As reviews of Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner’s new series Camping began emerging last week ahead of the show’s HBO debut on Sunday night, one word kept cropping up in critiques of the characters: “unlikable.”
The term was frequently applied to star Jennifer Garner’s character, Kathryn, who’s quickly shown to be someone who plans out meticulous schedules and likes things done a certain way. The half-hour program follows a group of friends on a birthday trip outdoors, which quickly turns into a contentious weekend.
Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter at a press day for the series, many of Camping‘s stars lashed out at the use of the word “unlikable” as a “lazy” and potentially sexist description.
“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 THR. “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.'”
He added, “You have Kathryn leading this show, where if she was a man, I think people would think that that character was hilarious. Nobody wants to see a woman onscreen who is a wreck. That is pure, unadulterated systemic misogyny.”
Co-stars Ione Skye and Bridget Everett argued that similar adjectives aren’t ascribed to leading male characters.
Dunham, meanwhile, was perplexed that there’s still an issue with “unlikable women.”
“I can’t believe that we’re still having a conversation about unlikable women on television. It doesn’t matter if you like our lead character. It truly doesn’t matter. What matters is that you relate and you understand,” she said.
“It just drives me nuts that we can have a Tony Soprano or a Walter White or any of these characters who are wreaking literal havoc on the world around them and killing people, and then when you have a woman who’s thorny and complicated, and there’s no way to find empathy for her,” Dunham, who co-created the show, added. “I find Kathryn to be unbelievably empathetic. The idea that we would have to show you her soft, gooey center in order to prove she was worth caring about, it makes me nuts on a personal level, it makes me nuts on a professional level. If this show can do anything, I hope that it can cut into the idea that women somehow need to convey some essential vulnerability or softness in order to be given a stamp of approval.”
Garner, for her part, admitted that while she didn’t personally “like” Kathryn, she “understood her” and “grew to love her.”
“Did I like her? No. Would I be dying to go on a camping trip with her? Not necessarily, but I bet she’d remember to bring toilet paper and aluminum foil and bug spray and things that are important where I’m kind of flighty and I would forget a suitcase that I packed and left by the door. So I appreciate her,” the star told THR.
Both Gelman and fellow castmember Arturo Del Puerto argued that the campers all have “flaws as human beings” and are being forced to address their issues.
“I think these are eight people who are all going through a really hard time and have been in denial of a lot of their flaws leading up to this camping trip,” Gelman said. “You have to ask yourself always: Why does this show happen? Why does this film happen? Why is it happening right now? Well it’s happening right now on this camping trip because these people are sequestered to face their problems with themselves or their problems with each other.”
Indeed, co-creator Konner said she and Dunham were drawn to adapting the British series, written and directed by Julia Davis, after it was recommended to them by author Zadie Smith, in large part because of the confrontation inherent in the ironically claustrophobic setting.
“When you’re mad at your friends, you can walk away and not text them for a few days or go to the spa and get a massage and forgive them or have a tequila, whatever, and feel better. And here, just this idea that there’s only so much you can repress when you’re all stuck together, and there’s something really funny and interesting to me about this idea that it’s got to come up. You think you can hold stuff inside, but once you get into that environment, you really can’t,” Konner said.