June 21, 2012 More Thoughts on HBO’s GIRLS
As an early-twenty-something New York English major-turned writer, it certainly felt, upon watching HBO’s recent comedy series “Girls,” that the character of Hannah was tailor-made for me (although I definitely wear less babydoll dresses). So naturally, I had to write about it! The kind folks at Highbrow Magazine are always nice enough to indulge me in consistently published work, so my most recent article for the site was, of course, entitled, “Why HBO’s Controversial ‘Girls’ Strikes a Nerve.” You can read that article (and I encourage you to do so, so that they continue to employ me) here.
However, since Highbrow Magazine reaches a broad, rather mature audience, I had to tone down my writing somewhat; I didn’t curse, or use the pronoun ‘I’ (not even once!), which is all a stark contrast to the maddening, narcissistic rants that I publish here on my own personal site. But my rants are just so awesome, right? Right?! Whatever!
So, since “Girls” just wrapped up its first season, what better way to celebrate than to publish the unfiltered, unedited, 2-fast-2-furious extended version of my article. I seriously can’t say enough about this show, whether it be good or bad. Do you love “Girls,” or hate it? Or, like some, do you fall somewhere in between? Have a read below, and feel free to leave your thoughts! This show has sparked such a huge debate, and it probably won’t be settling down anytime soon.
Why HBO’s Controversial “Girls” Strikes a Nerve
For something to be great– really, truly, great– does it have to actually be good? Not always, it seems. Way before it even premiered on April 15, HBO’s “Girls” was making headlines across the country. Created by 26-year-old Lena Dunham and executive produced by Judd Apatow, “Girls” is a comedy that was supposed to change the way that women in their early 20s are portrayed on television, from their love lives to their bank accounts. The only problem was, not everyone thought that the change was for the better.
To say that reviews for “Girls” were mixed is like saying the late-great Elvis was just kinda okay at swingin’ those hips. Tim Goodman of The Hollywood Reporter wrote that “HBO has a real and rare gem in ‘Girls.’” Exactly one month later, Mother Jones published a review that called the show “as profoundly bland as it is unstoppably irritating.” Emily Nussbaum, writing for New York Magazine, said that “as a person who has followed, for more than twenty years, recurrent, maddening debates about the lives of young women, the series to me felt like a gift,” while Andrea Peyser of The New York Post declared that “‘Girls’ is not really about girls at all– a species uniformly presented as neurotic sex toys or psycho man-eaters.” Ouch. Or, perhaps, way to go. It all depends on how you look at it.
If you’re fifty years old with a teenage daughter, you will watch “Girls” with one hand partially covering your eyes and think, “Wow, I hope my kid doesn’t turn out like this.” If you’re twenty years old and living in New York, struggling to both pay your rent and figure out how you’re going to make it in this world, you watch and undoubtedly say, “Thank you, Lena Dunham.” It may not be perfect, it may not even be good. But “Girls” is great for one reason, and one reason only: if nothing else, it’s real.
“Girls” may currently be the most controversial show about x chromosomes, but it’s not the first, and it won’t be the last. The 2011-2012 television schedule seemed to be chock-full of female power; there was “2 Broke Girls,” “New Girl,” and even the upcoming “Push Girls.” Of course, let’s not forget that other HBO show about womanhood, a little indie affair that ran for six seasons called “Sex and the City.” If you take the horrendously cheesy film adaptations out of the equation, “Sex and the City” is a show that will be certainly remembered as witty, well-written, and sharply acted, all while having touched the lives of millions of women. On both “Sex and the City” and “Girls,” the highs and lows of the work, family, and love lives of four New York women are profiled. On the pilot episode of “Girls,” a velour jumpsuit clad character named Shoshanna even proclaims that she is “definitely a ‘Carrie’ at heart, but sometimes Samantha kind of comes out.” The premises of the two shows may be nearly identical, but– Shoshanna’s declarations aside– the comparisons stop there.
For Carrie Bradshaw, and the countless thirty-something women like her, the New York journey was about love, marriage, success, and attempting to redefine yourself if and when those things don’t happen. For Hannah, it’s about all of these things, too, but for the most part, it’s just about getting by. Women like Carrie knew what they wanted, even if they had to struggle to get it; girls like Hannah have no clue where to even begin.
For a girl in her early twenties, watching “Sex and the City”– and believe me, almost every one of them does, through DVDs or watered-down television repeats– is a total fantasy. It’s like catching an episode of “Game of Thrones,” or reading about adventures at Hogwarts in a Harry Potter novel; entertaining, yes, but wholly unrealistic. Watching “Girls,” on the other hand, is like viewing a documentary, one so real that it perfectly captures all the joy, pain, and confusion of our shared existence. You might love it or you might hate it, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
Just the show’s title itself acts as the first and most telling clue to its power. To the average person, a 24-year-old female would be called a woman– a young woman, yes, but a woman all the same. However, Lena Dunham, who plays Hannah, made the bold choice to call her characters girls because, while they may not be children, they are definitely not adults. Even just twenty-five years ago, a woman in her mid-twenties was probably married, settled into some semblance of a career, or was very likely to have already become a mother. For the daughters of these women, this is simply not the case. Many of the real-life versions of Hannah, Marnie, Jessa and Shoshanna do not have full time jobs. Many of them live with their parents, and it’s not, for the most part, because of a poor economy or choices made by any one political figure. It’s because things like jobs, relationships, responsibility, and independence are for adults– unfortunately, something that they are not.
And whose fault is that? You can choose to blame the parents, or the kids, or the entire society in which they all live. Many of the show’s criticism and negative thoughts are aimed directly at Lena Dunham, which is definitely fitting, as “Girls” is a monster entirely of her own creation. Lena, the daughter of artists Laurie Simmons and Carroll Dunham, was raised in New York City, undeniably privileged. She graduated from Oberlin College in 2008, and in 2010 wrote, directed, and starred in Tiny Furniture, a film which won the award for Best Narrative feature at the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference. In the pilot episode of “Girls,” Hannah tells her parents– albeit while tripping on a particularly pungent form of opium– that she believes she can be “the voice of her generation.” This has prompted many to say, well, who is Lena Dunham to claim to speak for me?
Of course, she can’t speak for everyone, but Dunham can certainly speak for herself, loudly and clearly. She makes no bones about the fact that she and her co-stars happen to be the spawn of accomplished, well-off parents; Allison Williams is the daughter of television’s Brian Williams, Jemima Kirke is the daughter of musician Simon Kirke, and Zosia Mamet is the daughter of legendary playwright David Mamet.
But you don’t have to be a child of privilege (I am not) in order to relate to the themes and situations of the show (I wholeheartedly do). No, I’ve never accidentally smoked crack, lost my underwear, and ran through the streets of Bushwick half-naked– at least not yet. But I have been to warehouse parties almost EXACTLY like the one in which that particular episode takes place. I’ve worked at an unpaid internship, I’ve been on majorly awkward job interviews, I’ve fought fiercely with my roommate, who to me, is some twisted combination of best friend, sister, and bane of my existence. Just like with Hannah’s roommate, Marnie, and her sensitive boyfriend Charlie, I’ve watched my friends stay in relationships that really (really!) need to end, for the sole purpose of complacency, or fear, or just the comfort of knowing that there is that one person in the world that is obligated to have sex with you. Body issues, virginity, casual drug use, independence, friendships, money troubles– in other words, growing the fuck up– these are universal things that every girl will deal with at some time or another in her life. Other shows, like “Sex and the City,” have certainly touched upon these issues, but never in the same way. “Girls” is somehow able to exude the raw complexity that it takes to be truly honest.
Much of this is thanks to Lena Dunham’s expert writing, directing, and the clear yet malleable vision she has established for the show. Lena has portrayed herself in complete and brutal honesty, which features no-holds-barred nudity on her part and awkward sex scenes that would make any sane person cringe with revulsion. These are scenes that she herself has created, proving that she has no qualms about showing herself in an unflattering light. Hannah isn’t glamorous, and she’s not worrying about how she’s going to pay for her next pair of Manolos; she’s self-absorbed, insecure, and worrying about how she’s going to eat if she stays at her unpaid internship, the only place that will employ her. She’s got 99 problems, and being a girl is the cause of all them.
So, let’s get back to the main question– how is it that one show can be so incredibly polarizing? The answer is simple: when it truly strikes a nerve. Maybe the people who hate “Girls” simply hate the generation behind it. Maybe they see too much of themselves in the characters, all the complexity and uncertainty of being young (the truth does hurt, as they say). It could be for all of these reasons, or none at all. What we do know, however, is that if something is simple, easy, and pleasing to everyone, it is quite rarely note-worthy or special. It might be good, it might be fun, but “Girls” is a lot more than that. “Girls” is great.