“Girls be making HBO shows, am I right?”

This gives a brief (if overly patronizing and insensitive) summary of what bothered me about HBO’s new show: Girls.

I didn’t know much about it going in, other than I was pretty excited. Anyone who’s been watching Game of Thrones has probably seen a trailer for it in the last month, and the pilot finally aired last Sunday. And a week out the critical cycle is well underway, with initial praise followed by some (mild?) backlash, followed by a breakdown of the pilot’s cultural shortcomings (rather than its comedic or narrative ones).

Of course, I’m on board with Alyssa Rosenberg and Ta-Nehisi Coates. The show is Lena Dunham’s. It’s presumably the story she knows, and the one she wants to tell. And if that doesn’t include much racial diversity (or likable male characters), trying to “fix” that would be disingenuous and problematic for another set of reasons. Indeed, the problem isn’t that Girls is not diverse, it’s that television in general, including HBO, is not diverse. In a media world where every perspective was getting represented, a show starring four white women wouldn’t pose any sort of issue.

And yet Girls seems to be criticized for this more than Sex in the City ever was. And I have to wonder if it isn’t because something in the show’s indie style and awkward tone makes us feel like it’s trying to be more real and down to earth.

Four things jump out at me.

First, as I hinted at earlier, the show takes on an almost exclusively feminine viewpoint, similar to the way shows like Entourage take on an exclusively masculine viewpoint. None of the male characters are likable, at least if you’re a guy. Dunham’s pseudo-love interest isn’t authentic, he’s just a domineering jackass. And the overly nice and doting boyfriend of her roommate is perhaps accurate, but shallow. He is a love sick puppy whose one-too-many adorable glances has driven his girlfriend to be as attracted to him as she is to her uncle. That would be all fine and good if his character had even one interesting line of dialogue that attempted to do anything other than establish his being a “pussy.”

Second, all of the show’s girls in real life come from upper-class (1%?) families, and at least appear to be coming from a somewhat similar place in the show. In fact, unlike Sex in the City, where the women were older and had thus established careers that at least approximated the plausibility of them living a certain way, Girls showcases characters living similarly hang-out-centric lifestyles despite having not labored (or checked out of the rat race) to be able to do so. It is one thing to have gone to state university, acquired a degree, and be a young women seeking gainful employment in the field of her interest. It’s another to go to a liberal arts college, have interned for free for two years, and been living off monthly allowances from mom and dad (not to mention the majority of young people that fall into neither of those categories).

Third, and maybe this is because I’m a guy looking at the world through masculine eyes. At the risk of sounding ignorant and sexist, I’ll note that there’s something about how important conversations in the show can never seem to take place in ordinary circumstances. Dunham and her roommate chat in the morning in the show. Then later when Dunham has quit her internship after being denied a job, she talk to her lover on the couch as he eyes her up before bedding her shortly after. And then one of the four girlfriends reveals that she’s (spoilers) pregnant while fights with her other friend from the toilet upon which she is relieving herself.

Or as it was put over at Womanist Musings, “All this time I thought that women interacted in social situations like maybe sharing a glass of wine on a couch together, working out at a gym together, watching a movie together etc., how could I have missed the opportunity to shave my legs with my BFF? Clearly, I am not performing my female friendships properly.” 

Fourth and finally, the show takes place in New York city, an exception in and of itself, and not the best place to be seeking employment.

All of which would be fine if the show didn’t appear to be aimed at providing a (admittedly female) look at life for the young (some have called them lost) generation. Dunham’s character does correct herself though, and note that rather than being the voice of her generation, she might only be “a” voice of “a” generation. So why don’t I feel like this moment of self-awareness permeates the rest of the show? One too many asides about student debt and the job market perhaps?

Then again, it’s only the pilot, and unlike many positive critics, I haven’t had the benefit of seeing later episodes, so perhaps this is a problem of a poor start  rather than demonstrative of a cognitive dissonance that will underlie the entire series.

And perhaps I would be less focused on the politics surrounding the show if the narrative were more compelling and comical. The trailer for the show was selling endearing indie wit, but what was finally delivered felt more tragic than anything else (there are funny moments, some exquisitely so, but they are few and far between). Which is to say that if I can’t identify with your story (as a male I’m probably not suppose to), I should still be compelled by your narrative, unless, of course, it’s not meant for me at all. In which case I would wonder if it’s meant for anyone outside of a small click of aspiring white, upper class, female literati living in New York, past  and present.

All of which is to say that I hope the upcoming episodes prove Girls to be a much deeper and broader reaching experience than it is starting out.

But perhaps there is nothing wrong with the show, and really there is something wrong with me. Or at least the way I’m use to approaching media. As a man interpreting the creations of a medium dominated by other men, it’s just as likely that I need to re-adjust my own sensitivities and interpretive  vocabulary in order to get what’s going on. If that is the case, it would probably still be easier to do if Girls wasn’t so rank with privilege and the jealousies and suspicions such privilege engenders.

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4 thoughts on ““Girls be making HBO shows, am I right?”

  1. I realize this is going to sound weird from me, but I think a lot of the backlash about the premise, not the characters themselves, is a bit of jealously. A lot of response I’ve seen is that, “oh, these girls are just like my sister/neighbor/friend/daughter/co-worker/etc.” and unless there’s a rash of entitled kids stealing money from maids, I don’t think it’s about the characters.

    Now, I haven’t seen the show, but I feel no anger towards kids who can go through their 20’s without working shit jobs. This may be a bit controversial, but working at a crappy call center when you’re 24 because the economy sucks doesn’t make you a better person than somebody who can pay the rent with dad’s credit card. It might result in you making worse choices and only succeeding because of other advantages in your life, but a job for the sake of a job isn’t always an entirely positive thing. I would’ve happily taken an allowance if able.

    In other words, if you don’t like the characters in the show simply because they’re bad people, all right. If you don’t like them simply based on th fact they’re mooching off their parents, then yeah, I think that’s a little resentment/jealously/etc. creeping in.

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  2. I’m agnostic at this point. I could see the show going any number of directions. As you say, it’s just a pilot and while there are occasionally brilliant pilots (Lost, Breaking Bad) more often than not they’re a poor representation of the following series.

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  3. It’s not just that the male characters (and also the mother; everyone except the titular girls) are unlikable. After all, it’s not like the main characters are warmly lovable. It’s that they’re caricatures. Admittedly, it’s only the pilot, maybe they’ll acquire more depth in later episode.

    Also, am I the only one who thinks that, out of the “girls”, the main main character is the one I like the least?

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