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pissed off feminist fights back: but why girls?

lena dunham
There are few shows that generate as much online content and controversy as Lena Dunham’s Girls. Every week there is a new piece breaking down the last episode and either celebrating or criticising its creator. But because we’re more than halfway through Season 2, it seems about time we got back to discussing what’s at the core of this show, and to acknowledge its flaws without demeaning Dunham’s achievements.

Because Dunham has achieved something. A 20-something with their own show is kind of a big deal. A woman with her own show is kind of a big deal.  And although she benefited from her parents’ relative success, she should be applauded for having created, starred in, directed and written a show that speaks to women across the Western world.

I think what’s important is what Dunham represents. She’s a young successful woman, and is thus a role model. The fact of the matter is that now that Dunham has succeeded, she is paving the way for future young female Golden Globe winners; for people to realise that they are capable of doing the things she does. People do internalise media messages; not only are sex-positive portrayals of women as flawed three-dimensional people important, but seeing a woman as a creator of media is important.

The exciting thing about Girls is that it’s a show written by and for women. It’s not created with an innate sense of the male gaze and it deliberately subverts certain television conventions. It’s uncommon to see a woman who is not conventionally attractive in a starring role, especially not a woman who freely expresses herself and has at one point had a sexual relationship with a handsome older man. It’s a rare occurrence, unlike the inverse where a conventionally attractive woman is paired with an often overweight, unattractive male (see King of Queens, According to Jim, Everybody Loves Raymond, Grounded for Life, even The Simpsons). This is exciting for many reasons, one being that this is a talented woman being judged for just that, her talent, and not her ability to give a dude a boner.

But Girls has been the object of media scrutiny and rightly so. When a show purports to be the voice of a generation, of young women living in New York City, it needs to be in some small way representative of those people. And it’s hard to be that when your show only accounts for the experiences of middle class 20-something white women, when more than ¼ of the population of New York City is African American.

However, it’s impossible to make a show that does everything for everyone. The category of women in their mid-20s is indistinct at best, and it’s just not possible to share the stories of people from all different class backgrounds, racial backgrounds, and sexualities in the course of a 30 minute program. Not if you’re abiding by some sitcom conventions. It’s possible for an experimental drama perhaps, but not for something that’s concentrating on the life of one Hannah Horvath.

So even if Dunham does want to represent greater ethnic diversity in Girls, if that doesn’t fit with Horvath’s character for whatever reason, it’d be jarring to force her to explore those narratives. It would be better to fully flesh out those stories on a separate stage. Adding a woman of colour all of sudden lends itself to accusations of tokenism, and there’s got to be the question of the capacity of a writer to do so outside of their experience.

If you’ve never been a woman of colour, how capable are you of encompassing their experiences in a nuanced way? That’s not to say that it’s impossible to write outside your experience, but that it’s difficult, requiring a certain level of research and introspection. The writer always has to be wary of offending, of being blasé, and there is always the risk that the piece will lack authenticity.

What is possible for Girls, and shows like it, to do is to open dialogue. It is possible for it to create a precedent where the stories of young women are considered valid and worthy of sharing; where people offer up challenging counter-narratives that force responders to reevaluate their own place in the world and possibly even renegotiate their identities. Girls has the potential to do more than reflect the identity of its creator and some of its fans. It can provide hope and motivation to young people.

What do you think about Lena Dunham and Girls?

2 thoughts on “pissed off feminist fights back: but why girls?

  1. I think the notion that Girls does more than reflect the identity of its creator and could, or should, provide hope and motivation to young people is partly why the show collapses under the weight of its own expectations.

    While I dont watch Girls, I still can admire the extent to which Dunham has been able to create characters and plotlines that provoke intense feedback and discussion, but I feel that these critiques focus far more on Lena Dunham as a person, rather than Girls as a work in of itself. (and I’m talking about the left-wing critiques, not the Lena Dunham body shaming brouhaha) Why on earth should Lena be a role model? Why can’t she just make the show as she wants and be judged on her work (although admittedly, by calling the show Girls she implicitly created an overbearing sense of expectation)?

    I understand that by simply making it in the sitcom business as a woman in her early 20′s, she is a role model to an extent. And of course, her achievement is inspirational for many, but it doesn’t make her beholden to our demands for her to be even more inspirational – by having more racial diversity for example.

    Basically, I think that shows by male writers tend to be judged more as works in-of-themselves, with an assumed degree of separation between the writer and his piece of work. This separation seems to break down though when it comes to Lena Dunham and Girls, however, regardless of whether it’s “pro” or “anti” Dunham.

  2. Why do we expect Dunham to be a crusader of every form of social justice?

    She’s limited herself to portraying middle class white women in their mid-twenties. This is no crime. I’m sure the people who watch this show are watching it with the knowledge that these four women do not represent the sum total experiences of young women in New York City.

    If we are concerned about television becoming a whitewashed, hetero-normative space, then surely it is the responsibility of HBO rather than Dunham to rectify this.

    Dunham is probably just exploring issues which are important to her, issues which have had some impact on her life. This is perfectly acceptable, especially since she is doing an exemplary job of opening up a dialogue around some important subjects.

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