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Women on Girls

By now you have probably heard some rumblings about the new HBO show Girls, AKA The Great White Hope of Women’s Television. Created by Wunderkind Lena Dunham, Girls is the first TV show created not just for young women but by young women. Thus, there’s a lot of hype and hoopla attached. I watched the first episode with one eye closed, bracing myself for the fall from high expectations. When it was over, I was not disappointed.  I was right there with Dunham’s Hannah in her desperation for the support to pursue her creative dreams. I was surprised (and slightly saddened) to identify equally with her put-upon middle aged mother’s desperation to sever herself from the leech so she could pursue her own dream (a lake house).

Most of the women I know are no longer in the demographic represented by Lena Dunham and her crew. But we’ve been there. Some of us might miss it. Perhaps less after watching the first episode.  But as ex-Girls raising future Girls, there is plenty to think about here. Most of the Girls talk can be sifted into three major categories:

1. Where’s the diversity?

“…the problem with Girls is that while the show reaches — and succeeds, in many ways — to show female characters that are not caricatures, it feels alienating, a party of four engineered to appeal to a very specific subset of the television viewing audience, when the show has the potential to be so much bigger than that. And that is a huge fucking disappointment.

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.”- Jenna Wortham, The Hairpin

I definitely felt the homogeneity of the characters in the first episode. But—and this is a big but, because I was able to vaguely relate to the sliver of “reality” represented—I thought it was part of what made the show realistic. As far as I can tell one pilot into her oeuvre, Dunham’s genius is her ability to speak clearly from a small, personal place. She’s telling it like it is, but only from her very specific vantage point. Those girls who play her friends on the show are apparently her actual friends. They have, in real life, similar backgrounds and scopes of experience. The stories may not be 100% autobiographical (she claims they are not) but they are from the world she knows firsthand. Probably, based on the fact that she’s very young, the only world she knows firsthand. But Girls is also the only televised window into the young woman’s mind we’ve got.  So it’s easy to project all our ideas about what an accurate representation should be, and to feel desperate about getting it right.

The hope, I guess, is that Dunham will listen to the critique and widen her scope a little. Or  that Girls does well enough to open the door for a whole lot of other shows that give us windows into other kinds of realities, and that we don’t have to put all the pressure on this one.

2. What’s with the sex?

There’s a lot of sex on Girls, just not a lot of enjoying it. It’s sort of a depressing view of women’s sexuality, where women seem to only engage in sex for other people’s satisfaction, not their own. Granted, this is the role women take in most other media. They just pretend they’re liking it more. I was surprised by the lack of sexual ownership in the show, but again, that’s speaking from my own experience: My 20s were all about sexual ownership.  Dunham seems more interested in representing emotional relationships between women than giving power to their relationships with men.

Rebecca Traister’s piece in Salon explores this issue: “… part of the point of “Girls” is that the sex, and the guys with whom the sex happens, are not the point. Instead, as titularly advertised, “Girls” is about girls, and the fact that they do make connections emotional, intimate, irritating, satisfying, pleasurable, lasting. Just not, so far anyway, with men. The show, among many other things, is crucial and corrective testament to the ways in which women’s friendships with each other have flourished and changed during the same period in which their liberties and status have increased.”

This stress on female friendship is as old as the ages, but it seems to have gone into hibernation in recent media.  Bitchiness and competition have ruled the waves, lending strength to the message that women exist mostly to compete for (men’s) attention. Thinking about it this way, I look at the sexual choices a little differently. But I still think it’s a bit of a copout. Is there no way of prioritizing women’s relationships without devaluing their own sexual pleasure?

3. FINALLY.

Women have been waiting for realistic representation in mainstream media for, oh, about as long as there has been mainstream media.It felt great to see Dunham on screen, a regular looking person, not cast to fit a preconceived mold. But I hope we won’t have to listen to her complaining about how much prettier her friends are in every episode. It sort of felt like Dunham was apologizing to the audience for having a TV-abnormal body, while reminding them of the more traditional hotties she cast as her friends. And if the ‘real girl’ character is entirely dominated by body self-hate, we’re just seeing the same old story from a different angle.

This show has been lauded as the answer to our prayer…or at least an answer to a prayer. Lena Dunham says this is a responsibility she doesn’t want to be saddled with. I’m not sure she has much choice. Or that she’s being entirely truthful—you don’t give your own character the line “I might be the voice of my generation” without inviting that question. It has not gone unnoticed or un-snarked that it took the endorsement of a powerful man (Judd Apatow) to bring this female dream to fruition. Women have been bringing shows like Girls to the powers that be for generations.  Was the world not ready?  Did the planets just not align properly, with the right powers in the right place at the right time?  Or was Dunham’s vision just that much better than anyone else’s? The show isn’t perfect, or even close. But part of what’s good about Girls is it doesn’t seem like it’s even trying to be. Like its creator, it seems to be more interested in being itself—warts, whiteness, envy and all.

Did you watch Girls? What did you think?


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