Watching Myself on the Big Screen: ‘Obvious Child,’ ‘Girls,’ and Our Unreasonable Love for Characters Like Us

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Aziz Ansari has this joke about white people, prompted by an interviewer suggesting he must be excited over the then-recent success of Slumdog Millionaire. “I had nothing to do with that movie,” he says, “it’s just some people who kinda look like me are in this movie that everyone loves and is winning Oscars.” The joke, of course, is that white people dominate media, so they must be psyched to see themselves in every film, from Ghostbusters to The Godfather.

It’s true that people like seeing ourselves, or at least our demographic, represented. It allows us to ostensibly say, “TV and movie protagonists: they’re just like us!” But does watching a character live out an existence that mirrors our own make us significantly more inclined to enjoy a particular film or TV show?

For minority groups, this representation is crucial; at its most powerful, pop culture can alter public perception and fight ingrained biases. Beyond opinion-changing TV shows like The Cosby Show, I Love Lucy, The Jeffersons, Ellen, and Will & Grace, certain pop culture touchstones come to define various demographics in the eyes of the wider culture. Sex and the City shaped the perception of unmarried women over 30 (so did 30 Rock, although its portrayal showed the opposite POV), The Sopranos reintroduced the Italian-American mafia stereotype to a new generation, Frasier gave fly-over states the go-to image of a city-slicking snob, and Workaholics taught us the definition of a man child.

Still, despite the wide array of lifestyles depicted on television and in movies, it was rare for me to see someone who I felt represented me on the screen until recently. Girls was the first show that ever gave me the feeling that I could be the protagonist, both in personality and in appearance. The similarities were eerie, so much so that before its premiere two years ago, Lena Dunham’s HBO series made me wonder if I was living a Midwest-to-North-Brooklyn/young feminist writer cliché. I was terrified and overly critical of the show… until I finally watched it and literally gasped at how much I could relate to its day-to-day scenarios and the relationships between the characters.

I’ve been hooked ever since, but I’ve never stopped being skeptical of my appreciation for the show, and thus have rarely written publicly about Girls. I fear I would be too caught up, subconsciously at least, in my own ability to relate to the material, when the show’s critical worth has little to do with me and my personal experiences.

I was reminded of this feeling over the weekend, after I saw Obvious Child, Gillian Robespierre’s “abortion comedy” starring Jenny Slate. I walked out of theater, turned to my friends, and said, “That may be my favorite movie of the year so far… but.” But! Did I love the film because I am its exact target audience, or because I could see myself doing and saying what Slate’s character does and says, given the circumstances? Or is this film actually as funny as it was to me? I have decided it is a combination of both, a truly fresh spin on the tired rom-com genre that manages to make a strong political statement about the realities of abortion while still cracking a few grade-A fart jokes and making you say “aww.” Now that’s hard.

It’s not a crime to like the media that was designed specifically, by Hollywood or HBO or an indie filmmaker, for you. Teen movies and action flicks would never get made if this kind of audience identification wasn’t a recipe for success. But what I’m getting at goes deeper than mere age and gender. A certain type of 20-something woman — whip-smart, mouthy, feminist, neurotic, sexually aware, left-of-center, creative, city-dwelling — is seeing herself represented in films and TV shows in recent years, after a drought during which the heroines we were supposed to see ourselves in were Manic Pixie Dream Girls, with all that male baggage trailing behind them. We would not be defined by media’s basic bitches and bimbos, so we settled for Annie Hall, Holly Golightly, Clementine Kruczynski, and even Penny Lane as our on-screen spirit animals. But these women are defined too much in terms of their relationships to men — that’s the one major flaw that keeps Lelaina Pierce, Winona Ryder’s character in Reality Bites, from being the godmother of this new wave of 20-something heroines. (If Janeane Garofalo’s Vickie weren’t relegated to sidekick status, she’d probably be a better model for this type than Ryder’s character.)

It extends beyond Girls and Obvious Child; Broad City, Frances Ha, and even New Girl have used sharp humor to shed light on the Quirky Girl, turning her into a fleshed-out character instead of a mere archetype. These portrayals could become indelible cultural shorthand for young female creatives who’ve traded home for the city and made a few messes along the way. In some ways, they already have. My female friends and I may be too eager to identify with and embrace these characters because we’re just happy to see them in the mainstream, forgiving obvious flaws we wouldn’t otherwise (chief among them that these portrayals paint an overwhelmingly white picture of feminism). The thing is, there just haven’t been enough of them yet for us to be as discerning as we usually are. All I can say at this stage is: in my completely biased opinion, we could do a lot worse.