The name on everybody’s lips these days is M3GAN. And that dancing doll should have your attention. (Be warned: spoilers for M3GAN follow). The titular character from mega-producers Jason Blum and James Wan’s new venture into horror-comedy has had a vise grip on a specific corner of culture—let’s just say it, gay culture—for the past week, and for good reason. M3GAN’s mastery of the English language makes ChatGPT look like AIM’s SmarterChild. Her cover of “Titanium” blows Sia’s version out of the water. The precision of her eye work would impress legendary film acting coach Bob Krakower.
But, the best part of the very-well reviewed M3GAN is not actually M3GAN the doll. No, M3GAN’s secret weapon—the reason the film is as frightfully silly and devilishly campy and works in any capacity—is its very human lead, Allison Williams, who stars as toy inventor Gemma. Not only did Williams make M3GAN with her stellar performance, she inadvertently invented an archetype entirely of her own while doing so. Introducing, The Allison.
The Allison™ is the polar opposite of the long-since-disgraced cliche Manic Pixie Dream Girl. MPDGs (Kirsten Dunst’s Claire Colburn in Elizabethtown, for whom the phrase was coined, Natalie Portman’s tap dancing Sam in Garden State; and Zooey Deschanel in, well, a lot of things) were easy, breezy, and beautiful female characters who delight, amaze, and inspire the (always) male protagonists without necessarily having complex inner lives of their own. On the contrary, The Allison is all-too-serious and neurotically intense. On top of that, she’s usually super-ambitious, pretty, meticulously styled, rather Type A, and often a bit of a perfectionist. She knows what she wants, has the wherewithal to go get it.
Credit where it’s due, Reese Witherspoon’s prickly overachiever Tracy Flick in Election (1999) was an early inspiration for Allisons everywhere. Flick is hyper-intelligent, ruthless, and dogged in her pursuit of her goal—to win student body president—often to her own detriment. All these traits coalesce to create the blueprint we’ve seen time and again in film and television, like Leighton Meester’s Blair Waldorf on the original Gossip Girl, and, of course, Lea Michele’s Rachel Berry on Glee. Allisons, and their fictional foremothers, will sacrifice anything and anyone to get what they want.
In M3GAN, Williams’s Gemma is a total Allison. She’s a genius toy roboticist who becomes obsessed with creating an artificially intelligent doll that’s able to comfort, protect, and provide companionship to her recently orphaned niece, Cady (Violet Mcgraw), who has come into her care. Gemma means well, and her reasons for engineering a robot babysitter-slash-overlord (what could go wrong?) seem valid—she has a demanding job and an overbearing boss, and feels out of her depth taking care of a child with serious trauma. But as the film progresses, it’s clear that Gemma, accidentally or not, has designed a doll to take care of a traumatized child primarily so that she herself can get back to work.
Williams expertly and believably juggles the tricky humor and high stakes of the situation, nailing her punch lines and keeping the campy tone of the film aloft while never sacrificing the emotional stakes necessary to drive the plot forward. Gemma’s clear frustration when Cady forgets to use a coaster is, at once, understandable yet funny. Sure, it’s annoying to get rings on your hardwood table, but, hey, didn’t that nine-year-old girl just lose her parents in a horrific snowplow accident? Maybe let her off the hook?
And when Gemma delicately pressures her clearly suffering niece to perform in a make-or-break work presentation at her toy company (“I mean, there are people who flew across the country for it, but if you’re not up for it, I’d rather you tell me now”) it’s both an earnest request and a howl-worthy punchline. It’s a total Allison move that Williams pulls off with perfectly.
None of this should come as a huge surprise if you’ve been paying attention to Williams’s career. She’s been delivering terrific Allison performances for over a decade now, ever since she power-walked onto the screen as Marnie Michaels, the high-intensity best friend to Lena Dunham’s Hannah Horvath on HBO’s Girls in 2012. In an interview with Glamour during the height of Girls, Williams revealed that Dunham told her that the character of Marnie was partly inspired by Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick. (Glee’s Rachel Berry was also inspired by Tracy Flick, by the way.) “Lena says ‘Tracy’ a lot when she’s directing me,” Williams said. “That’s Marnie’s thing.” Marnie’s thing is being a Flick-acolyte—i.e. an Allison—albeit a messier version of one. And as for Williams’s mastery of M3GAN’s tone, that also can be traced back to Girls. People incorrectly treated Girls as if it were a documentary when it came out, but it was, inarguably, a horror-comedy, in which Williams excelled—I’m still hard pressed to think of a scarier, more hilarious scene than Marnie’s acoustic rendition of “Stronger.” Six seasons on Girls undoubtedly laid the groundwork for Williams to land the humor rife in M3GAN.
Even when the part doesn’t necessarily call for it, Williams’ acting can sometimes seem Allison-adjacent anyway. While she was definitely not to blame for the myriad of problems with 2014’s Peter Pan Live!, some reviewers noticed a seriousness and an intensity in William’s portrayal of the titular role that didn’t entirely fit the bill, especially considering Peter Pan’s whole thing is rambunctious, carefree youth, and the ability to take to the skies like, say, a manic pixie. “Williams had the grave air of a woman who would boldly wear a somewhat mannish haircut to achieve a childhood dream,” wrote Sarah Larson in her review of Peter Pan Live! for The New Yorker. “She seemed to be daring you to watch her perform. There was nothing playful about it. She had taken over that pirate ship, and now it was hers.” If that doesn’t sound like an Allison playing Peter Pan, then I don’t know what does.
But Williams seemed to have gotten the last laugh, leveraging those stretched-thin nerves to their greatest dramatic power. Oscar-winner Jordan Peele told Business Insider that seeing Williams in Girls—and “the wonderful risk she took with Peter Pan—inspired him to cast her as the female lead in his directorial debut, Get Out: “She felt cosmopolitan but also undeniably Caucasian.”
While an Allison-esque character can obviously be any race—we salute you, Sandra Oh as Dr. Christina Yang on Grey’s Anatomy, and Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope in Scandal—for many of these characters, whiteness is a crucial part of the formula. There’s often a throughline between their perceived entitlement and their lack of self-awareness. Anyone who even cracked open Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility in 2020, or paid attention to conversations surrounding race and privilege in America the last few years, should be willing to stomach the notion that privilege is largely inextricable from whiteness.
Williams was able to weaponize her Caucasity and her innate Allisonness to deliver a crucial, highly calibrated performance in the now-iconic Get Out. As the duplicitous Rose, Williams played a racist woman who knew exactly what she wanted, but, this time, had to convincingly hide her nefarious intentions from her boyfriend, Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris, as well as the audience, until the cinematically perfect moment. As the tension builds and Kaluuya’s panic rises, Williams keeps up the act until the great reveal: “You know I can’t give you the keys, right, babe?” In that moment we discoverd that Rose is, to borrow another hallmark of 2020, a “Karen”—a white woman who feels entitled to whatever she wants—even if that means her Black boyfriend’s life.