Mar 26, 2014
How GIRLS Explores and Explodes the Myth of Pretty Girl Privilege
Talk about Girls, and you’re talking about privilege. From the moment Girls premiered, it became next to impossible to have a conversation centered around the show without discussing the different types of privilege enjoyed by the four main characters. There were, of course, the clear economic advantages bestowed upon each girl, demonstrated in a number of ways, ranging from the reveal that Marnie was still on her family’s cell phone plan to the ease with which Hannah asked her parents for more than a thousand dollars a month in spending money to the fact that Shoshanna lives by herself in Manhattan while attending NYU full-time to the reality that Jessa can’t hold down a job but that never seems to be a problem for her. And then there’s the racial privilege (season one featured an African-American man in the role of a homeless man, and that was about it for diversity until season two), the educational privilege (say what you will about many of the students who attend NYU or Oberlin College—like, really, go ahead and say it—but they enjoy a level of academic advantage that qualifies them as elite), class privilege (not quite the same as economic or race-based privilege, but a sort of fun combination of the two!), and the privilege of youth, that special time when mistakes are made and almost immediately forgiven.
All in all, it’s enough privilege to make you sicker than you already were of the word privilege to begin with. (Which, pretty sick, right? And let’s not even get started on privilege privilege, the privilege of being able to constantly use the word “privilege” without having people tell you to shut the fuck up because it’s as annoying a word as, I don’t know, “problematic” or something. Anyway.) While the show’s writers have done little to try to vanquish (or even explore very much) the effects of economic, racial, class, or youth privilege (on the contrary really, those privileges have been exploited for all they’re worth) there is one type of privilege that Girls hasn’t just explored, it’s exploded—the privilege of the pretty girl. In the world of Girls, the benefit of being beautiful, as seen most clearly through the story lines of Jessa and (especially) Marnie, is a privilege that’s valued far more than it’s actually worth, and one that—in the end—doesn’t bestow that many advantages at all.
When talking about privilege, the first thing you can’t help but recognize is that however blatant some of the benefits might be, there are almost always accompanying drawbacks. Rely too much on your economic privilege and get a rude awakening when your parents go through a messy divorce and can barely pay for their own separate condos in White Plains, let alone help with your rent in Greenpoint. Counting too much on your educational background denies the reality that plenty of people get ahead without having gone to Oberlin or NYU, and that the real privilege isn’t where you went to school, but what you know and, let’s just say it now, who you know. And what else? Youth fades; class and race are constructs that might insulate you from a lot of bad things for a while, but also lean too heavily on those privileges at your own risk, lest you become a bigoted asshole; and even the privilege of intelligence is more of a burden than a blessing if you don’t wind up doing anything about it. Oh, and so then there’s being pretty.
Like most privilege, being a pretty girl is basically a birthright. Oh, sure, most privilege can be manipulated and enhanced and, to a certain degree, contrived, but, for the most part, the privilege of being pretty is something (like class, like race, like smarts) that you either have or you don’t. But unlike other types of privilege, there’s a superficiality to prettiness that’s just begging to be scraped away. And, really, people come at you with claws ready to scrape in a way that they don’t when it comes to wealth or class or education. Maybe it’s because those other things are sometimes seen as more intimidating than mere prettiness or maybe it has something to do with how this is so specifically a woman’s privilege, or maybe it’s both those things, but it’s true that pretty girls get called out for being pretty with a venom that should be reserved for the Koch brothers and not too many others. But also, whereas other types of privilege seem to run through to your very foundation, the ephemeral quality of prettiness means that whoever embraces its benefits too tightly is basically embracing a lie—loving your pretty girl privilege makes you the worst kind poser; loving your pretty girl privilege makes you nothing more than an empty shell.
And so, Marnie. If ever a fictional character embodied the pitfalls of pretty girl privilege more than Marnie Michaels, I haven’t seen her. In February, Anne Helen Petersen wrote an essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books about Marnie and the worthlessness of the “prettitocracy” in which she reveled in the show’s “horrible treatment of Marnie” that stood in contrast to the many “Marnies all over contemporary media, [who] just get everything that we’ve been conditioned to expect their looks, class, and education level meriting: outrageous success, perfect happiness.” But, of course, Marnie doesn’t have outrageous success or perfect happiness. She has to resort to begging for a job from someone to whom she clearly feels superior, and in order to feel personally validated, she needs to actively try to destroy someone else’s relationship. During a season in which Marnie spent most of her time alone (or with her cat, which, what did happen to that cat?) only to occasionally have hate sex with Ray (and not because she hated him, but because she hated herself, well, and she also hated him), the only time during which we actually saw Marnie approaching anything that looked like happiness was after she was finally successful in her attempts to get a man in a monogamous relationship to kiss her. And even then, her happiness wasn’t predicated on any real feelings for this man, Desi, but only on the idea of him. Desi is handsome and successful and can get her into cast parties and so he is clearly just right for Marnie. Just like her ex-boyfriend Charlie was. Just like Ray isn’t.
And all of this would be grotesque if the show actually played into Marnie’s idea of what Marnie’s life should be like, or any of our collective society’s idea of what Marnie’s life should be like. But Girls doesn’t do that. No, instead, Girls shows again and again the timidity and banality of Marnie. Whether it’s the eating disorder that had maybe been hinted at in season’s past, but is now full-blown and thus even more evidence of Marnie’s desire to control one of the few things that she easily can (the only person she does eat around is Ray, but only because she has no respect for him), or the fact that she has no confidence in her new job at an art gallery, even though this is supposed to be the profession for which she was trained. Marnie is hollow. Marnie is nothing more than her white teeth and long hair and slender limbs and, let’s face it, overly enthusiastic application of that bergamot and vanilla body cream that Bliss makes.
Marnie retreats and retreats and retreats into herself throughout the season, becoming smaller and smaller as she realizes that nothing is going to work out quite the way she thought, because she’s not that smart and she’s not that talented and she doesn’t have money or connections or class, all she has is being pretty. So she controls that as best she can (through diet and exercise and a heavy hand with the curling iron and dresses that must have been bought at Alice & Olivia or somewhere exactly like that but maybe cheaper), and only comes alive when she is being validated for the one thing she thinks is really hers: her prettiness. And it’s ugly. And Girls knows it’s ugly. As Marnie gloats about her kiss with Desi, each character she tells recoils in disgust. And everyone at home recoils in disgust. Girls, a show that has probably done more to contribute to an interesting dialogue about the ridiculous beauty standards to which women in our society are subjected, offers Marnie up to all of us as evidence of just how destructive those standards can be. Marnie has probably spent her whole life counting on the fact that her looks meant something positive, but when she realizes that they mean nothing and that anyone who relies solely on her looks is about as boring as a person can be, she uses them to become destructive. She becomes a monster. And she’s happy about it. Why? Because monsters get attention, which is, in its way, another type of privilege, and perhaps the only one Marnie has left.
In stark opposition to Marnie stands Jessa, who could just as easily fall into a similar trap of pretty girl privilege. We’ve seen Jessa as she’s been hit on by inappropriate man after inappropriate man, from the father for whom she nannies to a fedora’d douchebag at a bar (later her husband) to the father-figure Englishman she meets in rehab. And Jessa turns them all down, at least at first. She has no interest in exploiting her prettiness or her sexuality, because she knows that it will lead to nothing, that it’s boring. For Jessa, the real fear is never being able to exploit her real assets, namely her intelligence and her artistic talent, because she’s always seen for her more superficial attributes. In contrast, Marnie allows those parts of her to atrophy while relying too heavily on the merits of her face. But while Marnie has only seemed to lose any semblance of humanity throughout the course of the show, Jessa is actively rebelling against the role that her inherited privileges have forced upon her. So Jessa flails and does drugs and winds up sleeping and becoming involved with the very men that she had once rejected, all in an attempt to feel something, all in an attempt to not be fucking bored. But it doesn’t work. Not for long. And so she seeks out work (specifically, she says, a job in which she doesn’t “need to market her sexuality”) and finds it with an older artist whose world doesn’t revolve around the same petty things that Jessa is used to. In this artist, Jessa can easily see what happens when all privilege is stripped away, when all a woman becomes is her “shell.” And Jessa doesn’t run away. Unlike Marnie, who became so frightened that her looks couldn’t get her all the things that she’d thought were once assuredly hers that she turned into a sociopathic mess, Jessa realizes that the only way to deal with the oppressive mantle of her privilege is to wear it lightly and to not be scared of what it can—and can’t—do for you.
The last shot we see of Marnie this season is of her cowering behind a fence, a smile playing on her lips as she watches Desi and his girlfriend fight. Is the fight over her? It doesn’t matter. She wants it to be. She needs it to be. It will be about her, eventually. Marnie is all alone. In the last shot we see of Jessa, she is frantically calling for help. She’d accepted a tired, sick woman’s request to have help dying peacefully, because this was something Jessa understood, that need to cease to exist. But as she stroked the old woman’s hand, something changed, and the woman wanted to live. And so Jessa helps her live. Over the course of the last three seasons, the writers of Girls took two characters whose arcs seemed almost predetermined (of course we were supposed to like Marnie, the Type-A, overachieving perfectionist; and of course we were supposed to hate—or love to hate—Jessa, the flighty, degenerate flake) and explored what happens when things do not go according to plan, and when privilege doesn’t always get you what you think you’re owed. And in doing so, the show ripped into and tore apart the idea that any of us are owed anything—whether it’s for being pretty or wealthy or smart or young—demonstrating that it’s not the mere fact of having certain privileges, it’s what you do with them that counts. Marnie and Jessa both exemplify the idea that it’s not enough to live by the book, you’ve got to make sure that book tells your story. And if not, get busy writing it yourself.
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen
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