Let's Talk About Girls, Shall We?

I think people should be free to create the work that they want to make, but "Girls" was a big deal to me, and it was probably a big deal for a lot of you.
Publish date:
April 17, 2012
feminism, TV, girls, lena dunham, hbo

We're the ladies.

Last night, I watched the premiere of "Girls." Last week, I read eight hundred thousand articles about "Girls" and talked about "Girls" with my sisters and mom and friends and colleagues. This afternoon, I chatted with OG Jezebeller Anna Holmes and the Guardian about the pilot.

Now I want to talk about it with you. I have some things to say about the show here, and I hope you do too, but first, here are a couple pullquotes from opinion pieces that I thought made some excellent points: Jenna Wortham's excellent post on enjoying the show but lamenting its lack of diversity, from The Hairpin…The argument has been made that smart women on screen are already enough of a minority to make up for the lack of women of color. Nope. Not good enough. This is more than a stock photo op, it's more important than that. Cause here's thing about Girls. As much as I wanted to dislike the show, I couldn't help but love it. And that made it worse.Julie Gerstein's post about why it's dangerous to lay too much social responsibility in Lena Dunham's lap, at the Frisky.There’s no reason why so much expectation should be placed on Dunham and “Girls.” It’s setting her and the show up for failure by utilizing the misogynistic notion that women’s shows and products should all reflect one monolithic visionAnd why doing that is a good thing, from Judy Berman over at FlavorwireIt’s almost as if we’re holding Lena Dunham accountable in a way that these earlier Voices of a Generation didn’t have to be because she’s already somewhat outside the mainstream -- a young woman whose body isn’t magazine-perfect in a world where the everyman is not only white, heterosexual, and well-off but also, well, male. Perhaps we feel like those of us who don’t fit that default have to compete to be represented on TV, and that if someone like Dunham wins, everyone else loses.And Dunham herself in the Huffington Post on the whole "voice of a generation" joke thing.The joke in the pilot, I kept being like, "She's on drugs when she says it, so hopefully nobody thinks it's really my thinking." But it's in the trailer so everyone thinks it's my credo. I think the concept of a voice of generation is becoming less and less applicable. The world's getting more and more full. Our generation is not just white girls. It's guys. Women of color. Gay people. The idea that I could speak for everyone is so absurd. But what is nice is if I could speak for me and it's resonant for people, then that's about as much as I could hope for.I still feel conflicted about the four characters the show has chosen to follow. It's early, and I'm willing to give "Girls" the benefit of the doubt, but I hear from those who have already seen subsequent episodes that, from a diversity standpoint, it "doesn't get much better."The funny thing about self-deprecation and self-consciousness, and of saying you're not out to make a point, is it doesn't necessarily get you off the hook. I think people should be free to create the work that they want to make, but "Girls" was a big deal to me, and it was probably a big deal for a lot of you. Fair or not, I had expectations.

Should there have been a woman of color on the show? An LGBTQ "Girl"? A girl who didn't seem to come with a set of wealthy and accommodating parents whose incentive to "cut off" their daughter is, um, a lake house? I just can't picture making a show about young women for young women as a young woman, and not having a meeting where you or someone says, "Is this how we want to do this?"I don't think Lena Dunham should be forced to be responsible to all young, sexually active professional urban women in her storytelling. But I was uncomfortable with how much the show tries to faithfully replicate relationships and dialogue between friends and totally just airballs reality. Again, I've only seen one episode and maybe I'm trying to project my own experience on the show. Or maybe I live in a different New York than the one of the "Girls"-iverse, much in the way of "Gossip Girl" or that one HBO show about jeans.Maybe we shouldn't have assigned so much significance to "Girls," but the fact is that it's helmed by a young woman who does have incredible amounts of creative control. I think you can say, "I'm a solipsist and I know it and I have the good sense to be neurotic and embarrassed about it" -- I think the Hannah character is a cousin to Woody Allen's self-conscious pretentious nerd pervs. And to be fair, I don't think anybody saw "Annie Hall" and went, "Hey, shouldn't Woody have a friend who's in a wheelchair?" You can poke fun at yourself all you like, but if you're going to tackle issues like gender parity, abortion, safe sex, and on and on and on, I'm of the bleeding heart opinion that you have to at least be aware of the fact that you're representing a very narrow worldview on behalf of a lot of people. So, quickly, a couple of points.(Caution, DVR-types. If you have not seen the show, oodles of spoilers, which is also the name of my outdoor mayonnaise kiosk. But if you're bored you can actually just go watch it right now -- it's on HBO.com and DailyMotion for free for the next few days.)Some things I liked about "Girls."- not all of the "Girls" look like actresses.- there were no horrible puns.- a lot of the dialogue felt natural and smart.- the sex was unsexy, as sex often is.- Chris Eigeman!Some things I did not like about "Girls."- Some of the jokes are wildly dated. Joking about Facebook? No! Please, the hierarchy of texting vs Facebook vs email vs calling was covered satisfactorily in "He's Just Not That Into You."- Can we stop using "What 'Sex and the City' girl are you?" as shorthand to indicate that a woman is a rube, suburban, a tourist, or some other variation of "culturally bankrupt?" I'm not a "SATC" fan but that joke has grown whiskers and is insulting to women in general. - The only people of color in the episode were an Asian Photoshopper (seriously?) and a yelly homeless black guy (seriouslier?).- Hannah eats a a cupcake in the bath before work while her friend sits on the edge of the tub. I mean, okay. Maybe this has happened to you. One time I lived in a studio apartment so I would occasionally find that I had moved three feet to the left and was now chewing chicken in my bathroom. But the show also opened with her pounding pasta, so ... I don't know. It felt like a weird whiff of Liz Lemon, and maybe we can have a single lady who does not have a weird relationship with food.- I'm all for shows about the bonds between women, but do they all have to be at the expense of guys? I have lots of platonic guy friends I bet you do too. I feel like we're only seeing them as whelks or assholes on this show. Do women on TV not have male friends whose relationships don't revolve around sex or insulting each other?Look, I'm thrilled, THRILLED that this young woman has her own show, but with great power comes great et cetera et cetera. I'm not saying throw in a disabled Sikh lesbian just for the hell of it, but I'm not convinced that creating a show about four privileged white women was a conscious statement on class… It feels more like watching people film themselves in their comfort zone and being told not to take anything away from it. I'm going to keep watching it, but I hope that as a writer and show runner, Dunham gives some indication that she's a little bit more aware of the world in which the rest of us live. One in which people of different cultural and financial circumstances show up in other situations than to spout a one liner and then disappear like unintentionally insulting props.

On the one hand, I agree with what Julie Gerstein said -- there's something unfeminist about expecting a woman to represent all women, because it presupposes that there's a universal female experience, and it's not something we ask of young men who are writing and running shows.

If you are a hugely prominent young executive producer writing, directing and starring in your own series, you are going to be under a little bit of a lens. I don't think all the scrutiny is necessarily merited -- like when the New York Times' Frank Bruni worried that all women are having awful sex because Hannah is.

The answer is that some of us are, and some us aren't. And also, I would love to have been 24 wherever Frank was when he was having all those empowered simultaneous orgasms with his partner. Sometimes sex is not good and not empowering and sometimes you do say things like, "So, I can just stay in this position for a while?" and zone out like Hannah does.

But if you're going to present such a small portion of a hugely diverse city as your sample set, people are going to assume that you did that conciously -- that this is the group you've chosen to focus in on. The fact that she is a wealthy white kid playing a wealthy white kid doesn't really help her case that she's not Hannah and doesn't necessarily have a message about the wealthy white kid experience.

Look, I think an awesome show would be me and my friends filming ourselves getting blitzed on plonk and having painstakingly choreographed fake orgy sex to The Bee Gee's "To Love Somebody" while we wear horse masks, because I think that would be funny and that's what I do in my private time. I'm not out to represent anybody either!

But I also wouldn't put it on HBO and the sides of buses and without expecting somebody to go, "Whoa, is this what you guys are up to?"