Reconciling Lena Dunham’s GIRLS, for Both Critics and Fans

By Andrew Golledge,

After a nearly interminable amount of hype leading up to the premiere of HBO’s new sitcom, Girls, including various pieces in New Yorker, Time Out, Rolling Stone and endless blogs, we have finally seen its much heralded arrival come and go. Other episodes have followed and there is a rough consensus: it is a well-written, well-acted television show that dares to show young women as something less than glamorous fashion models who never use the bathroom.  What we’re left with now is not so much a TV show as a debate over its inherent cultural value, one predicated not on its content, but rather on its premise.

Set in New York City, the show follows four wealthy, white women in their early twenties as they navigate living, loving, etc. And based on just this short description, two camps of appreciation have emerged: First, the show is the next step forward in how the “fairer” sex is shown; it is a detailed portrayal of realistically characterized urbanite women behaving in realistic ways towards themselves, their friends, their families and their lovers. Second, the show is a regressive narrative, exclusively showcasing privileged whiteness in the world’s most diverse city, and is essentially another cog in a media-machine that continues to white-wash an increasingly multicultural society.

There is of course right and wrong on both sides, but as is so often the case with any discussion involving race, the volume of the voices on each side has become so loud that there seems to be little actual constructive dialogue. So I am stepping in to help build the bridge.

Let’s agree on the most obvious: this is an important discussion that needs to happen more often. We are not living in a post-racial America, and how the popular media conditions us to view our fellow humans in both positive and negative lights through stereotyping is a mechanism that deserves analysis, not at the academic margins, but within the mainstream.

Let’s also agree that Girls is a fair target for inclusion within this discussion. One response I’ve noted among its supporters is a mild to moderate disbelief and/or frustration that their newly favorite show has even become involved, claiming that it’s too specific of a program to be given prominence in any larger race debate. First of all, the show is called Girls, not White Girls or Rich Girls. To label your work with an entire gender makes its inclusion fair play. Second, early supporters/fans of the show were just as broad with their initial praise, labeling it as one beneficial to the same, whole gender. It was only when the backlash grew that these same fans walked back their comments to a safer, more specific appraisal. And when the main character, played by the writer/director, states that she may be “a voice of a generation,” I don’t think anyone is in a position to complain that people are trying to understand exactly what that means. So while it’s true that programs like Mad Men, Game of Thrones, GCB or How I Met Your Mother have not been met with the same brand of criticism, they, and their fans, also didn’t do as much to invite it (that is not to say that they should be exempt from that analysis either).

Now let’s try to find more to agree on. As I wrote at the top, Girls is also very, very good. In spite of this fairly uncontroversial opinion, an unfortunate double standard has emerged in the rhetoric from the show’s harshest critics, centering on how unlikable the characters are. I have to agree on that point: the characters are unlikable. They are spoiled heiresses and can be painfully unwise, but that doesn’t necessarily make for bad television. We have tolerated childish and irresponsible antics from TV’s male protagonists from The Honeymooners to The King of Queens only to label them as “endearing” and “entertaining.” It’s a veritable genre within primetime, but place a woman in a similar position (or a similar body type for that matter) and she, and the show, is labeled as far worse for no other reason than … well, I don’t know the reason actually. If someone can be more specific about why despicable characters in a brilliant show like Seinfeld can get a pass whereas immature ones in a good one like Girls are mercilessly cut down, then please let me know.

What exactly were the redeeming qualities for this lot?

With the illegitimate reasons for disliking Girls out of the way, we can focus on the more substantial ones, and I feel that this is also where the easy agreements are no longer possible. As I see it, here’s where the show’s fans have it right. It is a step forward, and a large one at that, in how women are portrayed within fictionalized media. It’s nothing new to say that they are too often characterized as objects of desire, whether it’s as a Manic Pixie Girl, Femme Fatale, or Familial Bedrock. And this stereotyping is far from subtle; ABC alone has two shows that feature the word “Bitch” in their titles. So to have a program where all of its female characters defy easy stereotyping is not just impressive, but unique. And they have believable issues too, ones related to body image, gynecological health, emotionally abusive men, and a society that tells them how they, as the “ladies,” are expected to behave. It’s great stuff, and you’d be very hard pressed to find any other show on TV past and present to so extensively, and realistically, showcase those issues.

Now for the really large pill for critics to swallow, and I must put this as plainly as possible: the show is not offensive, neither in its premise or its execution. Lena Dunham has gone on the record and very clearly stated that she is writing from her personal experiences, and those of her staff writers. If her universe is one of privileged whiteness, than we can only accuse her of being honest, critical too, and of rejecting useless racial tokenism.

Here’s the real issue. Here’s the real reason why so many critics are angry. The problem isn’t that Girls is an entirely White show. No, the problem is that it is another entirely White show, and that is where they’re absolutely right to be angry.

For anyone who cares about fair minority representation, flipping through the channels can be a depressing thing.  As a minority myself, it can feel like I don’t exist or, worse yet, like media doesn’t want me to exist, not unless everything I am is shoehorned into an awkward, offensive stereotype. So to endlessly hear about the revolutionary Girls and see what is racially speaking more of the same is heartbreaking, but that is not Dunham’s fault. It’s the fault of the production and marketing models that so rarely allow for minorities of genuine substance to be woven into network programming. If a black writer/director tried to push a show of similar ambition with a predominantly black cast, we all know that the road to broadcast would be far longer, and probably one that dead ends before it even reached that destination. So in this sense Girls is not a problem in and of itself, but it is emblematic of a much larger one.

So critics, if you want to start encouraging a more constructive debate, start focusing on the real enemy: the system that helped Girls get on the air. Then, start focusing on the solutions. With HDV camera equipment so readily available, the ability to produce and distribute video narratives through websites like Vimeo, YouTube or Hulu is easier than ever. A film production degree is not necessary. I don’t have one, but I’ve still started dabbling in making short films, and if a meshugganah like me can put a couple of shots together somewhat cohesively, than so can anybody.

And fans, try to embrace a critical approach towards Girls and its cultural significance (as we can make it so far). So the next time you are leaning towards a knee jerk defense of the show when someone criticizes it for its lack of diversity, remember and understand that he or she is not just criticizing Girls, but the decades of offensive television programming and production that have led to its broadcast. It’s a valid criticism, and one you can share while still loving the show.

Bridge built. You’re welcome.

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