There was a time when I spent at least 25 percent of my workday scrolling through The Hairpin, a self-described general interest website for women that was really so much more. For me, The Hairpin (and its sibling site, The Awl, and--later--The Billfold) was an introduction to the kind of personal, often confessional, but always intimate first-person essay that is now ubiquitous on the internet. In those days, those essays were different. Reading them was like listening to a good friend recount her most embarrassing date or laughing over a weird incident at work.
I needed that company when I first started reading The Hairpin; I was quite lonely then. I had chosen my lonely circumstances, having agreed to work as an assistant to a writer who lived outside a tiny hamlet in rural Vermont. I knew it would be a lonely job, but I was pretty good at being on my own, and I hoped the focused, solitary time would give me the room I needed to start my first novel. (Happily, it did.) But I overestimated my capacity for loner-hood, and while I was mostly happy during this time, I also missed having friends nearby.
Enter The Hairpin. She got me through that time with her intimate voice and her humor, her outrage and her silliness. She got me through another time, too, later, when I had come back to Alaska and had plenty of friends to keep me company but was starting to doubt my worth as a writer. I had nothing to say, I felt--nothing original, nothing anyone would want to hear or read. I was despairing, working a job I didn't particularly enjoy, getting rejected by fellowships and literary journals, and writing a book I wasn't sure anyone would want to read. And then my favorite T.V. show got canceled.
I don't know why I chose to write about Amy Sherman Pallidino's two-season ABC Family drama Bunheads getting the axe. Only that it stung me, and that I was absurdly moved by its portrayal of its central character, Michelle (played by Sutton Foster)--a character who, like me, was a freakin' mess. She was a mess, but in the end, she came through all right. And I wanted someone to understand why it was so important to me to see someone like Michelle on television.
So I wrote an essay and, on a whim, sent it to The Hairpin. And then I got an email back from then-editor Jia Tolentino saying The Hairpin wanted my essay and suggesting a few edits that strengthened my little article and helped clarify what it was I was trying to convey.
It was like getting asked to prom by the cutest kid in class. It was like getting a high five from your favorite teacher. It was like someone whose opinion you value more than others looking you right in the eyeball and saying, "I get you. I see you."
I never wrote regularly for The Hairpin. In fact, the Bunheads essay was my only piece on the site, I think. I did write a couple articles for The Billfold later on, and I never stopped checking in regularly with either site. But I'm thankful for the moment when The Hairpin folks saw something in my writing they found worthwhile, because it gave me a boost just when I needed it most--and, more importantly, I know it has done the same for dozens of writers who have probably felt just like I did at some point. I'm sad to say goodbye.
Here's that Bunheads piece:
After a day during which one mini crisis inspired a second, which invited crises numbers three and four, who brought along their friends, until my mood turned into an impromptu house party filled with unwelcomed guests who drank all my booze and left regret, despair, and used Kleenex as their parting gifts — after that kind of day — this was the news I came home to: “Bunheads has been cancelled.”
I couldn’t be too surprised at the announcement. Despite the cultish passion it inspired in a handful of critics, Bunheads was a weird show with a clunky name and a premise (former showgirl turns small-town dance teacher) that didn’t exactly grab potential viewers by their remote controls and demand to be watched.
My usual reaction to the cancellation of beloved shows is quiet resignation. When Alcatraz was cancelled — after mystery upon mystery ended in a cliffhanger that would never be resolved — I remembered its poor ratings and shrugged. When Fringe got a truncated fifth season before closing the bridge between its universes and mine once and for all, I was thankful that the plot would have a chance to be wrapped up before the show was done. When AMC’s drama about a 1940s radio station Remember WENN vanished from the network, I reminded myself that I was literally the only person on the planet watching that show, so what did I expect? No surprise at the Bunheads cancellation; one more show dead before its time.
What did surprise me was realizing how much I would miss the show’s main character, Michelle Simms. As she’d done with the denizens of Stars Hollow on Gilmore Girls, Amy Sherman-Palladino populated the fictional town of Bunheads’s Paradise with the memorably idiosyncratic, from the haughty coffee connoisseur who crafted lattes one bean at a time to the Frankie-and-Zooey-esque wondertwins who coordinated in-school wardrobe changes and spoke uncountable languages. The characters of Bunheads were characters, each eccentric in his or her own way.
Michelle, as portrayed by Sutton Foster, is an interloper in Paradise. She’s a weirdo, too, but a different kind of weirdo and new on the scene besides. The other weirdoes don’t immediately take to her, leaving her to falter and embarrass herself and step on toes and keep on talking long past the point when she might have just shut up at the first of many straight-up open-mouthed, are-you-done-yet stares. Over the course of the short (too short!) first season, Michelle struggles to fit in, gives up on trying to make a place for herself, runs away from her problems, comes back chagrined and only half-heartedly determined, reluctantly takes on responsibility, shirks responsibility, chases after a dream, and fails more often than she succeeds at most things.
Which is to say, she’s a person. More specifically, she’s a person like me. I’m no dancer, I don’t know how to play the ukulele, and I’ve never impulsively married Alan Ruck only to lose him in an off-camera car accident. But I look at Michelle and I see in her, more than in any other female television character, a reflection of what it’s like to be a thirtysomething woman trying to square what I’d hoped my life would look like by now with reality.
Although television is still heavily weighted towards male heroes (and anti-heroes), I’m not here to bemoan the lack of strong and distinctive female characters. We’ve got Leslie Knope, Jess Day, Liz Lemon, Peggy Olsen, and at least a handful of shows that pass the Bechdel test on a semi-regular basis. But none of these shows do so as consistently as Bunheads did, and none of these women is Michelle Simms. Michelle, while remarkably intelligent and savvy and talented, is not thinking about “having it all.” Rather, she’s thinking about having something, anything stable, anything at all: unlike almost any female character on TV, she’s truly floundering, and in the end may very well not succeed.
I can relate to this — and so, I’m willing to bet, can a good number of women still stuck in some iteration of their post-college mid-twenties existence. We’re still working jobs that feel like filler, still composing online dating profiles and suffering through blind dates that feel like job interviews in pursuit of a relationship that’s going to last. We’re figuring out what it is we’re supposed to be doing while our friends marry off, have kids, get promoted, buy houses. I feel not only like I slept through the class where everybody else learned how to move forward into adulthood, but like I never heard about the class in the first place.
Like Michelle Simms, and unlike many of the other superficially messy female characters on TV, my own confusion is not of the charming sort. My scrapes are not adorable. I loved Michelle for the way she buried her considerable appeal under cynicism, snarkiness, and occasional laziness, and for the way that her ostensibly light-hearted escapades were often true Hindenberg-level disasters (macing the entire cast of The Nutcracker, for example), and they didn’t make her cute — they made her infuriating. Like a lot of regular people, Michelle’s got a good heart, but she’s also capable of being unfair, disappointing her friends and flaking on her responsibilities. Her friends don’t like her because of these qualities; they put up with the ragged parts of her personality only because they like her.
Maybe the most relatable thing about Michelle, though, is how — even in her mid-thirties — she was openly still negotiating the nebulous boundary between adolescence and adulthood. When Michelle starts teaching at her mother-in-law’s dance studio, she takes her place at the head of the class to call out ballet positions, and you can see how, simultaneously, she could almost be one of the teenagers — uncertain, unserious, often insecure — while she’s also clearly separated from them by years and experience and pop culture (Michelle: “Thornton Wilder should’ve mentioned the creepy side of small town life.” Melanie: “Who?” Michelle: “No one. He was in Menudo.” Ginny: “Who?” Michelle: “I’m gonna go be old now.”)
When one of the show’s teenage characters, Sasha, ends up becoming semi-emancipated from her parents and moving into her own apartment (it all makes sense, trust me), the line that separates the sixteen-year-old from the thirtysomething becomes even more vague; Michelle has the wisdom of her years to offer (“Don’t bond with the old lady next door […] before you know it you’re picking up their prescriptions at eleven at night and driving them to the hospital when their hips break”), but she’s also undone by the fact this kid seems to have her shit more together than she ever will. (“I was twenty-five before I owned an appliance. It was a used microwave that had permanent soup stains and I’m pretty sure radiated my ovaries.”)
As someone who on a near-daily basis wonders when (if) I will ever get my shit together, it was frankly refreshing to watch Michelle fail to get hers together on a weekly basis. In terms of successes, she’s consistently a one-step-forward, two-steps-back gal. The difference between watching other female TV characters and watching Michelle is the difference between knowing things will work out and hoping they will, the difference between sympathy and empathy. Actually, it’s the difference between aspirational television and comfort TV: When I watch Leslie or Peggy, I can admire their moxie and aspire to be more determined, more driven, more generous, just like they are. I look at those ladies, and I feel like they’ll be just fine, motoring forward off-camera when their shows finally retire to perpetual rerun status.
Now that the show’s been cancelled, Michelle is just an idea, but a remarkably full one all the same. I don’t know whether she’ll ever pull it together. I suspect she’ll do what I do: revive after her breakdowns, then greet the next crisis with a snarky remark, freak out, run away, eat a pint of Phish Food while watching an America’s Next Top Model Cycle Four marathon, forget to do her laundry, then pick herself up and try again. I’m rooting for her as much as I’m rooting for myself, but there are no guarantees for either of us.
“It’ll all work out,” people like to say — implying that there’s some sort of endpoint, a sort of plateau you’ll reach that will tell you, once and for all, that you have achieved adulthood and maturity and will no longer doubt your own abilities or make disastrous decisions. Unique among female television characters, Michelle was evidence that there’s no plateau. There’s just the episodic nature of life, one thing happening after another. Today you feel on top of it and put together and there’s not cat hair on your skirt or spinach stuck in your teeth; tomorrow you wake to find a possum in your bed. Either way, you just keep dancing until your show is cancelled.