On Sunday, HBO premiered its latest series, Camping, a comedy-drama co-created by Girls showrunners Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner. Starring Jennifer Garner as an uptight, Instagram-obsessed micromanager named Kathryn opposite comics like Juliette Lewis (as the free-spirited Jandice) and Bridget Everett (as the hilariously aloof campground manager Harry), the show is about a meticulously-planned camping trip gone awry.
But despite Dunham and Konner’s previous success with Girls, Camping has been met with flack from critics and the Twitterverse alike. And the criticism is directed at one character in particular: Garner’s Kathryn. One harsh review of the show called the female lead “an excruciating character,” who is “controlling, demanding, and self-centered.”
“Garner plays an absolute shrew,” a Twitter user wrote. Another asked, “Am I supposed to hate Jennifer Garner’s character? ‘Cause if so yeah I hate her so far.”
The short answer to that question: No, you’re not supposed to hate Kathryn. You don’t have to understand her or justify any of her undeniably irritating habits, but you’re not supposed to hate her. And honestly, why do you?
This collective hatred of Kathryn that’s been clouding Twitter dialogue over the last few days says a lot more about our society than Dunham and Konner’s writing. Sure, Kathryn’s irritating and condescending. But isn’t she basically Ross Geller with fewer friends, a “dysfunctional pelvic floor,” and a robust social media presence?
Maybe the hatred stems from the fact that this is a far cry from Garner’s typically typecast “girl-next-door” roles. In Camping, she’s not playing the fun-loving Jenna Rink audiences are used to. Instead, she’s a 40-something wife and mother who’s fond of order, Groupon discounts, and being right. She’s controlling, obsessive-compulsive, and complicated, as noteworthy characters often are. Kathryn isn’t looking for your approval; she’s looking for your attention—the same attention audiences afforded the equally irritating Don Draper or Walter White.
It’s hard to imagine television would be what it is today with an even-tempered Tony Soprano, a selfless Frank Gallagher, or an amenable George Costanza. None of these characters were particularly “likable” by any account, and seemed to inhabit a number (if not all) of the same qualities as Kathryn. And yet, critics have found the female version of these characters insufferable because our society doesn’t have a problem with “unlikable” characters. It has a problem with “unlikable” women.
And as Garner’s costar Brett Gelman pointed out, what does the word “unlikable” even mean? “I’m so sick of this word ‘unlikable.’ I’m so sick of reading it in reviews. I think it’s lazy,” Brett Gelman told The Hollywood Reporter. “Look, you don’t like the show, you don’t like the characters, that’s one thing, but what does ‘unlikable’ even mean? That people have flaws and we’re supposed to be putting characters on the screen and on the stage that are perfect people? That’s boring. Then you don’t have drama. If they don’t think that they’re redeemable, I personally disagree. When they say, ‘unlikable,’ I’m like, ‘You’re half-watching it.'”
“You have Kathryn leading this show, where if she was a man, I think people would think that that character was hilarious,” he added. “Nobody wants to see a woman onscreen who is a wreck. That is pure, unadulterated systemic misogyny.”
Imagine if we were to question Larry David’s likability in Curb Your Enthusiasm? Or Frank Underwood’s in House of Cards? We don’t, because it doesn’t matter. Would I want to have a beer with Kathryn? No. Would I want to go camping with her? Hell no. But you’d also never find me on a camping trip with Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory.
Don’t get me wrong: Camping isn’t a perfect show. The complaints that the story gives little insight or growth are well founded. But in an era where women are met with contempt when they challenge the patriarchy or oppose authority, the language we use to characterize their representation on screen matters.
So here’s to “unlikable” female leads. I’d like to see more of them.
Jennifer Lance is an assistant editor at Glamour.