Last night, Girls came to an end after five long years. The eulogies have already begun; there are think pieces all over the place, and a pop-up exhibition in Brooklyn is even showcasing items from the show. It’s no surprise – Girls was, for all its flaws, a funny, often well-written, and occasionally touching show about a group of mid-20s women trying to make it. It was celebrated as a portrayal of “real” modern life, despite the fact it portrayed a very specific, very privileged subsection of white American women. Don’t get me wrong – Girls has been influential, and I at times even enjoyed it. But I could not see myself, a less-than-privileged millennial woman, in most of its central characters.
But there was one ‘girl’ I could identify with. Portrayed by Jemima Kirke, Jessa was funny, smart, brave, and occasionally cruel. When I was first introduced to Girls, a friend told me that it was OK, but that, verbatim, “Jessa is a cunt”. And make no mistake, Jessa is as flawed as any of the other girls. She struggles with substance abuse, she’s a thief, she’s emotionally manipulative. She’s scatty and inconsiderate; missing her own abortion and welcome home party in the very first episode. She fucks people over for sport or for something to do. However, over the course of the series, she grows a lot.
“I suppose anyone calling Jessa a ‘cunt’ has never been that cunt; never had to grow up quickly with no parents, taking care of them instead of the other way around. It hardens you very quickly”
What makes Jessa, for all her flaws, so ultimately lovable is that she feels real. Unlike with the other girls, there are reasons for her misbehaviour. Jessa is not privileged. Her parents are all but entirely absent. In season two, when she goes with Hannah to visit her dad, the extent of these problems come to light. In an exchange that ultimately leads to her taking herself to rehab, Jessa’s father tells her that he can’t rely on her. Jessa tells him, “you shouldn’t have to! I’m the child”. The burden that she has on her shoulders has never been more obvious – and nor have her reasons for simply not having time to deal with everyone’s shit. As she tells Hannah in the same episode, “don't talk about our parents like they're the same kind of parents.” Jessa is not like the other girls, who have loving parents to fall back on. She has had to take care of herself from a young age. While she may appear callous, it’s pretty clear why she doesn’t always have the energy for her bickering, privileged friends.
Jessa never really gets any less callous, but it’s better than being false. She tells the other characters things they don’t want to know about themselves, and that’s part of what makes her so unlikeable. As the series goes on, she starts to grow up – she gets a job, goes to rehab, attempts to go back to school. She wants to be better and she focuses on doing so on her own. This latest season has seen Jessa try to be a good person, to prove herself as a calm presence, only to be accused of being the same old witch she always was. She’s evil for stealing Adam, for being distant, for “ruining” Shoshanna’s life. She’s quietly, maturely present – and yet, nobody else seems to see that.
Any criticisms of Jessa either from characters on the show or from viewers seem to focus very much on that she is brash. Her lack of responsible parents has left her with a huge, gaping hole where any kind of emotional intelligence or nuance should be – I empathise. I suppose anyone calling Jessa a cunt has never been that cunt; never had to grow up quickly with no parents, taking care of them instead of the other way around. It hardens you very quickly.
Jessa may not be soft, but she is inherently good. She is one of the few characters not always solely motivated out of selfishness (aside from a little financial desperation and hedonism). Further on in the series, she helps Caroline give birth when Adam and Hannah are too squeamish; later, when Caroline disappears, she helps Adam to take care of the child. When she sleeps with Adam it isn’t out of a vengeful plot towards Hannah – as at this point, they are hardly even friends – but out of necessity. They are both in AA, they have a lot in common, and they fall for one another. She wrestles with the guilt that she feels for her former friend. Hannah, of course, hates her anyway.
Jessa may have occasionally been cruel, but I believe she was treated unfairly by both the characters in the show and by the writers. She was complex, nuanced, hilarious – packed with problems that weren’t really explored in the depth that they deserved. She wasn’t even in the last episode, which is indicative of the unusual direction this season has taken. After five seasons of being a sort of ensemble piece, Girls is now solely about Hannah getting her happy ending. The final episode that Jessa was in saw her performing emotional labour for her selfish friends, saying a few funny things that proved how out of touch she is with real humans, and forgiving Hannah (and vice versa). If that was all for her, it’s a shame. Jessa deserved justice, closure, and – much more than any of the other characters – a happy ending.
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