Seems like everyone in the ‘effing blogosphere’ has an incontrovertible, deeply-held opinion about the new HBO show Girls, which is written by, directed by, and starring Lena Dunham (of Tiny Furniture). I saw Tiny Furniture at Ebertfest last year, and it might’ve been my favorite of the movies screened there. The film contained some ambiguous and complex ways of working through the post-college twenty-something crisis that seems to be a rite of passage among a certain set. It was more or less directly autobiographical, yet it wasn’t afraid to take a very harsh lens to Lena’s life, attitude and friends. All of the contradictions contained within – a privileged art-world upbringing and ambition vs. aimless service jobs and meaningless/awkward/toxic sex and friendships, feeling a sense of educated white upper-middle-class self-confidence vs. having very low self-esteem and seeking validation, etc. – seemed to be knowingly embraced by Dunham in all her self-awareness and willingness to magnify her flaws, youth and bad decisions. It was one of those few movies that seemed to intuitively grasp what being a twenty-something educated hopeless urbanite was all about. If you were predisposed to relate to it, it didn’t just speak to you, it knifed you.
And there are a lot of ways in which Girls manages to out-do Tiny Furniture in ambition, smarts, self-awareness, honesty, and audacity. It’s downright thrilling and revolutionary. The pilot episode alone is so densely packed with ideas and details and hilarious dialogue, with total verisimilitude, that you could watch it three or four times and still come away with something new. So immediately after I saw it I went to read The Internet’s reactions to it. And while quite a few comments and reviews were positive, there was an equal and growing opposition of people who HAAATED it but seemed to be having trouble articulating exactly why. And then they suddenly were able to articulate exactly why, and the opinion pieces started rolling in, the complaints about whiteness and privilege, the Girls ‘effing backlash’, and then the ‘effing response’ to the ‘effing backlash’, and responses to the responses, and it’s Girls all the way down. I rolled around in the Girls backlash, rubbed my nose in it, sought it out in an effort to understand why I should really be hating this show instead of deeply loving it. Especially as a person of the brown persuasion, the racial accusations about the show being almost completely white and oblivious to the diversity of NYC should’ve been a criticism I’d be uniquely equipped to pick up on and complain about, right?
Here’s the thing, though – I did pick up on the racial thing, at least semi-consciously, but it barely even registered. I was more interested in the privilege aspect, but more on that later. The racial thing is weird, and it’s triggering some suspicions. With a few exceptions, it almost seems to be a conversation by white people for white people, with various coded meanings under the surface. Maybe I should explain. The reason the whiteness of Girls barely registered is because TELEVISION is overwhelmingly white, to the point where this is not a criticism so much as just a plain-spoken fact of the medium. I guarantee if you look back at the shows you love, you’ll be struck by how white they are if you haven’t noticed already. I mean just off the top of my head, Mad Men, Sopranos, Freaks and Geeks, Arrested Development, Always Sunny, Seinfeld, Friends, Everybody Loves Raymond, fucking whatever is off the top of my head – do any of these have significant minority characters? Even your precious Wire doesn’t have any black people – oh wait, well I guess there’s one or two. Anyway, some of these have good reasons for having all-white casts, and some don’t but it doesn’t merit too much complaint. If a show like Friends focuses on a white yuppie milieu of the kinds of people who aren’t too adventurous in seeking out people different from them, by design or by accident, it kind of rings true to real life. The whiteness of Girls strikes me as fairly realistic for the kind of top 25 liberal arts post-grad hipster milieu that the character of Hannah hangs around, even amidst the diversity of NYC. To the extent that the show is at least partly autobiographical, why shouldn’t Lena Dunham be uncomfortably honest about the fact that she mostly hung around white people? She’s uncomfortably honest about everything else she portrays about her life. And based on two aired episodes, none of this is all that worthy of comment in my eyes, compared e.g. to the fact that The Bachelor hasn’t had a single minority featured in the title role in 16 seasons. So why is Girls triggering an uproar?
Here’s my theory, and granted it’s just a theory: this is really about privilege – of the characters, of the audience. And privilege with respect to other issues. Class/race/privilege issues are all inextricably bound up together. The show is advertently very much about privilege and the blindness of recognizing one’s own relative privilege. It isn’t a criticism of the show to point this out in the characters, the way they seem to whine and self-importantly mope about their problems while never being in any real danger of falling to the bottom of the economic/social/class ladder. This is brought up by the show itself, which constantly jabs at its characters. I shouldn’t even have to point this out. When the guy Hannah is seeing says that he gets an $800 a month stipend from his grandma and says that he’s thankful for it because it stops him from “being a fuckin’ slave to anyone – never be a fuckin’ slave,” that’s satire, bruh. When he says that he’s an actor but is really passionate about woodworking because it’s “more honest,” that’s funny because it rings true to a certain kind of privileged white hipster attitude [not hipster-ist]. When Hannah tells her parents (both professors, which if not signaling wealth is at least signaling a real sort of influence/ambition/advantage) that they should be lucky she’s not getting abortions or addicted to pills, they can’t even comprehend those possibilities – “What’s that got to do with us?” What’s really happening is that Girls seems to be unpacking a sort of privileged way of speaking and acting SO ACCURATELY AND ASTUTELY that it’s making lots of people in Internet Land extremely uncomfortable. It’s never fun to see yourself in something ugly. #realtalk. I include myself in this, by the way – Girls captures a lot about me and the people I like and hang around with extremely accurately, and often unflatteringly. As a piece in Grantland I read put it: “Girls makes us squirm, and that’s a good thing. We need to squirm.” And one thing internet forums has taught me is that most people – not all, many are legitimately arguing in good faith – will do anything to refuse to confront their privilege – they will reroute the conversation and derail it! They will gaslight, dismiss, bring up other righteous causes! There are bingo cards created for people like this, their techniques and methods are so predictable.
So one way the conversation is being derailed is to use the racial thing – a noble, righteous cause, who would argue against pointing out how white a cast is? – to conceal some thinly-veiled misogynistic reactions to the show. It’s obvious that the show is pushing some gender buttons. When was the last time we followed around female characters who were so flawed (irredeemable even, possibly) in such fascinating ways? There’s no clear-cut or easy category to put some of these characters in. Like real women and men, they’re a mess of contradictions. There are some feminist-endorsed ways they act, and some which are pretty much the opposite of that (the plotline involving the “nice boyfriend” contrasting the “mean boyfriend” being one example; the dating rules book being another; and so on.) The show consistently refuses to take the easy route in its depiction of these women, or in its depiction of anything really. It always chooses to go the shades of gray route instead of the black and white route. And since there aren’t any pat, easy ways to understand the ‘girls’, since they don’t fit any of the typical archetypes that we find catalogued in TV Tropes, a certain segment of men find it, I don’t know, uncomfortable? Threatening? Too real to handle (“I never know when my periods are coming, that’s why there’s always weird stains on my panties”)? But these dudes who have problems with this don’t really have anything other than an inchoate discomfort about these characters being annoying and obnoxious and crazy (or whatever), so everyone’s grasping at the meme that got started about these characters being insufferably white. It’s a lens with which to superficially (mis)understand a show that refuses at every step to be easily ‘understood.’ You feel me? Now that I think of it, the ways people are viscerally finding this show to be insufferable mirror the reaction to Tao Lin’s books and presence in the lit scene over the past few years, which maybe isn’t so coincidental: Tao Lin’s Eeeee Eee Eeee makes an appearance in the background of a scene in Girls.
Relatability is relative, it seems. It’s curious how people will have no problem embracing a show which prominently depicts unusually, fascinatingly flawed men – Mad Men, for instance – and have no issue understanding the concept that these men have aspects of their characters and problems which are heavily relatable to your own life, while simultaneously having other aspects which are unrelatable, despicable, irredeemable. Skirting the line between rooting for characters and hating them has been in vogue since at least The Sopranos. But it’s apparently too huge of a step to transmute this golden formula for audience engagement and thematic complexity to young, urban, struggling-but-maybe-not-really WOMEN (oh, there’s a war on women, have you heard?) Meanwhile, audiences have proven more than happy to embrace the escapist glitz-plastic unrealities of Sex and the City – largely a white cast in NYC too, I think? The first episode of Girls intentionally sets the show up partly as a counterpoint and reaction to SATC. Again, get yourself in too deep with the complex, the real, the ambivalent, the flawed and you’re in trouble. The hounds will tear you apart. No one wants unpleasant reality, uncomfortable truths and jokes that bite at the intended audience instead of making them feel good about themselves.
I don’t really have a concluding statement planned for this meandering rant. Oh, I guess here’s one – based on what little I’ve seen so far, I predict that Girls will either quickly emerge as one of the most important, controversial and respected shows of our lifetimes, or (more likely) it will do dismally and get canceled after one or two seasons and become a cherished cult sensation among the smart and adventurous, in the same way Twin Peaks dominated the cultural conversation, fell out of favor and worked its way through the underground for many years. Either way is cool, honestly, and there’s something to be said for getting canceled and going out in a blaze of glory. But that’s getting ahead of things; it’s enough to just wait and see how everyone gets pissed off at Episode 3.