The Most Objective “Best of 2012” List Ever, Part I: Television
Around this time of year, every newspaper, magazine, and blog offers up some form of the “Best Of” list, chronicling the best films, television series (or episodes), music, books, Broadway shows, trends, etc. of the previous year. Obviously, ranking the year’s best of anything is subjective and also impossible (after all, only an individual who was watched every television episode that aired in 2012 could state, definitively, which were in the top 5). And yet, such lists are so alluring. As a working mom, who reads, watches and listens to only a fraction of what I would like to read, watch and listen to, these “Best Of” lists take an unwieldy set of pop culture possibilities and whittles it down to a manageable chunk. These lists tell me “These are the only films from 2012 that you need to watch.” Then I take a deep breath and load up my Netflix queue.
You might thinking to yourself “Why would I read a ‘Best Of’ list compiled by a woman who has just admitted that she relies on other people’s ‘Best Of’ lists to tell her what pop culture was worthwhile from the previous year?” Excellent question. Why are you reading this? Don’t you have something better to do? No? Well then settle in, friend. I have some completely subjective selections for you based on an unrepresentative sampling of the year’s popular culture. I think you’ve made the right choice.
So without further ado, I present Part I of my “Best of 2012” list:
Best Television Series
2012 was an excellent year for television. I loved watching Walter White (Bryan Cranston) lose the final pieces of his soul on Breaking Bad. The last shot of the Girls season finale, in which Hannah (Lena Dunham) finds herself on Coney Island (after passing out in the subway and getting her purse stolen) and slowly stuffs her face with cake, was the perfect end to a first season filled with uncomfortable, body-focused stories and imagery. The look on Don Draper’s (John Hamm) face when he sees his daughter wearing fishnets and go-go boots or the scene in which Henry (Christopher Stanley) feeds his newly-plump wife (aka, “Fat Betty”) some steak at the kitchen table in the middle of the night were two highlights of the Mad Men season. I also loved watching all or most of the 2012 seasons of Louie, Boardwalk Empire, Happy Endings, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, Don’t Trust the B in Apt 23, Parenthood, Teen Mom, and Game of Thrones. No, I don’t watch Homeland, The Good Wife, or Justified. I’m sure I would like all three, but right now I don’t have room for them in my TV diet. Like I said, “best of” lists are subjective. Let’s move on.
Dog smoking cigarette = win
While I loved all of the aforementioned programs and could make a “Best” case for many of them, my choice for “best” television series of 2012 goes to the FX series, Wilfred, because it is, simply put, the most bizarre show I have ever watched, with the exception of (of course) Twin Peaks.
“Can you hear it?” “No, ma’am, I cannot.”
The pilot episode of Wilfred opens with Ryan (Elijah Woods) trying and failing to commit suicide. We eventually find out that Ryan used to be a successful lawyer, working in his father’s firm, but when we meet him he is unemployed and estranged from his father (the reasons for this are only explained in the second season). Ryan’s attempts to end his life are finally interrupted by his neighbor, Jenna (Fiona Gubelmann), who wants him to watch her dog, Wilfred. Ryan is surprised to discover that Wilfred appears to him as a large, vulgar, Australian pothead (Jason Gann) wearing a very unconvincing dog costume. And the kicker is: Ryan is the only one who sees Wilfred in this way. This may seem like a gimmicky basis for a show, but it is also the source of some of the show’s greatest gags: one minute Wilfred is lecturing Ryan on ethics and the next he is chasing and maiming pelicans on the beach (“It’s a pelican !!! IT’S A PELICAN!!!..It was a pelican!!!”):
In a lukewarm review of pilot, Todd VanDerWerff explains “the show gets a surprising amount of mileage out of having Gann running around in a dog costume and saying things a dog might say if it could speak.” But Wilfred isn’t just shots of Jason Gann humping or chatting up his life partner, Bear, who is a large stuffed bear. The reason I love the show is because it so deftly shifts from bleakness to laugh-out-loud comedy. I often read about how shows like Louie and Girls are changing the rules of the sitcom by offering up tragic moments (like when Louie’s love interest dies in front of him on Christmas Day) in between low-brow body humor and Seinnfeld-ian levels of navel-gazing. But Wilfred takes those devices to another level. In Wilfred, despair and laughter are produced by the same cue — what is light quickly becomes dark, and vice versa.This is because the series is structured around the tension between two realities: either Ryan is a lonely, depressed, schizophrenic who uses an imaginary friend to work through his life’s problems or he is a lonely, depressed but otherwise sane man who happens to see his neighbor’s dog in human form because that is something that happens in this world. Therefore almost every scene on the series can be read in two ways.
Each episode is named after a particular lesson or virtue that Ryan needs to learn, such as “Letting Go,” “Avoidance,” and “Honesty.” Wilfred teaches these lessons to an unwilling Ryan , usually embroiling him in interpersonal conflicts that force the passive man to say or do things he normally wouldn’t. Although Ryan’s suicide attempt from the pilot is barely acknowledged, the series is clearly about teaching Ryan how to “live” (and live) in the world again. Of course, every “lesson” Wilfred teaches Ryan serves Wilfred’s interests in some way. We feel good when Ryan learns to stand up for himself or to reconnect with his institutionalized mother (played by an excellently loopy Mary Steenburgen), but we are always left wondering: is Wilfred helping Ryan to live or is he destroying Ryan’s life, piece by piece? And if Ryan is simply imagining Wilfred, then is Ryan using this dog-shaped delusion as an excuse to destroy his own life? Is he committing suicide, just at an incredibly slow rate?
Wilfred dances in between these many possibilities. Its genius lies in convincing the viewer to believe one scenario and then upending that belief with a single line or image. For example, after Ryan finally gives up on the possibility of romance with Jenna, he begins dating a co-worker named Amanda (Allison Mack). Amanda seems perfect — she’s funny, quirky, and clearly besotted with Ryan. It seems that perhaps Ryan will finally be able to have a loving intimate relationship after past traumas had made this kind of human connection difficult for him. But in “Truth,” Wilfred tries to convince Ryan that he should not move in with Amanda because he is still too mentally unstable. Ryan believes that Wilfred, as usual, is just looking out for his own self interests — if Amanda moves in, Wilfred will lose his best friend. Who will take him for walks or smoke pot with him? As they have this argument, an earthquake traps Ryan and Wilfred in the basement (of course). Bruce (Dwight Yoakam), the only other human who can see Wilfred (and thus the only plot point in the series that lends credence to the theory that Ryan might not crazy), appears to rescue the duo, promising to reveal the “truth” about Amanda that is concealed in a suitcase. This truth will prove why Wilfred is right.
But first, Ryan and Bruce must engage in a game of “Calvinball,” which involves pillow fights and “truth or dare.” The game is deliriously surreal, like so much in the series. When Ryan finally “wins ” the game and is granted access to the magical suitcase, he doesn’t discover anything about Amanda. Instead he finds a timer that tells him that he has spent 12 hours in his basement playing a bizarre game orchestrated by his neighbor’s dog. In other words, Wilfred was right — Ryan should not move in with Amanda.
Ryan is such a likable character (he is kind, empathetic and selfless to a fault) and we want him to be happy. But when we see the timer, the audience realizes — at the same moment that Ryan does — that he is crazy … but wait, is he? Or is this just what Wilfred wants Ryan to think in order to maintain the status quo? Isn’t it suspicious that everything that ends up “being for the best” also happens to serve Wilfred’s interests? These uncertainties are what drive the series and which make this show more than a collection of pooping on the lawn jokes (though I am 100% for a show that is nothing more than pooping on the lawn jokes).
And if that doesn’t interest you, Wilfred is worth watching for its “couch scenes” alone. Incidentally, as I was writing this post I found out that these short scenes, appearing at the end of show (after the main story has been resolved), are called “tags,” or “codas” (thank you Twitter):
Learning is fun!
The tags in Wilfred almost always take place on the couch in Ryan’s basement and feature Ryan and Wilfred engaged in a banal task, like playing a board game or having an inane conversation. They’re always fabulous:
And if that doesn’t interest you? Well, there are loads of other shows to watch. I hear The Good Wife is awesome, so maybe you should watch that instead?
I will be posting my “Best Meme,” “Best Film,” “Best Single,” and “Best of Social Media” picks over the course of the next few weeks. Stay tuned! If you dare!
A month ago I participated in a blogathon devoted to the new HBO program Girls. The impetus for the blogathon was a series of discussions I was having with some media studies scholars (primarily Kristen Warner and Jennifer Jones) about the hype leading up to the show’s April 15th premiere. The public discourses surrounding the Girls premiere — in commercials created by HBO, interviews with the press, and reviews by critics who received advanced copies of the first three episodes — primarily stuck to the same theme: Girls is an authentic portrait of what it is like to be a twentysomething female today. Had the show simply been promoted as a new quirky portrait of a pirvileged, highly-educated but emotionally immature young woman’s struggles to make it as an artist in New York City, I am not sure our blogathon would have taken place at all. But the show’s generic title, which implies a universality (even as it mocks the maturity of its protagonists), coupled with the ecstatic reviews lauding the program’s authenticity, bumped up against the program’s rather rigid white, heterosexual, upper-class cast in an unpleasant way. Thus, the blogathon was our attempt to ask: do we take a television series to task for claiming to provide an authentic female bildungsroman when its “authenticity” is limited to one vision of female life?
One thing I did not say in my original post about the show, and which I think needs to be said, is that I do not blame Lena Dunham, the show’s creator, head writer, and star, for the way HBO advertised her show or the way television critics made her show, before a single episode ever aired, into a text that “speaks” for all of today’s young women. Dunham did not, for example, ever claim that her show was “FUBU” (for us, by us). That unfortunate statement came from a glowing preview written by television critic Emily Nussbaum. I enjoy Nussbaum’s work, particularly the way she writes about female characters on TV, but this was an absurd thing to write (well, to be fair, she was quoting her colleague). In addition to the problem of appropriating the phrase “for us, by us,” which was first used by Daymond John for his 1992 clothing line, FUBU (made by and for African American clientele), the claim that Girls was written for “us” by “us” implies that the white, heterosexual, upper class experience is generalizable to all women.
I suppose I understand why Nussbaum would include this statement in her review of Girls. Sometimes when I watch a film or television show, a moment rings so true that I wonder, briefly, if the creator has somehow read my diary. Knowing that this is impossible — I burned all of my diaries! — I then wonder if perhaps this truthful moment is something “universal.” That is an exhilarating feeling — that a private, personal experience is actually an experience linking me to a larger group of individuals. Indeed, you can feel Nussbaum’s excitement and her joy as she writes about Girls — the show clearly tapped into something personal and true for her. I too had moments like that when I watched Girls this season. But, I am also aware that I will have many more moments of personal recognition than, say, a white woman who had to pay her own way through college, or an African American woman who is looking at the screen and seeing no black faces, or a lesbian who is thinking “Seriously ladies, this is one of the reasons why I don’t date men.” To call Girls a show “for us, by us” implies that all of those other “us-es” don’t count.
My reactions to the Girls pilot probably seems nitpicky. “Okay fine,” you might be thinking,”so you’re mad about the way the show was promoted. But what about the show itself? Isn’t it important to judge it on its own merits?” Yes, hypothetical, puzzled reader, you are right. Let’s talk about the show itself: in my original post about the pilot, I was critical of the show’s tone. I felt that Girls was playing coy with its politics. It felt like Dunham was adding a “first world problems” hashtag (complete with air quotes) to the pilot, rather than actually grappling with these issues head on. I wrote:
…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.
I was honestly confused about what, exactly, Lena Dunham was trying to tell us about her character, Hannah Horvath. Are we supposed to genuinely sympathize with her “plight” or are we supposed to view her existential struggle to become the “voice of her generation” (or “a voice of a generation”) as the whiny complaints of a young woman whose biggest dilemma is that her ex-boyfriend from college has finally come out of the closet? Or that her shirtless, douchebag lover doesn’t text her enough? Or that her best friend is dating a man with, to quote Hannah’s diary, “a vagina”? If, according to Jason Mittell, the goal of a pilot is “to educate viewers on what the show is, and inspire us to keep watching,” then I do think Girls failed in one of its primary jobs — to let us know what the series’ tone will be. Is it a serious drama with sympathetic characters (Parenthood) ? A broad comedy in which characters are built for punchlines (Big Bang Theory)? A world filled with unlikable characters who do awful things and it’s funny (Curb Your Enthusiasm)? A world filled with unlikable characters who do awful things and it FREAKS YOU OUT (Sopranos)?
The Girls pilot did not make its tone clear. If you take that ambiguous tone, couple it with the show’s overblown hype and claims to authenticity, and then look at the blinding whiteness of its cast, then that is the best way to explain why I (and so many others) did not react favorably to the pilot. But I feel differently now, which is why I am writing this follow up post. I think the tone of the series became crystal clear partway through episode 2, “Vagina Panic,” when Hannah decides to get tested for STDs. The scene opens with Hannah wearing one of those flimsy hospital gowns that open in the back, a piece of clothing that is engineered to make patients feel humiliated and therefore, pliant. As Hannah lays back on the examination table, feet in stirrups, she begins to ramble. I want to pause for a moment and point out that generally I hate the way movies and television depict the “foot in the stirrups” scenario because it is usually played for drama — “My God, Mrs. Smith, you’re seven months pregnant!” — or for comedy — “My God, Mrs. Smith, I’ve found your car keys!”
Instead, this scene reveals the pelvic exam, that necessary female rite of passage, for what it is — very, very, very uncomfortable. I don’t care how old I get, I will never be comfortable having a doctor slide her gloved hand into an area which is normally pretty selective about who may enter it, insert a cold metal instrument inside of me so as to make that personal opening wider, and then have a perfectly casual conversation about my summer travel plans as she examines my holy of holies like a miner digging for diamonds. The pelvic exam is one of the few scenarios in which a woman must act like she is totally cool with a stranger rummaging around in her vagina, not for the purposes of generating an orgasm, but to figure out if there is anything “wrong with it.” So I found Hannah’s verbal diarrhea in this scene to be completely appropriate (even if the content of her ramblings was not). This was my “universal moment,” in which I saw a genuinely frustrating experience from my own life recreated accurately on screen.
The tone of the series also became clear to me here because Hannah, in her attempt to fill the air with conversation, launches into a ludicrous monologue about AIDS. I will quote it at length because it must be read to be believed:
The thing is that, these days if you are diagnosed with AIDS, it’s actually not a death sentence. There are so many good drugs and people live a long time. Also, if you have AIDS, there’s a lot of stuff people aren’t going to bother you about. Like, for example, no one is going to call you on the phone and say ‘Did you get a job?’ or ‘Did you paid your rent?,’ or ‘Are you taking an HMTL course yet?’ because all they’re going to say is ‘Congratulations on not being dead.’ You know, it’s also a really good excuse to be mad at a guy. It’s not just something dumb like, ‘You didn’t text me back,’ it’s like ‘You gave me AIDS. So deal with that. Forever.’ Maybe I’m actually not scared of AIDS. Maybe I thought I was scared of AIDS, but really what I am is… wanting AIDS.
What the hell, Hannah?
A nice recap of the episode over at Press Play compares this scene to a scene in the pilot episode of My So Called Life (1994) in which Angela Chase (Claire Danes) tells her English teacher, during a discussion of The Diary of Anne Frank, that Anne Frank was “lucky.” Angela’s teacher is horrified by her response: “Is that suppsosed to be funny? How on earth could you make a statement like that?” she asks. Angela, who has been mooning over her first real crush, Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto), suddenly snaps out of her reverie. After her teacher prods her again, Angela begrudgingly clarifies her response: “I don’t know. Because she was trapped for three years in an attic with this guy she really liked?” If you’d like to watch this scene, start at the 3.30 minute mark on the video below:
This scene is the epitome of that oft-used term “First World Problems.” Only a young woman who is well fed, well loved, and generally provided for would look at the plight of a little Jewish girl forced into hiding during the Holocaust and be jealous of her. Angela is so caught in the throes of her own teenage crush that she is only capable of viewing the world in terms of young women who get to be with their crushes and young women who are kept apart from them. Even something as large as the Holocaust becomes invisible in this world view. If my daughter said something like that I would be forced to give her a lengthy lecture on the nature of “real problems” even as I know that I possibly said something similarly awful at age 15. Indeed, this moment appears in the My So Called Life to tell us almost everything we need to know about the series’ protagonist, Angela: she is privileged; she is uncomfortable in her own skin; she misunderstands and is misunderstood by the adults in her life; and most importantly, she is desperately in love (or what she believes to be love) with Jordan Catalano. This is all that matters to Angela Chase and so her skewed (and horrifying) analysis of The Diary of Anne Frank makes perfect sense in this context. The audience is not expected to identify with Angela here (unless she is also a privileged 15-year-old in love, in which case, she might) but to understand that this scene is telling us what we need to know about Angela as we move forward through this series.
In the same way, Hannah’s infuriating rant about AIDS is a wonderful crystallization of her character. Only a young woman with no “real problems” would fantasize about having a really real problem. Hannah feels that having AIDS would somehow be simpler and more desirable than having to find a job or a boyfriend just as Angela can only see the benefits of being hunted down by blood-thirsty Nazis. As I listened to Hannah blather on I wanted to chastise her for saying such obnoxious things. But then her gynecologist did it for me. She looked at Hannah and said, with the utmost sympathy, “You couldn’t pay me to be 24 again.” This moment acknowledged Hannah’s self centeredness, her privilege and her ignorance about her own privilege, and then, very carefully, cut her some slack. Hannah is, after all, 23. And if I learned anything from Blink-182, it is that “nobody likes you when you’re 23”:
In fact, people in their early twenties are really no better than people in their early teens. In many ways they are worse because they are now equipped with college degrees that lead them to believe that they “understand” things about “the world.” A recent roundtable discussion in Slate, called “Girls on Girls,” offered this perspective on Hannah’s age:
Isn’t that funny arrogance and vulnerability the special purview of the 22, 23, and 24 year old? You are confused, on the low end of the work totem pole or still trying to prove yourself (unless you’re Mark Zuckerberg), and yet you also are young. You’re the next thing. You’ve left your parents’ home and are free to reject all the posters and accoutrements and funny habits and small town-ness of their lives.
A 23-year-old is like a very independent, very entitled toddler who can drive a car and is legally allowed to drink. We say and do very, very dumb things when we are in our early twenties, and that seems to be what Girls is about.
So as this season of Girls draws to a close, I find myself in an uncomfortable situation. On the one hand, I am really enjoying this series. Not every scene or character works (I could completely do without Shoshannah [Zosia Mamet]), but every episode contains at least one scene that I would characterize as “sublime.” And yes, I am using sublime in the Kantian sense of the word, meaning an overwhelming experience that generates awe and respect. I felt this way when Charlie (Christopher Abbott) serenaded his girlfriend, Marnie (Allison Williams), with excerpts from Hannah’s stolen diary that document their relationship from her cynical and judgmental perspective.
When Charlie gets on stage and announces that his next song was wrriten for his girlfriend, Marnie looks pleased (even though we know she does not truly love Charlie). Then, looking Marnie right in the eye, Charlie sings:
What is Marnie thinking
she needs to know what’s out there
how does it feel to date a man with a vagina.
As I watched this slow-moving car crash I was overwhelmed with a confusing mixture of sadness, humiliation, and awkward triumph. To watch Charlie completely abase himself — to throw himself onto his own sensitive-boyfriend-sword — in order to drive home the point that he deserves to be treated with respect, was truly beautiful. Sublime. As Charlie tells Marnie in a follow up episode, he just wants to be treated “like my life is real.” His song did that. This is the kind of scene that makes me happy that I study film and television for a living.
But still, I keep coming back to my original problem with this show — it makes whiteness and it attendant privilege the default setting (and as John Scalzi recently pointed out, “white” is the lowest difficulty setting in the game of life). Why am I picking on Girls for doing what just about every single TV show currently on the air does? Because Girls is written and produced by an extremely smart and talented young woman and if she can’t find a way to make non-white characters, non-straight characters, or non-wealthy characters the default setting, then who is going to do this? Cord Jefferson’s piece in Gawker really nails this issue:
One of the reasons Girls seems to be so adored is that its depiction of upper-middle class, Urban Outfitters ennui reads as more true than most everything before it, as if, at long last, there is finally a team of young people that “gets it.” Many sub-30, post-college men and women look at the show and nod their heads in agreement with every abortion joke, drug reference, and unfortunate sex scene. This stuff is indeed happening in Ivy League pockets throughout the United States, the only difference is it’s happening to black, Latino, and Asian people as well, not just Dunham and her trio of white friends.
There is currently not a single leading character on Girls that couldn’t be played honestly and convincingly by a black actor or a Pakistani actor or a Taiwanese actor. It may come as a surprise to some Americans, but there are women of all races who freeload off their wealthy parents and work in tony art galleries.
Jefferson concludes his piece with this heart-breaking statement:
The guys begging for money look like us. The mad black chicks telling white ladies to stay away from their families look like us. Always a gangster, never a rich kid whose parents are both college professors. After a while, the disparity between our affinity for these shows and their lack of affinity towards us puts reality into stark relief: When we look at Lena Dunham and Jerry Seinfeld, we see people with whom we have a lot in common. When they look at us, they see strangers.
Like the fictional Charlie, the very real Jefferson wants for television to acknowledge that his life is “real.” Like Charlie, he is tired of sleeping over at the white folks’ apartments all the time and hanging out with their friends. He likes them and all, but he wants them to meet some of his other friends. Like Charlie, Jefferson (and every audience member whose world view is routinely hidden from mainstream television) has his own apartment, filled with cleverly constructed shelving units and lofted beds. But like Marnie, white audiences won’t ever know this until we take the time to visit this apartment and look around. So no, Girls is not unique in its erasure of all that is not white, straight and middle to upper-class. But I wish that it were.
For another reconsideration of the series by one of my fellow blogathoners, check out Jennifer Jones’ “GIRLS at the Half.”
Blogging GIRLS: Reactions to the Pilot
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.