On ‘Girls’, and what it fails to teach us

Next semester I’m teaching a module I designed last year called ‘Theatre and Performance in North America’; as part of my, ahem, preparation for that teaching (and because it’s summer – let’s face it), I’m catching up on my North American pop culture. That has meant, over the last six weeks or so, watching the third season of HBO’s Treme, the seventh season of Showtime’s Dexter, and the second season of HBO’s Girls.

Treme is superb TV, for those of you who haven’t checked it out: from the creators of The Wire, it follows a strong ensemble cast of fascinating characters through post-Katrina New Orleans. It’s an indictment of early twenty first century disaster capitalism, but it’s also a hugely uplifting celebration of the multifaceted performance world of this incredible city. (Lots of really great music; Glee this thankfully ain’t.) It’s on my syllabus for next term. Dexter (starring Michael C. Hall, made famous on Six Feet Under) has always been a fave of mine, and is still gripping good fun – though I think when Deb discovered Dexter swathed in plastic with a dagger in his grip at the end of season 6 the show officially jumped Fonzie’s proverbial sharkGirls is new compared to these other two series, is a half hour (rather than an hour) per episode, is framed as a comedy, and is arguably not for my demographic – but it interests me anyway, as a feminist and as a teacher.

Girls is an ever-hip, often ironic re-frame of Sex and the City, and is similarly considered revolutionary for its time. It follows four post-college chicks as they try to grow into the women (or, in character Shoshana’s words, the “fully formed human[s]”) they hope to be. Unlike Carrie Bradshaw and her friends, Hannah (Lena Dunham), Marnie (Allison Williams), Shoshana (Zosia Mamet) and Jessa (Jemima Kirke) live not in Manhattan but in Brooklyn (hipster Williamsburg and its outer reaches), and they are, crucially, not casually awash in money (though they all look and act like they’ve grown up comfortably middle class; we get social and economic context for their slumming right off the top, in the first episode of season one, when Hannah’s parents take her out for dinner and “cut her off”). They are not successful; they don’t have their careers even remotely sorted yet. They don’t care about designer clothes or shoes, and they don’t really look the part of leading ladies as a result: the main character, Hannah, is (famously, in the Twitterverse) overweight and a scandalously bad (in other words, quirky and original but not especially adept) dresser. Like Carrie and her pals, though, the Girls have a lot of sex. A. Lot. Of. Sex. Rough and awkward and sometimes borderline violent. As with S&TC, sex is what has made Girls famous.

This fame has come primarily from the controversy the show has aroused around awkward women’s sexuality. Carrie and her friends were in their 30s, and while their sex was explicit and controversial too in its time, it was very rarely ugly. The Girls, by contrast, are young and a lot of the sex they have is gross and demeaning; Lena Dunham (who is the show’s creator and producer) has been heavily criticised for having most of it, as a larger woman who “should” not normally be getting either so much dick or so much airtime naked. (See here and here for smart discussions of the season two episode, “Another Man’s Trash”, which was a particular source of anxiety for those uncomfortable with normal-sized women’s sexuality on TV.) Dunham and her co-stars have spoken eloquently and with powerful humour about this bullshit, and as a feminist I feel strongly that each of their beautiful young women’s bodies (including that of the “conventionally” slim and gorgeous Williams) has a place, front and centre, on our TVs. Nevertheless, the ways in which this show’s ostensibly ground-breaking cultural work has been organized in the media (both popular and social) around sex bothers me; from that perspective, Girls is absolutely not a marker of progress since 1998, when Sex and the City premiered.

As I watched season two, I noticed that the story lines were becoming more and more conventionally framed around getting boyfriends, getting sex, and – most disturbingly – finding a man to cling on to. By the end of the season, both Hannah and Marnie end up definitively “rescued”, Jessa has disappeared after breaking up with the banker husband she collected on a whim, and Shoshana has dumped her guy for not being ambitious enough. There’s a slightly ironic and even melancholic tinge to this through-line, of course, and in “Another Man’s Trash” Dunham’s character has a tremendously moving moment of realisation that she might, in fact, want the conventional, middle class, adult “good life” after all. I get that the show is trying to demonstrate the ways in which these awkward-cool non-conformers are in fact quite conformist, and very deeply privileged and resource-full in spite of their lack of immediate funds and focus. But there are ways to signal this conformity without requiring each character to play the boyfriend line, or get into bed every time.

If one of the measures of a TV show’s ability to represent women in genuinely complex, human ways is whether or not its female characters get to talk regularly, alone, about stuff other than menGirls is increasingly falling short. And this falling short is, for me, linked implicitly to another way in which Girls lags behind Sex and the City: in its representation of women at work. Carrie and her friends were also laughably privileged, of course, but they were not abashed about it: Carrie made a (clearly) decent living as a newspaper columnist (let’s not forget that the show’s title, as well as the source of so much of its drama, was not Carrie’s sex life, but the way in which she translated that sex life into her own original, creative labour on the page); Miranda was a hugely successful lawyer (a major thread in the series followed her awkward negotiations with her less successful boyfriend, Steve, over money); Charlotte ran a gallery (a bit too precious, perhaps: Marnie spoofs Charlotte in this regard on Girls); and Samantha was an entrepreneur who ran her own PR business. By contrast, the Girls sort of but don’t quite “work”: Hannah has a job at Grumpy’s coffee shop (where, incidentally, I once hung out before it was cool!) but we don’t generally see her doing any actual labour; the rest of the time she’s a writer – but the prospect of actually writing the book for which she has been contracted at the end of season two leaves her paralyzed with anxiety and bedridden with OCD. Marnie, having been told she’s too conventional to be a curator, and there are no curator jobs left anyway, works as a hostess (a “pretty girl” job). Jessa doesn’t work: she marries money, then leaves/gets tossed out. Shoshana’s job, if she has one, isn’t defined in season two, although she does hound her boyfriend, Ray, to get a better gig and some ambition, then dumps him when he actually does, seemingly needing something else (someone happier with himself).

Where does this absolute failure at work seem to come from? It’s no secret that Girls tries to portray the so-called post-millenial “lost generation” (as Hannah’s obnoxious editor puts it when he asks her to write an e-book; he also requests that she write about her “sexual failure”), and failure at work thus seems an essential dimension of the show’s cultural commentary (the men are also not especially successful, with the utterly un-believable exception of Charlie). But here’s the thing: the four women who play these characters are themselves hugely successful, working female artists. Dunham is the series creator; after making a debut feature-length film, Tiny Furniture, in 2010, she connected with Judd Apatow (the impresario behind those trendy “loser” movies, from Superbad to Bridesmaids) who helped get Girls off the ground. She writes, directs, produces and stars; at 27, she’s immensely, creatively powerful, and she’s making opportunities for other women as she does her own, excellent work. Jemima Kirke is a painter, and daughter of a very successful designer/dressmaker mother; Allison Williams went to Yale, got her start in improv comedy (not a “pretty girl” job by any measure), and worked during college for Tina Fey. Mamet has been performing for a while, and acts on stage and screen. In other words: these “girls” are smart, funny, talented, and powerful women; who told them they had to lay so much emphasis, on TV, on either career or sexual “failure”?

Part of the answer here, I suspect, lies in the popular notion that feminism has moved on from its “third wave” (the 1980s-90s aspect of the movement that emphasized social and material constructivism, the idea that so much of our experience as gendered bodies is socially determined, and thus changeable), has been depressed both economically and imaginatively by the long-term effects of Thatcherite/Reaganite neoliberalism, and has re-emerged as more about women’s sexual freedom and personal expression than about social solidarity. To be fair, Dunham is openly feminist and works hard to include a dimension of old-school solidarity in the show; part of the reason Hannah’s book can’t seem to get written is because she wants to write about female friendship (incidentally, the inspiration for Carrie Bradshaw’s greatest creative labour) but is actively discouraged by her middle-aged male editor from doing so. That said, this aspect of Girls needs much more work, time, and direct focus in order to move the lens off the red herring of Dunham’s body, and back onto the show’s greater blind spots.

In the penultimate episode of season two, Marnie attends a party given by her former boyfriend at his cool techie/start-up office to celebrate a nebulous achievement (his app, “Forbidden”, has hit 20,000 average monthly users). Sick of pretending her hostess gig is worthy of her time, she has decided she wants to be a singer; for the party, she plans and performs a cringe-worthy, but also exceptionally skilled, ballad-style cover of Kanye West’s Stronger karaoke-style for the office crowd. The tech-sters look away and giggle, embarrassed, but Marnie is oblivious. Later, when Charlie takes her aside (and throws her against a desk for sex, of course), she asks, guileless: “should I be embarrassed?” For me – and, I really, really hope, for season three of Girls – the answer is an emphatic NO. Check out Williams’ ballad-covers online; she does them to be funny, as part of her improv work as a comedian. They are evidence of her creativity, her skill, her strength as an artist. They are not proof of her failure. On the contrary, for all the wannabe-Girls out there, they demonstrate her terrific, and extremely valuable, labour.


Big congratulations!

I want to take a moment to celebrate the important achievement of one of my former students, writer Andrew Sullivan, who has just published his first collection of short stories, All We Want is Everything. Over the weekend the book earned a rave review from the Globe and Mail, Canada’s national paper of record. Read it here. Then buy the book here. It’s excellent.

Hats off, Andrew!


Get a life!

I’ve been away, on a holiday with my husband and dog down by the sea. We had a marvellous time, eating too much, sitting in our cottage kitchen looking out over the ocean, walking with the dog along the Cornish cliffs, and drinking plenty of ale and cider. We had two iPads and a web connection (sporadically), and some mobile service (occasionally, when the wind direction was right…), so we weren’t completely cut off, and we both checked our email once a day (just to make sure nothing was on fire). But for the most part we were switched off, and I had no problem (to my surprise) leaving my computer at home.

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I’m acutely aware that this shouldn’t be news of the “activist classroom” variety: academic goes on vacation. What’s noteworthy about that? But that’s just it: when academics take a proper break, it’s damn significant news. Because we don’t do it enough.

There are a lot of reasons for this reticence toward holidays among those of my profession (and no, quick trips to museums or historic sites while at a conference do not count as holidays!). First, we actually do three jobs: I am a full-time researcher, a full-time teacher, and increasingly I could do a full day’s worth of administrative labour and barely dent my to-do list. So we’re busy, and evenings and weekends (not to mention whole weeks off!) represent time we need to get our jobs done. Second, we are excellent at making work for ourselves: I strive to be productive and efficient, but I could be much better at triaging my tasks and protecting my time. (See here for my recent attempt to get the most out of a summer’s work day.) Third – and this one’s the kicker – we like being crazy-busy just a little too much. When was the last time you heard an academic colleague say “I worked all weekend!” or “I’ve worked every night this week!” with something of an air of satisfaction about the phrase? Probably not too long ago. Complaining about all that work we have to do is an academic fetish: it represents me to myself and to my colleagues as extremely committed to my research, diligent and thorough. Working too much has become some kind of warped academic bona fide: I couldn’t possibly get that book done without working all those evenings and weekends. It wouldn’t be good enough if I didn’t.

Full disclosure: I’m as guilty of the Overwork Fetish as anybody. But here’s the thing: it’s a performance, not my truth. In term time, yes, I work a lot of evenings, but I don’t often work on the weekend. I never work on Saturday: that’s a rule I instituted in graduate school, and it has stood me in good stead all these many years. I need the break Saturday (or the full weekend, whenever possible) represents: I need to put emotional and cognitive distance between myself and my book, my article, my students, my committees. Without that distance I can’t come to work fresh on Monday, or sustain momentum through the week. I consider Saturdays off as an investment in my productivity, as well as in my psychic and social well being. So why don’t I trumpet this choice more often, rather than “performing overwork” and giving my colleagues the impression I’m perennially slammed?

Increasingly I do trumpet this choice – now that I’m quite confident in my abilities as a teacher-researcher, and now that I have a significant teaching portfolio and research profile to demonstrate those abilities to the world. When I was younger and less experienced, though, the performance of overwork acted as compensation for my fear that I wasn’t a good enough researcher/wasn’t working hard enough to become a good researcher. The Overwork Fetish is related in this way to Academic Imposter Syndrome: most of us fret that we aren’t smart enough, and pretending to work all the time somehow functions as a kind of self-grading mechanism – as long as we’re working, we must be doing something right. Right?

Nope. What we’re actually doing is modelling profoundly unhealthy work habits, and a flawed measure of productivity, for each other, for our junior colleagues, and especially for our students. I learned how to perform overwork in grad school – right around the same time I decided Saturdays were off limits. The latter was a very good choice, but the former was a tenacious problem that kept me anxiously behaving for far too long like I wasn’t working hard enough/wasn’t living up to the image of myself as hardworking academic-in-training. Now that I’m finally able to own my holiday Saturdays, I make a point of telling my graduate students about them, and I encourage those students to build measures of time off into all work plans. And I celebrate going on holiday – it still doesn’t happen nearly enough, or flawlessly (witness the checking of the email while in Cornwall), but it happens more and more, and better and better.

I’m a member of the Guardian’s Higher Education network, and recently I read a terrific blog post there by Eleanor Highwood discussing academia’s 24/7 culture and why we need to work to change it. (Read the piece here.) At the same time, I’ve been engrossed in some work-related reading about the very nature of contemporary work, and about the ways in which violations of human rights like zero-hours contracts, and the rhetoric of “creative class” jobs meant to be their own reward, have slowly but surely transformed our sense of what is “normal” on the job. Highwood captures this new “normal” nicely from the perspective of a university labourer:

…academia actively encourages the extension of working hours. I’m an academic who has worked 80% of a full-time role for the past five years, first as senior lecturer, then professor and head of department at a world renowned research centre in meteorology and climate science. My contract doesn’t even specify hours – it merely says that I am expected to work the time needed to perform the role. Try figuring out what 80% of full-time is when full-time is not defined.

I don’t doubt that part of what we are doing, when we fetishize our overwork now, is feeding the neoliberal machine by convincing ourselves and our students that “the time needed” is and should be our academic “normal”. As Highwood notes, however, not only is this notion of “time needed” inaccurate and dangerous; from a labour-rights standpoint, it’s outrageous.

So: in the spirit of her call to think differently, more precisely, and more actively about how we work, how much we work, and how we could work less, better, and happier, I invite all of you to tell me about your summer holidays, send me your snaps, and share any and all tips you might have for working less, and getting more for it.