Considering the platform Lena Dunham has to make positive statements about women, couldn’t she, at the very least, write one female character we might actually like?
(Spoiler alert! This discusses details from the most recent episode.)
I’ll admit that when the show Girls premiered on HBO, I wasn’t a huge fan. All the awkward, grunting sex and the awkward, grasping characters made me a little uncomfortable. This from someone who occasionally writes sex articles so, yeah, that’s saying something.
And I think that was the point—to make us just a little uncomfortable. But by the third episode, I was hooked, laughing out loud at the clever dialogue and oddly fascinated by the strange but well-written cast of trainwrecks.
In the first couple of seasons, the characters seemed interesting and layered, seriously flawed, but real. It was a peek into the lives of a specific group of young women, fresh out of school, their ambitions derailed by a broken-down economy. College-educated, floating along on their parents’ monthly checks, their emotional struggles as loosely tangled as gold-plated, dollar-bin jewelry.
I was rooting for them because they were lost, but essentially good. They seemed kind of familiar, like that embarrassing 20-something I kind of remember being, who hopefully wasn’t that bad, right?
Since it premiered in 2012, the show has gone on to receive awards and acclaim and a ton of attention, as well as its fair share of criticism. The show’s creator, writer, and lead actress, Lena Dunham, has become a sort of feminist hero, for her body bravery, yes, but for her creative bravery as well. It takes a lot of courage to write characters that say what we’re often thinking, but would never dare say out loud. I’ve heard Hannah compared to Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm—cringe-worthy, socially-awkward, but also amusing to watch.
Of course, no one has ever looked to Larry David to be the poster boy for wealthy baby-boomers, or assumed his show would be some kind of anthem for eco-friendly, entertainment biz types. There is no social responsibility attached to Curb Your Enthusiasm. With Girls, I think there is.
That’s not to say that Lena Dunham owes it to her audience to write fairly and equally about gender (or race) simple because her show is called Girls. Then again, her show is called Girls. Considering the platform she has to make positive statements about women, couldn’t she, at the very least, write one female character we might actually like? Just one?
As the show has gone on, the male characters have become more charming while the women are starting to really suck. Yes, yes, they’re all in various stages of unraveling, which always brings out the worst in people, except the true colors of the Girls’ girls are just ugly. We’re now seeing these young women for what they really are—soulless and narcissistic, without shame or apology. I’m finding it tough to swallow.
The episode before last, “Dead Inside,” dealt with the unexpected loss of Hannah’s book editor, except it didn’t evoke all of the usual “carpe diem” reexamining of life and relationships that one might expect from a death episode. Instead, every single female character showed shocking, inhuman detachment, totally void of sensitivity or empathy. Hannah tells her boyfriend, the guy she apparently loves, that if he died, sure, she would be sad, but would also worry about how she was going to pay her rent. Later, she hijacks a heartbreaking story about a dying girl (one that was pure fiction) and retells it to her concerned boyfriend to hide the fact that she’s incapable of feeling anything other than her own “what about me?” fear.
In the most recent episode, “Only Child,” Hannah attends her book editor’s funeral and upon learning that her e-book has been dropped, callously blurts to his wife, “So my book is dead.” She then asks the grieving widow if she might know a publisher she can send her manuscript to in order to “keep it alive.” Wow, awkward…and horrible. Later, when her father mentions that he’s just had a medical procedure done, she quickly dismisses him and changes the subject so that she can unload.
This season, Hannah, as well as her friends, do, in fact, seem to be dead inside, while it’s the men who have hearts and souls and normal human emotions.
When I mentioned all of this to my husband, his immediate response was that it was interesting to finally see men as the anchors, the voices of reason, the ones shaking their heads. His feeling was that so many shows have these cracked male leads who need the women in their lives to keep them grounded. Finally, the men are the sane ones.
I can see what he’s saying. Some of the best shows on television revolve around a male anti-hero, often criminal, morally questionable. Thing is, we root for the Walter Whites, the Nucky Thompsons, and the Tony Sopranos because despite the fact that they’re, well, murderers, they have a heart. Even a female anti-hero like Nurse Jackie—a drug addict, cheater, and liar—still loves her family and her patients and tries to do the right thing. We root for her because, at the end of the day, she’s good.
The women on Girls though are just terrible people—self-centered, aimless, clueless. Let’s be honest here: If men were writing this show, women would be outraged, label it misogynistic, and it probably wouldn’t have lasted more than one season. So is it OK to portray the worst possible side of women, because the show’s creator is a woman and a modern feminist? Is this what modern feminism is really about: showing all sides of women, even the ugly ones?
Believe it or not, I actually still love the show. I find it funny and smart, with complex characters and rich storylines. I look forward to watching it and like how it often forces me to think, especially about issues like body image. That’s why I’m wondering if all of this passive girl-bashing is part of a long game.
In the last episode, after Ray finishes telling Marnie that she’s a “big, fat phony,” he then softens the blow by saying, “I still like you…because behind it all, I think you mean well. And I’m old enough to recognize that all of this bullshit comes from a deep, dank, dark toxic well of insecurity…And that allows you to be a sympathetic character.” As much as the Girls kind of suck these days, I have a feeling Lena Dunham knows exactly what she’s doing.
Jennifer Benjamin is an LA-based freelance writer and editor with over thirteen years of experience writing for national magazines and websites like Cosmopolitan, Women’s Health, SELF, Parents Magazine, The Stir and Daily Glow. More important, she’s a Mommy to identical twin boys, as well as an avid cook, a terrible housewife, and a loungewear enthusiast. Find her on Twitter @JennyBenjamin or Facebook.