In Defense of Allison Williams as Peter Pan
Let me start by admitting something that I’m not proud of.
When I first learned that Allison Williams had been cast as Peter Pan in NBC’s Peter Pan Live, I was gleeful. I absolutely could not wait to sit down in front of the television—with a platter of sad tacos—and savor the schadenfreude of seeing Marnie from Girls unleash her theater-geekdom on national television. And apparently, I’m not alone. Not everyone is happy about this news. Some have blamed the casting on nepotism. Critics like to suggest that Williams and other Girls stars are only successful because of their celebrity parents. (Williams’ dad is NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams, though I’d challenge anyone to explain exactly how having visual artists for parents has helped Lena Dunham.) So the idea that Daddy might’ve sprinkled some pixie dust on the casting directors until they planted that feather in Allison’s little green hat won’t do anything to silence that argument.
Others claim that Williams’ voice is strained, judging by her many awkward performances on Girls. (I couldn’t find YouTube links to her versions of “Take Me Or Leave Me” or “Building a Mystery,” but they’re out there somewhere.) Williams, though, claims that these scenes were just good acting. “I made the choice pretty early on, just in terms of maintaining my own sanity, to not try to make Marnie a very studied, exacting singer. Or trained, really,” she told EW earlier this year. “And I’m someone who took voice lessons for many, many years, so in making that decision, it sort of took the pressure off of me to sing perfectly.”
You don’t have to believe her, but I do. It’s obvious that she’s capable of singing beautifully when she wants to. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I started to question my own knee-jerk reaction. First of all, the casting is kind of genius. Williams is best known for a show about young people who won’t grow up. Marnie and her friends are so obviously the Peter Pans of their own private Hipsturbia that they even wear actual Peter Pan collars sometimes. Also, Pan plays with gender roles in a way similar to Girls. HBO’s comedy shows that women can be just as stunted as the man-children in Judd Apatow’s movies. But in J.M. Barrie’s original book, Peter Pan, Or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, it’s only the guys who get to act like kids forever: The Lost Boys even demand that Wendy act like their mother, tucking them into bed at night. So it feels appropriate that a Girls star is the one following in the musical’s tradition of casting a woman to play Pan.
There’s a reason I’m focusing on Marnie, even though I’m actually talking about Williams: People tend to think they’re the same person. Williams once explained this phenomenon to Buzzfeed: “Because we’re all playing girls who are so grounded in reality,” she said, “there’s a 50/50 chance whether fans will call me Allison or Marnie if they approach me on the street.” It’s easy to understand the confusion. Both Marnie and Williams went to elite colleges. Both have rich parents. Both are obsessed with Broadway. Both have made semi-embarrassing videos of themselves singing semi-ironic songs. (Marnie picks “What I Am,” Williams prefers “Tik Tok.”) Both are just the tiniest bit uptight, especially compared to their friends. When I interviewed Lena Dunham a few years ago, she told me that when Williams’ co-star Jemima Kirke offered to give the whole cast D.I.Y. tattoos, “the only person who said, ‘I will never let this happen’ was Allison Williams, which is probably who you’d guess. I don’t think it’s an Allison Williams move.”
People tend to have, shall we say, mixed feelings about Marnie. (See also: Is Marnie the Worst Character on TV?, 18 Reasons Why Marnie is the Most Cringeworthy Character Ever, How Fast Can We Make You Hate Marnie?) Still, it seems unfair that Williams—who is playing a fictional character—should be mistaken for the maligned character she plays. All the hate is getting to her. “I completely fell apart at the end of the [third] season,” she said in that same Buzzfeed interview. “Filming all of those scenes where Marnie is being made fun of but doesn’t know was painful. For example, during the dinner scene in ‘Beach House,’ I actually started to cry when everyone was making fun of my duck and couldn’t figure out if I was crying as Marnie or crying as Allison.”
People hate Marnie for several reasons, though I think it often boils down to entitlement. My own ambivalence about the character (I’ll admit that I sometimes relate to her) can be summed up by something that Anne Helen Peterson wrote in the L.A. Review of Books: “The implicit message of [Marnie]? If you work hard—if you have great hair—you will get the things to which you are entitled. The job, the boy, the body, all yours, simply through the force of your American will. You don’t have to have charisma, per se, or even superlative, well, anything—you just have to be you and let things happen.”
The thing is, some people hate Williams for similar reasons. She has the job (Peter Pan!), the boy, the body, the hair, (not to mention the skin!) and some people think she doesn’t also have the charisma or the chops or the anything to earn it. Check out the comments in blog posts about her: many people question whether Williams even auditioned for Pan. To that line of attack, I’d say this: at a time when TV stars are all over Broadway, and both singing competitions like The Voice and actual, already-famous bands recruit singers via YouTube, does anyone audition anymore?
Personally, I think the criticism comes down to the nakedness of her ambition. Crushable recently called Williams “that girl you hated in high school”—and who better embodies that role than the girl who just got the lead in the musical? The hate for Williams mirrors the hate for her fellow “theater kid” Anne Hathaway: people loathe both because they’re trying too hard. (Marnie is also “a perfectionist,” a word Williams also uses to describe herself.) As Ann Friedman wrote about Hathaway on The Cut, “We simply don’t find successful ‘perfect’ women all that likable.” But this idea is enraging, especially since it seems to only apply to women, not men. Since when is setting the highest goals for yourself a valid reason to be despised?
Personally, I’m starting to realize that, when I’m not mixing her up with Marnie, I actually like Williams—as much as one can “like” or “hate” a total stranger whose life she’s only read about online. She seems smart. (Regardless of whether your daddy gets you through the door at Yale, you have to be smart to graduate.) She’s honest about the advantages she’s had in her life, instead of pretending that she struggled to get where she is. (“I mean, I grew up going to the Olympics,” she told Town and Country. “I went to see Our Town when Paul Newman was the stage manager. The nice thing about my parents is it’s never been lost on me how special those things are.”) She defends her girlfriends when they’re publicly attacked. And, like Marnie, she knows what it’s like to be rejected. You just know that this self-described perfectionist spent last night obsessing over the negative Twitter comments about her casting. And that just makes me want to root for her more.
So I’ll still be watching Peter Pan on NBC, with my platter of tacos and (hopefully) a slightly different attitude. As J.M. Barrie wrote, all the world is made of faith, and trust, and pixie dust. And I’m all out of pixie dust. But at least I can stop waiting for Allison Williams to fail.