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Linked up on GIRLS
21 / 05 / 2013
For this month’s Culture Club, Elisabeth Morgan helps us unpack some of the hype surrounding HBO series Girls. This article was written in the style of our Sheilas Monthly Mail, sent to the inboxes of our subscribers between monthly editions. If you haven’t yet subscribed, type your email address in the top right corner of the screen!
HBO’s Girls – the mind-child of young and enviable talent Lena Dunham, now two seasons in – has become one of the most hype-fuelled television series around; dividing, confusing, shocking, impressing and insulting critics in its wake.
Girls is based on the misadventures of four twenty-something inner-city New York women trying to muddle through the awkward and gruesome world of newfound adulthood. Hannah Horvath, the show’s protagonist played by Dunham, is a would-be writer dealing with a confusing semi-relationship, recent parental financial cut-off and her own unhinged narcissism.
The Guardian’s Lucy Mangan describes the show as…
“…astonishing in about a million different ways: for being the product of someone so young and inexperienced; for being stuffed with dislikeable, dishonourable characters who move in an almost entirely affectless universe without alienating every viewer within the first 40 seconds; for being honest to the point of brutality (especially in the now-legendary sex scenes, which take every screen and social convention about what can and should be shown and reduce them to rubble); for its sheer audacity in dramatising a ceaselessly self-dramatising generation and never letting sentimentality or partisanship blunt its edge; and for still being funny as hell.”
With the generally overwhelming amount of criticism towards the show in mind, The New Yorker’s Emily Musbaum writes…
“ The show isn’t perfect – it’s got cartoonish bits – but then most interesting art isn’t … It lingers and rankles and upsets. Like any groundbreaking TV, it shows the audience something new, then dares it to look away. Small wonder some viewers itch to give the show a sound spanking”
And a sound spanking it has been, on everything from the unapologetic sex scenes to the privileged whiteness of its characters.
A lack of racial diversity has been one of the most popular criticisms of Girls, raging in season one and marginally dying down in season two after Dunham cast Community’s Donald Glover as Hannah’s sweet, questionably republican boyfriend.
During season one, a Jezebel article by Dodai Stewart claimed the show has a “serious problem when it comes to race” and the lack of diversity in Girls is “exclusionary, disappointing, unrealistic, and upsetting”, adding:
“we, the public, have the right to critique the insular, homogenous world a young woman with the good fortune to have her own TV show has chosen to present.”
Lucy Mangan is more sympathetic to Dunham:
“to my mind it is absurd to castigate Dunham for not managing to do everything in one bound, when she has succeeded in so much. Moreover, as feminist writer and activist Erin Watson once said of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique: ‘In my experience, people can speak profoundly well for themselves, and do both themselves and others a disservice when they try to speak for everyone else at the same time.’”
Dunham herself has discussed her reluctance to speak for everyone when responding to media org NPR about the criticism:
I am a half-Jew, half-WASP, and I wrote two Jews and two WASPs. Something I wanted to avoid was tokenism in casting … Not that the experience of an African-American girl and a white girl are drastically different, but there has to be specificity to that experience [that] I wasn’t able to speak to. I really wrote the show from a gut-level place, and each character was a piece of me or based on someone close to me. And only later did I realize that it was four white girls. As much as I can say it was an accident, it was only later as the criticism came out, I thought, “I hear this and I want to respond to it.” And this is a hard issue to speak to because all I want to do is sound sensitive and not say anything that will horrify anyone or make them feel more isolated, but I did write something that was super-specific to my experience, and I always want to avoid rendering an experience I can’t speak to accurately.
HBO Watch pointed to the fact that Girls has been singled out on the issue:
“these same criticisms could be applied to any number of programs across all networks. Why pick on Girls specifically? In it’s debut season no less.”
Others have argued that the same kind of criticism would not be levelled at a show written and directed by white males. A satirical blog post entitled ‘If People Talked About Seinfeld Like They Talked About Girls’ was published by Mike Trapp on College Humour:
“It’s just these privileged white people (and I mean, they’re ALL white) living their lives in New York. The only non-white characters are wacky immigrant cab drivers and soup vendors. Oh, hilarious: they can’t speak English well — what’s so groundbreaking about that?”
Another aspect of the post points to the way Dunham – not a conventional beauty – has been accused of deliberately pairing herself up with hot guys in the show; something that is rarely said about self-written male protagonists such as Jerry Seinfeld, Woody Allen and Larry David.
GUYS IN GIRLS
In a Huffington Post article, Hollywood actor James Franco looked at Girls from a male viewer’s perspective. He identified with the “struggling creative types” in the show, but had trouble relating to the male characters.
“The guys in the show are the biggest bunch of losers I’ve ever seen. There is a drip who gets dumped because he bores his girlfriend; a dad who hits on his babysitter; a bevy of wussy hipsters who are just grist for the insatiable lust of the too-cool girl with the British accent; and the king of them all, the shirtless dude who talks funny and hides his stomach all the time.”
Lena Dunham responded bitingly to Franco’s criticism with show-runner and friend Jenni Konner in an interview…
Konner: “I think it’s funny that he called them losers. It just made me laugh, because I was like, well, yeah, because you’re like a cool star who host[ed] the Oscars and you have all these amazing things.”
Dunham: “I’m sorry all our first girlfriends couldn’t be The Practice’s Marla Sokoloff.”
Dunham went on to question why Franco wrote a critical piece in the first place…
I really felt like whoever is his Svengali manager was like, “You have to host the Oscars, write a novel, also, it’s important to dabble in TV criticism this day and age,” like it’s how you stay relevant.
The sex scenes in Girls have sparked discussion across the board. Most have taken the view that the sex depicted in the show is ‘bad sex’ – awkward, degrading and uncomfortable.
But Girls staff writer Leslie Arfin thinks we are missing the point…
“I don’t think ‘good vs. bad’ is what we should be asking. Sometimes good = bad and bad = good. Especially for our Girls girls. We make bad choices and learn good things as a result”
In an excellent analysis of Girls for the New York Review of Books, Elaine Blair similarly appreciates the sex scenes from a more nuanced perspective…
Girls never suggests that a smoothly pleasant sex life is something worthy of serious aspiration. The ultimate prize to be wrung from all of these baffling sexual predicaments is a deeper understanding of oneself.
To think of one’s romantic life as a game of numbers and animal pleasures, on the one hand, or as one long search for a spouse, on the other, is to miss the point. We can only justify our freedom by giving full attention to the human relationships formed by sex, even if those relationships are brief or strange.
Blair also sees the depictions of sexual relationships in the show as contributing to something exciting, subversive and revolutionary in film and television. She believes that Girls…
“ Reveal[s] the common facts of life that romantic comedy has never been able to show. For instance… that you can be wildly attracted to someone without having great sex. Or that you can have landed a handsome, funny, devoted boyfriend and then one day find him completely repellent… Sexual desire can also, in the crucial moment, fail to overwhelm us, and in our world this is really the more urgent, anxiety-provoking, and lonely situation. Dunham has intuited this fact and put it to use in all of her work.”
SEX AND THE CITY
Girls has also been comparatively pitted against Sex and the City – a show it is arguably indebted to, but transcends in terms of its realistic complexity. Clementine Ford, In her Daily Life article Why ugly sex is important, looks closely at the depictions of sexual experience in both shows.
“The sexual landscape of adulthood as presented in GIRLS boasts more subtle shading than the black and white mounted stencil seen in shows like SATC.”
“…while there’s no denying that SATC might have created a broader dialogue about sex among women, it also denied the complexities that exist in sexual relationships… My own experience suggests that sex, unlike the entirety of the SATC franchise, doesn’t come neatly wrapped up in a pretty box with an upbeat morality lesson attached. Unlike SATC, the sexual escapades of GIRLS are messy, often unattractive and occasionally primal. In short, they’re human.”
MAD MEN AND ENLIGHTENED
On the topic of female characters in television, we can’t go past the women of Mad Men in its new season. Amanda Marcotte has written a fascinating article in The Guardian profiling each of the female characters, where they fit within the tumultuous late ‘60s and how they adapt to shifting gender ideologies of the times.
The New Yorker’s Emily Nusbaum also urges us to check out the drastically underrated HBO series Enlightened, starring Laura Dern as Amy Jellicoe. The show was axed after its second season despite critical acclaim. Nusbaum draws comparisons between Girls protagonist Hannah Horvath and Enlightened’s Jellicoe:
“If Hannah mirrors Louis C.K., Jellicoe is a sister to Larry David. She wants to be peaceful, brave, and decent, but her needy personality makes everyone she meets want to claw off his or her face… Highly original and humane… it’s a satire of feminine New Age do-gooderism that shares the values of all it satirizes. Like Parks and Recreation, Enlightened bridges the comedy divide between warmth and smarts: it makes me cry more than any comedy I’ve ever seen”
*Image via hbo.com
**This article was written in the style of our Sheilas Monthly Mail, sent to the inboxes of our subscribers between monthly editions. If you haven’t yet subscribed, type your email address in the top right corner of the screen!
Elisabeth Morgan works in Communications & Project Support at the Victorian Women’s Trust and assists with the production of Sheilas. Her poetry has been published in Voiceworks and she has written articles, reviews, and interviews for Sheilas, Lip, and Feminaust. Elisabeth also edits Trust Women and the VWT e-bulletin (subscribe by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org).