The series, created and starring Lena Dunham and produced by Judd Apatow, is about the lives of twenty-something women living in Brooklyn. Since both are HBO series, Girls is usually likened to Sex and the City, but as a more hipster-ish, Freaks and Geeks version of Sex and the City. However, in its three seasons, the show has also spurred many debates in the media about sexism in audience reactions, female representations on television, and racial diversity (or lack thereof) in storytelling.
In some ways, the debates that surround Girls are continuations of an old argument that applies to television as a whole. But part of the reason these issues received traction in the media with this series in particular is that HBO hyped the show as being a "woman's show," created by a young woman, that is supposed to have something funny/distinctive to say about the lives and relationships of young, aspiring women. For those that love the show, Girls is a series that provides an honest depiction of the awkwardness and faults that many millennials have experienced while making the transition to adulthood. For others, it's a series with self-indulgent, whiny, unlikable, privileged characters that thinks it's more profound about life than its narrative provides.
Please read below the fold for more on Girls.
Last Thursday, at a Television Critics Association (TCA) panel for HBO's Girls in advance of its season 3 premiere, the debate about some of those social issues connected to the show resurfaced again in a contentious session.
The first question to the panel (and Dunham specifically), by The Wrap's Tim Molloy, seemed to set the tone, and became exhibit "ZZ" of how the series is a cultural lightning rod.
Tim Molloy: “I don’t get the purpose of all the nudity on the show. By you particularly. I feel like I’m walking into a trap where you say no one complains about the nudity on ‘Game of Thrones,’ but I get why they’re doing it. They’re doing it to be salacious. To titillate people. And your character is often naked at random times for no reason.”According to Molloy, he wasn't trying to be disrespectful towards Dunham, and he wasn't saying there was anything "wrong" with Dunham being nude. He only wanted to know if there was some sort of artistic reason for why Dunham's character Hannah is nude so often in the show. However, others saw it as an example of misogyny towards Dunham and sexism the show engenders. Girls executive producer and writer Jenni Konner, who said she was enraged and sickened by someone accusing "a woman of showing her body too much."
Lena Dunham: “Yeah. It’s because it’s a realistic expression of what it’s like to be alive, I think, and I totally get it. If you are not into me, that’s your problem.”
Judd Apatow: “Do you have a girlfriend?”
Tim Molloy: “Sure.”
Judd Apatow: “Does she like you?”
Tim Molloy: “Yeah.”
Judd Apatow: “Let’s see how she likes you when you quote that with your question and just write the whole question… and tell me how it goes tonight.”
Defenders of the show have argued that many of the criticisms lodged against the show and Dunham are rooted in sexism. For example, one of the charges leveled against the show was nepotism, since all four leads have famous parents. But so does J.J. Abrams and Joss Whedon, however their parentage never seemed to come up when people and the media discuss their success.
However, some reviewers have argued the lack of diversity may be true to the depiction of the characters, which are all self-centered and insulated to their own little world. And this is not a new criticism of television shows and films set in NYC. Both Seinfeld and Friends were criticized for a lack of diversity in the depiction of the social circle their respective characters inhabited. And Woody Allen is a man who's dedicated a huge chunk of his life to making films about New York and is largely identified with the city, but I don't think I'm being unfair by saying one could probably count on both hands the amount of black characters who've been in his films over the decades.
From Rebecca Nicholson at The Guardian:
Whether the four girls of Girls are relatable or indeed likeable [is] a recurring theme ... "I never want to pull out the sexism trump card but I think there's been a lot of license for men to act a lot of really ugly ways on film and television," said Dunham, "and I feel so lucky that we're not held to any standard of sweet female decency. People say, well, how do we sympathise with them? And it's funny, because you seem to like Walter White," referring to the antihero in hit show Breaking Bad.
- Unsympathetic Comedy Protagonist: My problem with the show has always been how much I find myself not caring about these characters or their "journeys," even though the show wants us to care about Hannah's relationship with an asshole like Adam. It's not just that the characters are unlikable (which they are), but the show never really gives us a reason to empathize with the characters. Dunham's comparison to Breaking Bad misses the point. People don't sympathize with Walter White because of the ugly ways he acted. They sympathized with that character, and went along with his journey because there was a foundation to the character's arc where you could understand why he went down the path he did. Compare that with the four leads of Girls. Each one represents a "reality" that exists and interesting as character studies. But the problems of Hannah and her friends are largely of their own making, and the show doesn't endear me to them when the characters wallow in their own insecurities and self-pity. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia is also a show centered around awful characters, but it overtly acknowledges how awful they are. On the other hand, Girls seems more ambivalent as to whether we're supposed to be "rooting" for Hannah as she acts like an awful person.
- On The Other Hand: The most interesting thing about the series is how the characters address issues and talk about things in a way that other television programs don't when addressing the lives and insecurities of twenty-somethings. For example, one of Lena Dunham's central themes for the show seems to be that the belief that people's 20s are the best years of their lives is a fallacy. In his preview for season 3, Andy Greenwald over at Grantland explains that one of Girls' strengths is that it captures all the possibilities and ambitions that a person who's new to New York City encounters, and how that crashes into the lines of reality.
- The Sex and the City Comparison: Both series are centered around female writers and their three female friends living their lives in New York City. The biggest difference between the two is age, status, and zip code. The most interesting thing is that I'm sure there are more Hannah Horvaths in the world than Carrie Bradshaws. But the women I know that are fans of both, and are in the same age group as the Girls characters, identify more with the Sex and the City characters. And I think that's because Sex and the City is "aspirational" in a way that Girls is honest. Would you rather be the independent and wealthy woman, with a closet full of Manolo Blahniks that has a millionaire "Mr. Big" infatuated with you, or the attractive cougar that can do and say what she wants and have any hot guy that she desires? Girls in a lot of ways deconstructs the Sex and the City characters, with Jessa being Samantha's (Kim Cattrall) counterpart through which we see how awful and destructive that character would be in a reality deprived of glamour.
Carrie and her friends—Miranda, Samantha, and Charlotte—were odder birds by far, jagged, aggressive, and sometimes frightening figures, like a makeup mirror lit up in neon. They were simultaneously real and abstract, emotionally complex and philosophically stylized. Women identified with them—“I’m a Carrie!”—but then became furious when they showed flaws. And, with the exception of Charlotte (Kristin Davis), men didn’t find them likable: there were endless cruel jokes about Samantha (Kim Cattrall), Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), and Carrie as sluts, man-haters, or gold-diggers. To me, as a single woman, it felt like a definite sign of progress: since the elemental representation of single life at the time was the comic strip “Cathy” (ack! chocolate!), better that one’s life should be viewed as glamorously threatening than as sad and lonely.
- On The Other Hand, Part II: Going back to Tim Molloy's question at the TCA the other day and putting it together with some of what Emily Nussbaum wrote above, I wonder if societal standards of attractiveness and socioeconomics plays a big part in people's perceptions of the show? For example, if Lena Dunham was conventionally attractive for television (and for the record, I'm not saying she's ugly or that she's not attractive), I wonder if the negative reaction to her character and the off-putting unlikability would be there? If this were a show fronted by Zooey Deschanel (The New Girl) or Kaley Cuoco (The Big Bang Theory) or Kat Dennings (Two Broke Girls), would Molloy be standing in front of an audience asking a question about why the actress was nude so much in the show? Also, and this is true in life in many respects, but being attractive gives people a certain amount of leeway to be awful that you don't have when society perceives you as plain. Just as you have more leeway to be awful when you're wealthy like the women in Sex and the City instead of struggling like the characters in Girls. One of the more interesting aspects of analysis about this show as a reflection of society is wondering whether the perception of Hannah and the other characters on the show would be totally different if some of those circumstances were changed. Also, flip the genders. If the show was Guys instead, and its creator and main character was an insecure, slightly overweight male aspiring writer, would the audience have reacted with the same issues?
- Diversity In Fiction: The arguments over diversity in Girls gets into some of the same arguments bandied about with affirmative action. When we're talking about positions within government, educational opportunities, and even the hiring performance of companies and corporations, diversity has become at the very least an important agreed upon "goal" in most people's eyes (even if they may disagree about how you go about getting there). But does a writer or producer have a duty to present diversity when telling a story? If we're dealing with fiction, something that by its very nature can be unrealistic, does that fiction have to at least represent race, gender, orientation, etc., in a realistic way? I think the reason why Girls continues to get hit with this criticism is because the people behind it market the show as being a meaningful exploration of female relationships that has realism. And if you market your show as being "real," well people are going to call you on any departure from reality. Although, if we're talking about reality, there's no fuckin' way that Hannah and Marnie could afford their apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.