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.


2 thoughts on “On ‘Girls’, and what it fails to teach us

  1. (Background: I live in hipster Brooklyn and I’m a woman in my twenties who knows other women in their twenties).

    Girls is being hailed by some as a raw and truthful television show. Some think it captures the zeitgeist of my generation. So, I am trying to decide if this is true. And what does it mean about the way women see themselves now? What does this mean about modern day sexual politics? Is it an accurate portrayal of the experiences and desires of the women living around me? Does it reflect my life?
    And the answers I’ve come up with make me uncomfortable. They make me reflect on my own behaviour, my own actions and especially my own desires. If I am honest with myself, I am guilty of being dependent on a male presence for validation. I am guilty of having the same type of misogynist sexual interactions as Hannah. I reflect on the conversations I’ve had with my friends. I reflect on our behaviour around men. And I see their same dependent and obsessive behaviour reflected back at me when I look in the mirror.
    And yet…I agree with the characterisation of Girls as a modern Sex in the City. It’s supposed to be a show about women who are ‘liberated’ (whatever that means). But when you peel back the layers, these shows are just cleverly disguised sexist stereotyping. They do not represent progress on any front. It suggests that television is still living in the 1950’s. It’s still living in the fantasy land of housewives and the patriarchy. And it also suggests that, if my own life parallels the lives of the characters on Girls, women now are still victims of patriarchal propaganda. We have fooled ourselves in believing that we represent a generation that is free of many of the structural inequalities of our mother’s time. We think we’ve destroyed most of the metaphorical glass ceiling.
    But that just sounds wrong to me. I do think we have progressed as a society. Yet, I do see myself in these women. I see myself and others inhabiting a reality that looks awfully like the world of Girls. I see that women of my generation still struggle to define themselves as an individual, separate from an identity they and/or society had cultivated for them when they engage with men.
    I must then reconcile the two conflicting ideas I have about Girls. I have concluded, for now, that I don’t think that this wolf dressed in sheeps clothes is anything close to my life, anything close to the lives of women living in dinky apartments in hipster Williamsburg. It perhaps reflects part of our reality. It captures a tiny bit of our lived experience on screen. But it does not capture the whole thing. It is our lives captured through binoculars.

  2. Thanks for these thoughts, Ashley! It’s terrific to hear from someone who might be described as Girls’ “target” demographic. Though I also wonder if that’s true; the show seems weirdly aspirational to me, almost as though its focus on physical and sexual abjection is designed to make us *want* to be like Hannah and her gang. In that respect, perhaps you and your cohort are a kind of reluctant “model” for the show, while my generation are the (mildly horrified, mildly titillated) target. Certainly, a good deal of the ink spilled on this show has been tipped over by women only slightly younger than me (and a good deal older than you, I wager).

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