Taking a Look at HBO’s Girls

Julia Ostmann

Everyone has an opinion on Girls.Girls_logo

“A bold defense (and a searing critique) of the so-called Millennial Generation,” writes Emily Nussbaum in New York Magazine.

“[Its] heart and mind is in the right place. It wants to be more than the sum of its familiar parts. And sometimes it is,” writes basketballer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the Huffington Post.

“Your shit isn’t real,” says Gawker’s John Cook, quoting another TV show.

You don’t have to watch Girls to know that the HBO sitcom and its creator/star/co-writer/co-producer/co-show-runner (AKA head honcho) Lena Dunham have exploded into mainstream media consciousness. “The chattering classes…can’t stop writing about the damn thing,” says Michelle Dean in The Nation.

Detractors criticize the stark lack of diversity on Girls, a show that follows four white, straight, gender-conforming, able-bodied, college-educated characters from wealthy families. Kendra James, a Black woman, captures what many find infuriating about Girls in the title of her Racialicious piece on the show: “Dear Lena Dunham: I Exist,” she writes.

But other mainstream TV shows that depict narrow, privileged milieus hardly come under the same fire. Nobody publishes impassioned letters to Carter Bays or Craig Thomas, the show-runners of How I Met Your Mother. With roughly eight times the viewers of Girls and an extra dose of casual misogyny, How I Met Your Mother’s protagonists could be Girls’s big siblings: white, straight, financially-secure thirty-something college grads in New York.

So why has there been so much pushback against Girls in particular? And does Lena Dunham really deserve our anger?

“A voice of a generation.”

Season one, episode one. Stoned on opium tea in her parents’ luxury hotel room, protagonist Hannah Horvath (played by Dunham) says the words that have come to characterize Girls: “I think that I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least a voice of a generation.”

Girls critics often attack the flawed assertion, loudly proclaimed by many Girls lovers, that the cloistered world of Girls represents everyone under age 30. But many critics don’t stop there: They often attack Dunham and the show itself.

Consider a recent event held during Harvard’s annual Women’s Week. Around 25 students sat on sofas and armchairs in the Phillips Brooks House’s dark-paneled Parlor Room for “The Voice of Our Generation: Putting HBO’s ‘Girls’ on Trial.” Attendants were randomly divided into defense and prosecution teams. When the two teams went head-to-head, much of the debate focused on Dunham’s intentions and her personal responsibility for Girls’s societal implications.

But why indict Dunham and not Bays or Thomas? After all, as Jon Caramanica writes for The New York Times, “Girls is a symptom, not the disease.”

If Girls were indistinguishable from all other symptoms (read: TV shows) of the exclusionary television disease, however, no one would talk about it. And everyone is talking. The sponsor list for “Putting HBO’s ‘Girls’ on Trial” included the Harvard College Women’s Center, the women’s social group La Vie Club, Eating Concerns Hotline and Outreach, and the Association of Black Harvard Women. Girls engages (and enrages) people who care about a wide range of issues, from gender and female friendships to body image and race.

The firestorm of voices surrounding Girls suggests that the show cannot be reduced to its symptomatic status—that Girls is also saying something new and vital.

“I’m an individual, and I feel how I feel when I feel it.”

Season two, episode three. Hannah, strung out on coke this time and wearing a yellow mesh tank top with nothing underneath, shouts across a stranger’s kitchen: “I’m an individual, and I feel how I feel when I feel it.” She slaps her chest.

Watching Girls can sometimes feel like watching a 3D movie without the glasses. Is it extreme or realistic? Sincere or subversive? Celebrating or condemning the experiences it presents? Dunham’s talent is doing all of these things at once. In the line above, she pillories Hannah’s selfishness while epitomizing Girls’s groundbreaking achievement: depicting young women on television as individuals, with real feelings, messy triumphs, crises of self, and flaws.

Watching Hannah lay on her stomach on her lover’s sofa, flailing her arms behind her as she struggles, and ultimately fails, to pull off ugly purple tights for a sexual encounter she’s not sure she wants, is unlike watching any other show on television.

That moment (from the pilot episode) lays bare heterosexual hook-up culture, depicting the difficult balance between sexual empowerment and buy-in into power structures of male privilege. Girls is different because it dares to portray this and other complicated negotiations of young womanhood. Flailing with tights becomes a metaphor for flailing with life—the awkwardness, the trade-offs, the failures.

The few other TV shows about young women, like Two Broke Girls or New Girl, haven’t generated as much controversy because they’re easy targets: inauthentic portrayals even of their own privilege. So were Girls’s predecessors, such as Sex and the City.

“Older shows were laughably fake in their depictions of city girls,” blogs Lorrie Moore for The New Yorker. “They did not dare present real unhappiness, or real anything at all.”

Small wonder many women are angry to find themselves excluded from the only mainstream TV show attempting to “strip away the gloss and reveal the nuance and rawness of young women’s experience,” according to Nona Willis Aronowitz at GOOD. Jenna Wortham writes for The Hairpin that Girls “gets So. Many. Things. Right.” But, she adds, “I just wish I saw a little more of myself on screen.”

Ultimately, as Caramanica writes in the Times, Girls “has to carry the hopes of a whole class of viewers who ache to see themselves represented but who can’t all possibly fit in.”

“I don’t want women telling other women what to do, or how to do it, or when to do it.”

The power to decide which shows air—and therefore who fits in on TV—ultimately resides with networks like HBO. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes for The Atlantic, “My question is not ‘Why are there no black women on Girls,’ but ‘How many black show-runners are employed by HBO?’ This is about systemic change, not individual attacks.” As it turns out, HBO employs zero black and two female show-runners for its scripted shows, and its top three executives are white men.

Individual attacks have abounded, however, and not just over diversity. Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times compared watching Girls to seeing “a lovely but irritating wild child running naked around the playground, shouting ‘vagina’ at everyone and peeing in the sandbox… At some point someone needs to put that kid’s clothes back on and show her where the bathroom is.”

McNamara infantilizes the work of Dunham, a full-grown adult, and trivializes the experiences and sexuality of young women. To her, there is only one way a grown woman should behave (and it certainly does not involve public nudity). McNamara’s offensive comments merit a line from Girls character Jessa in season one, episode two: “I don’t want women telling other women what to do, or how to do it, or when to do it.” 

Many attacks on Dunham reinforce the sexist norm Jessa is alluding to: the assumption that women’s speech and behavior and TV shows need to be policed. Dunham is condescended to for portraying her own experience authentically, yet simultaneously demanded to authentically encapsulate the experiences of all women. She can’t ever get it right, a reader of the criticism would conclude, and she’s damned for trying.

In her essay for Time entitled “Confessions of a Black Woman Who Loves HBO’s Girls,” Christina Greer counters “harsh critiques” of Girls with a quote from Gloria Steinem: “Any woman who chooses to behave like a full human being should be warned that the armies of the status quo will treat her as something of a dirty joke…She will need her sisterhood.”

 “Like, I am woman, hear me roar.”

If Girls deserves a sisterhood, do feminists belong in it?

Shoshanna, the youngest lead on Girls, draws on classic feminist rhetoric to pep herself up for a dance party in season two, episode one. “Like, I am woman, hear me roar, you know what I mean?” she tells Hannah.

There are as many different feminists as opinions about Girls, all with varying takes on the show. Many decry Girls for portraying abusive sexual behavior; others claim the show breaks the silence on harsh truths. Many have celebrated Dunham’s non-Hollywood body for helping normalize different shapes on TV; others say Girls presents such bodies in a degrading rather than empowering light.

At Harvard’s “Putting HBO’s ‘Girls’ on Trial” event, one participant argued that rather than “reversing the gains our mothers fought for,” Girls asks, “Now that the gains have happened, how do women explore and figure out all the possibilities?” Another addressed the lack of diverse experiences on Girls, saying “Give it two more seasons, and there will be a show that addresses some of these holes. And then there will probably be more holes.”

In fact, the Women’s Week event on Girls prompted students to engage in discussion many feminists would celebrate, about power imbalances in sex, society, and television. But the wrong defendant was on the stand.

Girls perpetuates the lack of non-privileged female experiences on television, but networks, not Dunham, are to blame for the problem. Expecting her to single-handedly represent all women borders on expecting Dunham to be perfect—and if she were, would HBO have hired her?

In this light, Dunham herself could be called a symbol of feminist progress: a 25-year-old woman breaking into a field dominated by middle-aged men, generating significant conversation in major publications, capturing national attention. Rather than ripping her apart, detractors of Girls would do better to denounce the power brokers that allow hers to be the only voice championing women’s nuanced, flawed personhood on mainstream television.

“What we should be wishing for—nay, pushing for—is a lot more shows made by a lot more girls,” writes GOOD’S Aronowitz. In fact, a number of funny, smart, and unique female voices are already transitioning from computer to TV screen. Take The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, created by and starring Issa Rae. Or F TO 7TH, a self-described “homoneurotic web series” about the lives of queer women in New York, created by and starring Ingrid Jungermann.

If we want to see television that represent young women’s individual experiences, we need to fight for, and not against, the women who dare to break down barriers—the Issa Raes, the Ingrid Jungermanns, and, yes, even the Lena Dunhams.

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