In Defense of “The Jessa”

A woman who balances the trapeze of femininity, independence and sexuality comfortably in either stilettos or sweatpants must be the product of male fantasy.
Publish date:
February 21, 2014
lena dunham, femininity

This isn’t an easy age to be a woman, but I guess it never has been. We fight for wage equality and advocate the right to make our own reproductive choices while establishing a career that’s both lucrative and creatively satisfying, as we try to maintain some sense of femininity amidst the din of everyday life. It’s a maddening feat, like tap dancing in a mine field, that requires a delicate combination of work and dedication to cultivate our relationships, our careers and ourselves without exploding.

But watch out, ladies: there’s a new threat in town.

Over at, writer Justine Harman presents what seems to be the latest evolutionary product of female characters that women should fear and loathe. Enter: The Jessa, taken from the quaintrelle character played by Jemima Kirke in Lena Dunham’s Girls.

According to Harman, “The Jessa” is as “content spending Sunday at The Met as she is downing Coors Lights at the Village Tavern,” and “is a high-low aesthete; her daily look is an infuriatingly perfect mix of hand-me-downs, consignment finds, and gifted Derek Lam.” And get this: “The Jessa rarely wears a bra.”

The article goes on to provide examples of real life Jessas in Hollywood that include Scarlett Johansson, Jennifer Lawrence and Mila Kunis who are ambitious, funny, outspoken and just so happen to be beautiful. Hollywood (and society) as of late, has embraced these ladies who represent a woman’s capacity to be of high value, charm and wit, and Harman is correct when she says that they’re here to stay.

So what’s the problem?

In the Elle article, literary examples are provided spanning from Ernest Hemingway to F. Scott Fitzgerald to Jeffrey Eugenides of female characters whom, like vixens, are every bit as prey as they are predator. The dreamy Lady Brett Ashleys, the blithe Daisy Buchanans, the lambent Lux Lisbons of the world. These are characters that are memorable in both the realms of fiction and reality because they have a way of making their way under one’s skin and cementing themselves in the back of one’s mind, while always remaining agonizingly out of reach.

“But these are also women whose low-maintenance yet hypersexualized beauty ideal is dictated by men—women who blatently (sic) advertise their ability to hang with the boys, and adhere to bro definition of the ‘cool girl,’” writes Harman.

Ah, there’s the rub: a woman who balances the trapeze of femininity, independence and sexuality comfortably in either stilettos or sweatpants must be the product of male fantasy. Especially if she can hold her whiskey too. She’s the embodiment of the atavistic fear brought on by sexual competition among women. She invites male attention, but challenges them to maintain hers. And men respond much more effectively to challenges than they do invitations. Hercules enjoyed his labors, and Romeo loved chasing Juliet.

But men didn’t invent this fantasy woman, and men certainly aren’t the only writers to shape characters as such.

Take Hannah from Adelle Waldman’s disturbingly beautiful and on pointe novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. For the majority of the narrative, Hannah intrigues the titular character by the ways she challenges him intellectually, supports him creatively and satisfies him sexually. She calls Nate out on his bullshit in private, but also defends (and impresses) him in public at a cocktail party. She’s not “Marilyn Monroe in a low cut caftan,” or any other degree of heartbreak in a short skirt, but a female character every bit as capable of inspiring substantive conversation at a social event as she is sexual interest while spending a night at home with her man.

Christine out of Margaret Atwood’s short story “The Man from Mars” from her Dancing Girls is a similarly enigmatic creature. Caught somewhere between male attention and female hatred, Atwood writes that, “she fitted none of the categories they commonly used when talking about girls; she wasn't a cock-teaser, a cold fish, an easy lay or a snarky bitch; she was an honorary person.”

Jessa isn’t the creation of some male-driven fantasy, but the product of the mind of Lena Dunham who impugns her characters and viewers to examine the complexities of not only being a woman, but a person. For three seasons now, the young women on Girls eliminate the typical Madonna/Whore binary in interesting ways that prompt us to re-examine our own evolutions while on the path to self discovery.

Weirdly, it’s kind of adorable and endearing that Shoshana has immersed herself in sexual tomfoolery -- but hey, she’s in college. It’s equally bizarre that Adam has transformed not only to a likeable character, but a decent guy who anchors Hannah’s compulsions and complements her eccentricities. And Marnie, formally the moral compass of the show, is flirting with her self-destruct button by sleeping with Ray, best friend to her ex-boyfriend Charlie, and ex-boyfriend of Shoshana who still misses him, but still remains pitiable. The characters remind us that we have the capacity to be both beauties and beasts, and usually at the same time.

But somehow Jessa is perceived as the most sexual -- her name is even suggestive with the serpentine ss-sound -- but she’s the character who’s thus far had the fewest sex scenes. She’s the kind of woman often referred to as “trouble,” but I think “dangerous” might be a more appropriate descriptor. She challenges the humdrum landscape of vanilla sex and non-fat lattes with her complex vitality, and that’s perceived as threatening.

Despite her characteristic breezy abandon, Dunham has said that Jessa has “a deep well of sadness that most people don’t detect.” This season we learn that, like the rest of us, Jessa has a past she’s trying to sort out.

“The Jessa” isn’t an updated version of the manic pixie dream girl, and she’s not performing some dumb cover of a siren song. She’s a flute of sad champagne, bleak and bubbly.

Dunham is laudable for creating characters with such striking dualities, not a new monster to fear might be hiding in your boyfriend’s bed. She’s intelligent, cultured, and a bit weathered from her experiences in the world; sexy as lace with just as many holes. She’s a character -- a woman -- seeking to find her place in the world that fits the many different curved pieces of her personality. And that’s not something that women should fear or detest, it’s something that all women can relate to.