As Kendall Roy, the number one boy of HBO’s tragicomedy Succession, stands on stage and makes his debut as the CEO of Waystar Royco, his eyes brim with tears. He’s introducing Living+, an unholy combination of WeWork and Theranos, a new real estate opportunity that comes with bespoke 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’s the killer his father wanted him to be; he is babygirl.
“Babygirl” is a ubiquitous but ill-defined piece of internet slang that’s been around for a few years, but has recently risen to prominence with the fourth and final season of Succession. While a few key actors have been adopted by their fanbases as babygirl, like Paul Mescal and Pedro Pascal, most commonly it’s a descriptor levied at particular characters. Right now, Kendall Roy is the internet’s most prominent babygirl. He joins the ranks of longtime babygirls Lestat de Lioncourt from Interview with the Vampire — both from Anne Rice’s novels and the recent television series on AMC — and Breaking Bad’s Jesse Pinkman.
Nailing down exactly what makes a character a babygirl is a little bit persnickety. On its surface, the term “babygirl” is pretty easy to understand. These characters are emotionally sensitive in a feminized way — they wear their hearts on their sleeve, often openly weep on scenes in the show, and sometimes are victims of abuse by other men. But there’s also a smidgen of irony in how it’s applied. While Kendall Roy, Jesse Pinkman, and Lestat de Lioncourt are all characters who feel things deeply and are in a great deal of emotional pain, they are all also morally compromised: a capitalist, a meth dealer, and a vampire, respectively.
In Lestat’s case, he’s also a murderer and is abusive to his partner, but it’s hard to hate him even when he’s at his most evil. Even when he’s definitively in the wrong, like when he tells his lover Louis that he can have sex with other men and then goes back on it, the depth of his feeling is hypnotic. There’s anguish on Lestat’s face as he exclaims, “I heard your hearts dancing” — pain so great it looks like he’s been stabbed. Jesse Pinkman has a similar talent for absorbing and containing emotional pain. He’s trapped in a cycle of poverty and drug use, and each time he tries to escape the cycle something or someone pulls him back in. Once, he even fell in love, only to wake up to his girlfriend dead next to him from an overdose. All these men suffer from a defect that usually women and other femmes hear: they’re “too emotional.” They cry too much. Their hearts are full of too much feeling.
Right now, Kendall Roy is the babygirl heir apparent. There are countless articles on the character’s fandom — the so-called Kendall Girlies — that describe him as girl coded or a girlboss or a girlfailure. Primarily, fans of Kendall describe his babygirlness as being expressed through his emotional pain. There is something pathetic about him, the way that he tries so hard but never wins, the way he can never live up to the expectations of his father, like he’s caught in a trap he himself designed. These are qualities his father, the abusive media tyrant Logan Roy, have often pointed out as serious flaws of character, sometimes to the point of accusing him of being gay for feeling things at all.
The most recent episode’s press conference is a potent example of the way Kendall often sets himself up for failure: The day before his presentation to investors, he tells the production crew to pull an all-nighter to build a house and create misty clouds that will hang above it. When this effort turns out to be an abject failure, Kendall’s face gently sags into 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 is Kendall always walking into his own trap like Wile E. Coyote chasing Road Runner, he turns the pain inward, whether it’s through addiction or self sabotage or eventually through suicidality. Even when it hurts him to be alive, he doesn’t shy away from the pain of living. He needs the high highs, like turning on his father at a press conference, but is waylaid by the low lows.
Part of what makes Kendall a character that inspired such an intense fandom is the way that Jeremy Strong portrays him. Though Strong has often been turned into a meme for how serious he is about his craft, it’s his level of earnestness and dedication to the emotional state of the character that makes Kendall feel so real, and so pitiable.
“I hate the word cringe, because it denotes a judgment,” Strong told New York Magazine. “I’m not in the business of judging. We, as a culture, would be a lot better off if we judged a little less and empathized more. But certainly, as an actor, you cannot judge your character. You cannot be above them.”
It’s because Kendall is so unbelievably 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 babygirl are the things that differentiate him from other emotionally damaged anti-heroes of television — Don Draper in Mad Men would never allow himself to fall apart emotionally in the way that Kendall does. Walter White from Breaking Bad directs all his self hate outward, at his wife and child, and especially at Jesse Pinkman. Kendall and Jesse share the same impulse to blame themselves and drown in their own guilt. In Breaking Bad, after Jesse’s girlfriend dies from an overdose, Jesse goes to a rehab facility 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’s ever hurt anyone, and then later, how he stays alive without hating himself.
These aren’t questions Walter White or Don Draper ask themselves. Where those characters can reinvent themselves within the confines of violent, stoic masculinity, Kendall and Jesse can’t. It’s the violence of masculinity that stifles them, causes their guilt to turn inward like an ingrown nail. As a queer character, that’s even more pronounced in Lestat de Lioncourt, who outright rejects the safety of heteronormative masculinity. He prefers to be the monster that 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 into a baby atop a float while wearing a jeweled corset and enormous feathered ruff. Even as he knows he will betray his lover, Louis, he still feels a deep love for him. He can’t love anything without hurting them, hurting himself. He doesn’t know how.
Babygirls are all porcupines pricking themselves while trying to keep other people away. But that’s what makes you want to hold them.