Why sad TV men are the internet’s ‘babygirls’

As Kendall Roy, the first boy of HBO’s tragicomedy Succession, takes the stage and makes his debut as CEO of Waystar Royco, his eyes are full of tears. He introduces Living+, an unholy combination of WeWork and Theranos, a new real estate opportunity that comes with customized entertainment and medication. He’s smiling up there, but there’s a frantic energy in his eyes. He is actively having a mental breakdown; he is the murderer his father wanted him to be; he is a baby girl.

“Babygirl” is a ubiquitous but ill-defined piece of internet slang that’s been around for a few years but has recently come to the forefront with the fourth and final season of Succession. While a few protagonists have been adopted as baby girls by their fanbases, like Paul Mescal and Pedro Pascal, usually it is a descriptor levied on certain characters. Right now, Kendall Roy is the internet’s most prominent baby girl. He joins the old baby girls Lestat de Lioncourt interview with the vampire – both from Anne Rice’s novels and from the recent television series on AMC – and Break badby Jesse Pinkman.

Determining exactly what makes a character a baby girl is a bit finicky. At first glance, the term “baby girl” is quite easy to understand. These characters are emotionally sensitive in a feminized way – they wear their hearts on their sleeve, often cry openly at scenes in the show, and are sometimes victims of abuse from other men. But there is also a touch of irony in how it is applied. While Kendall Roy, Jesse Pinkman, and Lestat de Lioncourt are all characters who feel things deeply and have a lot of emotional pain, they are also all morally compromised: a capitalist, a meth dealer, and a vampire, respectively.

Photo: Ben Rothstein/Netflix

Image: AMC

In Lestat’s case, he is also a murderer and insults his partner, but it is hard to hate him even when he is at his worst. Even when he’s definitively wrong, like when he tells his lover Louis he’s allowed to have sex with other men and then backtrack on it, the depth of his feeling is hypnotic. There is fear on Lestat’s face as he exclaims, “I heard your hearts dance” – pain so intense it looks like he’s been stabbed. Jesse Pinkman has a similar talent for absorbing and managing emotional pain. He is trapped in a cycle of poverty and drug abuse, and every time he tries to escape the cycle, something or someone pulls him back in. Once he even fell in love, but when he woke up with his girlfriend dead from an overdose next to him. All of these men suffer from an aberration that women and other women usually hear: they are “too emotional.” They cry too much. Their hearts are full of too much feeling.

At the moment, Kendall Roy is the baby girl heir to the throne. There are numerous articles on the character’s fandom – the so-called Kendall Girlies – describing him as girl coded or a girl boss or a girl bust. Primarily, fans of Kendall describe his baby girl feeling as expressed through his emotional pain. There’s something pathetic about him, the way he tries so hard but never wins, the way he can never live up to his father’s expectations, like he’s caught in a trap of his own design. These are traits that his father, the abusive media tyrant Logan Roy, has often cited as serious character flaws, sometimes so much as accusing him of being gay because he felt things in the first place.

The most recent episode’s press conference is a powerful example of the way Kendall often sets himself up for failure: The day before his presentation to investors, he tells the production crew to go all night building a house and foggy create clouds that will hang above them. When this attempt proves to be a bitter failure, Kendall’s face gently sinks in an expression of heartbreak not seen since. Lisa Simpson broke Ralph Wiggum’s heart (or the last Kendall tripped over his own feet). Not only does Kendall always fall into his own trap, like Wile E. Coyote Chasing Road Runner, he turns the pain inward, whether through addiction or self sabotage or ultimately through suicidality. Even if it hurts him to live, he does not shy away from the pain of life. He needs the highs, like turning on his father at a press conference, but is waylaid by the low lows.

Logan Roy (Brian Cox) looks down from a projected screen at Kendall (Jeremy Strong), who looks up and talks to him onstage in a still from Succession

Photo: David M. Russell/HBO

Kendall (Jeremy Strong) stands on a rooftop looking sad in a still from Succession Season 1

Photo: Peter Kramer/HBO

Kendall (Jeremy Strong) stands and looks sad in a still from Succession Season 3

Photo: Macall B. Polyy/HBO

Part of what makes Kendall a character that inspired such intense fandom is the way Jeremy Strong portrays him. While Strong has often turned into a meme because of how serious he is about his craft, it’s his level of seriousness and commitment to the character’s emotional state that makes Kendall feel so real and so pathetic.

“I hate the word cringe, because it denotes judgment,” Strong told New York Magazine. ‘I’m not judging. We, as a culture, would be much better off if we judged less and empathized more. But as an actor, you certainly can’t judge your character. You cannot be above them.”

It’s because Kendall is so incredibly embarrassing that even when he does things like commit manslaughter, I still feel empathy for him. Sometimes I even want him to succeed. What makes Kendall baby girl are the things that set him apart from other emotionally damaged television anti-heroes — Don Draper in Crazy men would never let herself fall apart emotionally the way Kendall does. Walter White’s Break bad directs all his self-loathing outward, at his wife and child, and especially at Jesse Pinkman. Kendall and Jesse share the same impulse to blame and drown in their own guilt. In Break bad, after Jesse’s girlfriend dies of an overdose, Jesse enters rehab that takes him and a group on an overnight camping trip. Sitting next to the fire, he asks the leader of the rehab group if he has ever hurt anyone, and later how he stays alive without hating himself.

These are not questions Walter White or Don Draper ask themselves. Where those characters can reinvent themselves within the confines of violent, stoic masculinity, Kendall and Jesse cannot. It is the violence of manhood that suffocates them, causes their guilt to turn inward like an ingrown nail. As a queer character, that’s even more pronounced with Lestat de Lioncourt, who flatly rejects the safety of heteronormative masculinity. He prefers to be the monster everyone says he is, portrayed with aplomb by Sam Reid in AMC’s interview with the vampire, where Lestat uses his connections to be King of Mardi Gras, pretending to bite a baby on top of a float while wearing a jeweled corset and huge feathered collar. Even knowing that he will betray his lover, Louis, he still feels a deep love for him. He cannot love anything without hurting them, hurting himself. He doesn’t know how.

Baby girls are all porcupines that poke themselves trying to keep other people away. But that’s why you want to hold them.

Why sad TV men are the internet’s ‘babygirls’

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