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Watching ‘Girls’ and why sexual harassment isn’t funny

I realise I’m a bit behind the curve with this one, but I just watched the first eight episodes of the new HBO release, Girls. For those who don’t know, Girls has been lauded as the more realistic, more edgy, more funny version of Sex And The City for 20-somethings instead of 30-somethings.

It’s also a pretty big coup for writer, director, creator and star, Lena Dunham, who is only 25-years-old and is totally killing it with her career.

A lot of criticism has been hurled at Girls, primarily because it’s not really a feminist triumph, and because there are literally no non-white characters, and usually I would argue that the point of the show isn’t to make a well-balanced attempt at portraying young women on television – it’s a black comedy, and it achieves it’s goals in the sense that it’s funny, addictive, painfully honest at times and very relatable.
But that doesn’t mean that Girls is above criticism.

Despite the backlash, I can admit that the show is very entertaining and fun. Even when I recognise the issues in terms of race and the portrayal of men, I can generally just get on with enjoying the episode. But there are still moments when I feel a bit uneasy, and for me, the one bit of the show that caused significant unease is the plotline about Hannah’s sexually harassing boss.

Without giving away too much of the episode, at her first paid job Hannah works for kindly older man who has a penchant for treating his female staff to ‘massages’. Mostly of their breasts.

After her first ‘massage’, Hannah brings it up with her workmates, who assure her that not only does he apparently not mean it in a ‘sexual harassment’ way, but he is also a great boss who rarely complains if they’re late or don’t do their work on time.
The trade-off seems to be that they put up with a bit of ‘harmless’ inappropriate touching from what seems like a fairly nice old man, and in return get a relaxed workplace where they can basically do what they want and still get paid. On top of that, one of Hannah’s best friends tells her that she should admit she finds the attention ‘flattering’.

Hannah finds this strange, but doesn’t actually complain. And then, when she does finally reach her limit, she offers her boss sex, reacts badly when he rejects her, threatens to sue him and then quits.

I get that Girls is a comedy. I get that they were never actually going to deal with the sexual harassment issue. But this is just ridiculous.

Not only does the episode imply that sexual harassment is ok, so long as there is some kind of trade-off, but rather than complain and quit legitimately, Hannah throws herself at her boss and then threatens him, and quits out of embarrassment.

This seemed to suggest that women who complain about sexual harassment are being somewhat irrational, and that it would be better to good-humouredly put up with the ‘inconvenience’ of being intimately fondled by your aged boss than to call him out on it.

Worse, the way that Hannah goes about the issue makes her come across as the inappropriate, out of order character, and allows her sleazy boss to maintain the upper hand as he tries to convince her to stay in her job, and says she has tons of potential.
Even allowing for the comedic element of the scene, I found myself wondering just what on earth Girls was trying to achieve with the whole plot line. The topic of casual sexual harassment could have been a really interesting one, especially considering its relevance to a lot of young women in professional environments.

But the fact that the end result wasn’t in any way indicative of a nuanced approach to the issue really bothered me. I’m not saying that Hannah should have complained and triumphed, with a formal apology and some kind of retribution for her boss (though that would have been nice). I’m not even saying that they should have taken the issue seriously, because once again, I get that it’s a comedy.

But if it had to have a slapstick ending, why did it have to be at the expense of the female character, in such a spectacular way? Why couldn’t there have been even a minor mention of the fact that workplace sexual harassment is a real issue, and it’s wrong?
It’s true that Girls is a show that could be criticized for any number of reasons, and it’s also true that most of these failings aren’t going to stop me watching the rest of the season.

But I do think that, as a show both targeted at and made for women, Girls owes it to audiences to at least offer a token evaluation of serious issues that doesn’t just rely on a punchline.

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4 thoughts on “Watching ‘Girls’ and why sexual harassment isn’t funny

  1. I feel somewhat the same way about some episodes of Sex in the City. I recently watched a re-run that had Samantha hire a younger, male secretary for the implied purpose of eventually bedding him. I felt pretty uncomfortable, and felt this was mocking the very real, and very unrecognised, issue of men being sexually harassed in the workplace too.

  2. Zoya, you’re so right about the uneasiness of watching Girls. I still don’t know if I like the show or not. I think I do. There are other things that make me uneasy too – particularly Hannah’s relationship with her “boyfriend”/boyfriend.

    I think the uneasiness is the point of the show. It’s about awkward interactions and not resolving issues which are often magically resolved in the space of a TV episode (or in a season if it’s a Really Big Issue). I’m not sure how making people feel uneasy for 30 minute stretches each week is useful, but it is somehow compelling.

  3. I have seen a lot of criticism against Girls on the issues that you outlined in your article. Whilst I agree with your viewpoints, I have to admit that I prefer the show the way it is.

    Why?

    Because it gets people talking about the issues.

    The sexual harassment issue was so poorly dealt with on the show that it compelled you (and many others) to criticise it. It caused people to think about and discuss how such an issue should be dealt with in reality.

    On racism, I think it is great that the show’s audience actually noticed the lack of diversity in the cast and comment on it. My opinion is that the criticisms and the comments after each episode are always more influential than what the show portrays.

    So kudos to you for writing a great piece, and kudos to Girls for evoking your attention to issues that are still quite prevalent today.

  4. Pingback: 50th Edition of the Down Under Feminists’ Carnival « A life unexamined

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