? Or do you think that's cool? She thinks it's "vile" when people are early for things. Do you think that's immature? Or can you relate? She doesn't check her voicemail. Is that infuriating or a relief? She doesn't go on dates "because they're for lesbians." Did that make you groan or laugh? When she said, "You know what the weirdest part about having a job is? You have to be there every day even on the days you don't feel like it," did you recoil at her privilege or rejoice in her truth? Whatever your answer, she wouldn't care.

"I don't like women telling other women what to do, or how to do it, or when to do it," she once said. This ethos is probably what's most admirable about her, because it's not just something she says, but what she lives. She's authentic. At 24, she has the courage to be herself, even if she doesn't know exactly who that is yet.

Honesty, of course, can be brutal, and Jessa has unleashed that brutality on those she loves most, whether with a biting remark or an uppercut. But hurt people hurt people. Even though she said she can be "smoted," the revelation about her stint in rehab belied that. (People don't tend to develop heroin addictions because their lives are hunky dory.) As did the glimpse at her relationship with her father, when she cried about how he wasn't there for her. And that just seems like the tip of the iceberg—the bits of information that she's dropped about her mother suggest that there's much more pain and damage lurking beneath the surface. She had a troubled home life in that it doesn't seem like she had much of a home at all. Maybe it doesn't excuse some of her behavior, but it explains it.

Just when you're sick of Jessa, she leaves. But then you get the chance to miss her. Ultimately,she's a yo-yo friend, getting really close and then pulling away. It can be confusing and infuriating, but the thing about a yo-yo is that it always comes back.



I think the whole show is a Rorschach test, but I agree that Jessa exemplifies this more fully than the other characters.

I also think that in rare moments, she shows a clarity of self-understanding that the other "girls" never quite achieve. Marnie literally never exhibits a moment of honest self-reflection; Hannah spends all of her waking hours in pursuit of it, but she's looking through too many self-imposed filters to achieve it, really; and Shoshanna... is a special case. (I think Shosh is so earnest all the time that she doesn't really reflect - her real feelings are always her most immediate ones, so she doesn't seem to hide her truth from herself the way the others do, and every person I've ever met in real life does. I don't know. But a genuine discussion of Shosh's special spark could fill pages, I think.) Not to say that Jessa is any kind of paragon of self-awareness, not at all - most of the time she's blissfully, willfully unaware. But I think when Jessa sits still long enough, she can't help but see herself for who she really is, or at least who she's really being at a given moment, and she's so terrified by that, and by the darkness she carries around, that she leaps up and runs every time.

Maybe I'm ascribing more to her than is reasonable, or maybe she just reminds me enough of real-life people I've known that I'm writing their stories into hers, but either way, she's so deeply familiar and believable to me.