Full disclosure: I am an upper-middle class, highly educated (I have a PhD!), white woman. So when the protagonist of Girls, Hannah (played by the show’s writer/producer/director Lena Dunham), admits to her emotionally distant, sometime-lover Adam (Adam Driver), that her parents have cut her off financially at age 24, and then adds, sheepishly, “Do you hate me?” her mixture of white privilege and liberal guilt reverberated with me. It was a moment of resonance, a particular feeling generated by a particular situation, and I experienced it as a “real” moment.
My guess is that Girls will create lots of resonant moments for many viewers for a variety of reasons. I imagine that some will relate to Marnie (Allison Williams) and her mixed feelings about her too-nice boyfriend or Jessa (Jemima Kirk) and her desire to travel in order to avoid impending adulthood. These are interesting characters. They are messy and imperfect, which is almost always preferable to neat and perfect characters. And I like that Hannah is slightly overweight, or as her fuck buddy assures her “You’re not that fat anymore.” I daresay that this is one of the most radical aspects of Girls: the very ordinariness of its protagonist. As I watched Hannah move across the screen, examining her for an inkling of physical charisma, I was both frustrated and elated. I was frustrated because I am so accustomed to looking at perfectly formed women on TV, with tiny waistlines and flat-ironed hair, that looking at a normal one was a little bit of a let down. But I was also elated by Hannah’s ordinariness and the radicalness of placing a slightly frumpy, slightly average-looking female character at the center of a television series about young women. Jenny Jones offers up a lovely analysis of Hannah’s appetites in her own response to the pilot:
The shot opens with Hannah in close-up but off-center, shoved into the bottom right corner of the shot, breathlessly stuffing spaghetti into her mouth. As the scene continues, she and her father voraciously shovel down food while Hannah’s mother encourages them to slow down. From the start this positions Hannah against her mother and toward her father, an issue which springs up later when her mother is also the instigator for stopping Hannah’s money flow. Hannah is portrayed as consuming carelessly–including sex, drugs, and money–and food does seem to be a primary way that’s characterized. Eating a cupcake in the shower seems to be the ultimate example of this.
I, too, loved seeing Hannah shoveling food into her mouth because I also eat this way and I know it is disgusting. It’s also unusual for a not-stick-thin actress to eat heartily on camera and not make it into a schtick (as Bridesmaids did with Melissa McCarthy’s character). As I watched I asked myself: what if every model and every actress was as average-looking as Lena Dunham? Note that I did not say “ugly” or “fat” (she is neither of these things). She’s just…plain. If film and television were populated with ordinary women would I feel less critical of my own aging body? Would my 5-year-old daughter be less likely to tell me, as she examines her perfectly perfect little body in the mirror,”This shirt makes me look fat”? (True story).
Why is it so rare and exceptional to have an ordinary-looking female protagonist? Ordinary male protagonists are ubiquitous, of course, but for some reason a female character can’t just be smart or powerful or deadly with a broadsword. She has to be fuckable. I don’t want to my 5-year-old to think she has to be fuckable. And the media are working against me and my attempts to bolster her self esteem. And that sucks.
But even as I praise Girls for these praiseworthy elements, it must be acknowledged that there is a wide swath of audience who will have difficulty finding an entryway into this show. As Francie Latour wrote in a recent editorial for the Boston Globe:
It’s a zeitgeist so glaring and grounded in statistical reality that Hollywood has to will itself not to see it: America is transforming into a majority-minority nation faster than experts could have predicted, yet the most racially and ethnically diverse metropolis in America is delivered to us again and again on the small screen as a virtual sea of white. The census may tell us that blacks, Latinos and Asians together make up 64.4 percent of New York City’s population.
Latour’s observations are not in any way surprising. Films and television series are usually not made with a non-white, non-middle class viewer in mind. And when television shows do feature, for example, an all African American cast, it is rare that these shows are allowed to explore the subtle realities of their character’s lives. These shows tend instead to be broad comedies or exploitative reality shows. So no, I’m not surprised that there were no brown faces (no poor faces, no queer faces) in the pilot episode of Girls. But I am disappointed.
No show can (or should) offer to represent all possible identities since this is both impossible and by nature unsatisfactory. But Girls is a specific kind of show. It is a show that aims for verisimilitude — with its focus on the plastic retainer Marnie sleeps in, the scene in which Jessa talks to Marnie while taking a dump and wiping herself (gross, but okay, there was some realism there) and the spartan decor in struggling actor Adam’s apartment. If this show takes the time and care to present the realities of life in New York City for this group of young women in their early twenties, then I do expect to see some homosexuals and some African Americans and definitely some Spanish-speaking characters. It’s New York City for crying out loud! It’s telling that the only person of color to speak a line of dialogue in the entire pilot is a crazy, homeless, African American man who makes a pass at Hannah as she leaves her parent’s hotel room. I mean, seriously, HBO? That’s the role you decided to give to the black guy? [note: I forgot about Hannah’s Asian coworker who asked for the Luna bar and the Smart Water and the Vitamin water. So that’s two POC]. They found a way to bring a British woman onto the show (she’s that Mamet girl’s “British cousin” of course!) so couldn’t an Indian girl be Hannah’s old friend from the weight loss camp her parents made her go to as a tween (I just made up that backstory, by the way)? Couldn’t an African American guy be an actor friend of Hannah’s fuck buddy? There are ways to do this that do not stretch the credibility of this program. And that would make the show more real because I just don’t buy that a girl like Hannah would only interact with straight white people when living in Brooklyn. I do not buy it. And by the way, saying that you wish you could have done this doesn’t count. Consider the following exchange from an interview with Dunham in The Huffington Post:
Are you concerned that people might just think “Girls” is another example of white people problems?
Definitely. We really tried to be aware and bring in characters whose job it was to go “Hashtag white people problems, guys.” I think that’s really important to be aware of. Because it can seem really rarified. When I get a tweet from a girl who’s like, “I’d love to watch the show, but I wish there were more women of color.” You know what? I do, too, and if we have the opportunity to do a second season, I’ll address that.
What? Why could you not do that this season? As the show’s closing credits inform us, you run this show, Ms. Dunham. If your hands are tied, you’re the one who’s tied them.
So is identification necessary to the pleasures offered by Girls? I would argue yes. It is a program that aims to create “real” moments, such as Hannah awkwardly trying to maintain a sexy bondage position while her doltish lover looks for lube and condoms. We are meant to watch this scene and think “Ah yes, I remember having an awkward sexual encounter like that!” And this is not to say that a gay man or a black woman cannot identify with a straight white woman and her awkward, somewhat humiliating sexual experiences. Of course they can. But I don’t think the show is cultivating that identification. I believe this show is zeroed in on a particular kind of viewer, a viewer who is like Dunham: white, middle- to upper-middle class, educated, and liberal. A viewer like me.
Why do I think this? Because the show is awash in its own privilege. It winks and nods, but then dismisses it as if to say “I acknowledged this okay? Can we move on to what I want to talk about now?” If you have the critical fortitude to acknowledge privilege, like when Hannah’s friend scoffs at her for whining about having to pay her own bills (reminding her that he has $50,000 in student loans), then you better well deal with it. Kristen Warner addresses this nicely in her post on the pilot:
White womanhood holds in its grasp innocence. They are the only ones who can truly be innocent. The only ones who can truly and sincerely have a conversation about why working at McDonalds is not an option while waiting on a cup of opium with Jay-Z playing in the background without remotely considering the juxtaposition of all these um…ideas. And the way that the main character, Hannah, and her girlfriends deploy that innocence (in sometimes successful but mostly unsuccessful ways) reveals the invisibility and instability of whiteness.
To offer up a counterexample, the current season of Mad Men is finally starting to do a respectable job of acknowledging its insulated whiteness. In the past Roger Sterling (John Slattery) has been a likable cad, making skirt-chasing, cheating on your wife, and getting drunk at lunch almost (almost) seem charming. But this season Roger has become a dinosaur, an artifact of the white male patriarchy. He is no longer charming. He can’t bring in new clients because he can’t understand that the world is changing. Instead he sits in his office and stews, getting drunker and hazier as the days goes by. In the meantime, Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) puts her feet up on her desk, wears ties, and extorts money from her desperate boss. She is going to replace Roger because she at least understands, in a limited way, that the culture around her is changing. Roger just puts his head in the sand and this will be his downfall.
But Girls does not really address its privilege in a satisfactory way (meaning, I was not satisfied). When Hannah steals the housekeeper’s money we cut to her walking on the street (being harassed by the craaaazy black man) and smirking a small smirk of triumph. What did I need after that scene? I needed a 30 second scene depicting the housekeeper walking into the hotel room, instinctively looking around for her tip, and then muttering something about “cheap motherfuckers” before stripping the bed. That’s all I needed. Just a moment of consequence. Instead, Hannah gets to commit her selfish act in a vacuum and whoosh, it’s gone. Invisible. Quirky.
Am I being picky? A little. Can you judge an entire series based on its pilot? No. But let me explain myself through a teaching analogy: when I am grading essays I tend to be harder on my best writers. I challenge them more on their ideas, get more annoyed at their grammatical errors, and more outraged at their lazy arguments. “I know you are capable of better work than this” I might write at the end of a perfectly respectable essay. If you have the ability and the intelligence, then why create something subpar? I’m taking the same critical eye to my study of Girls. Dunham is a great writer and a pretty good actress with an ear for smart dialogue, and I know she can do better. Do better, Dunham, you are capable of better work than this. I give you a B. I know you can get an A.
For more reactions to Girls, I encourage you to check out our Facebook group, which is the hub of our Girls blogathon.