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What “Girls” Gets Wrong

Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor

I’ll admit it: I hated HBO’s new series Girls when it debuted a couple of months ago.  I couldn’t stand it.  I thought it failed at every level.  As a drama about the lives of recent college graduates in New York City, it was horribly short-sighted and narrow, relying too heavily on broad archetypes rather than character development. s an ironic comedy, it failed entirely: it just wasn’t funny.

As Girls has progressed, it seems to have gotten its sea legs a bit.  But with just one episode left before the season finale, I still feel like it’s doing too many things wrong, and not enough things right.  And that sucks, because, quite frankly, there aren’t enough female-driven shows on television, and those that are on the air often seem to focus more on the romantic entanglements of its leads than the female-to-female interaction (e.g. HBO’s now-aging True Blood).  With Girls, we have a show with an all-female core cast, and the leads spend more time with each other than they do with anyone else.  I can’t think of another show that’s fit those parameters since Sex and the City (which, with its men-and-fashion obsessed plots, bothered the feminist in me on so many levels).  Before that, we have to go back to the 1980s with The Golden Girls or Designing Women to find another solely female ensemble cast.  And none of these shows focused on the awkward, confusing experience that being in your 20s can be.

I want Girls to work.  After nine episodes, I’m really beginning to think it has some potential.  But right now, it’s not.  Here’s why:

Too many archetypes, too few characters

With a few exceptions—which I’ll talk about later—Girls’ cast is made up of caricatures and archetypes rather than characters.  Take Marnie, the bitch.  Or Jessa, the slut.   Or Shoshanna, the virgin.  Even Hannah—the character that Lena Dunham, the creator of the show, plays—took about four or five episodes to go beyond being solely a lazy, entitled 20-something.

Don’t get me wrong: plenty of sitcoms have taken broadly drawn archetypes and capitalized on them for humor.  But Girls isn’t that kind of show, and it doesn’t have that kind of humor.  Instead, it would benefit from having more nuanced characters who felt and acted like real people.

I get the feeling, sometimes, that by creating such broad characters, Dunham has tried to turn them into everygirls, women that every 20-something female can relate to—kind of like a horoscope or a tarot card reading.  But we all know that horoscopes and tarot card readings usually ring hollow in the end.

On a related note, the fact that Dunham and Jemima Kirke, who plays Jessa, played versions of the same characters in Dunham’s (almost painfully un-entertaining) film, Tiny Furniture, makes me wonder at the range of Dunham’s writing ability.

A Whitewashed Universe

I’m not the first to point out—nor will I be the last, I’m sure—that every single main character in the Girls universe is white, even though it takes place in New York City, one of the most diverse cities on the planet.  When I brought this up in a conversation with some of my fellow CC2Kers a while back, they mentioned that it’s quite possible—and not entirely unlikely—for a young white woman to have a circle of friends that’s entirely Caucasian.  In addition, I also know that, as a Caucasian writer myself, you can easily fall prey to the presumption of whiteness—making the assumption that everyone is white because you are.  It’s also something that can’t entirely be blamed on Dunham; certainly the show’s producers and casting directors have some say in this.

But the fact is, I’ve lived in New York City, and it’s the kind of place where it’s impossible to avoid diversity.  Even if those in your immediate social circle are of the same background as you, the people around you inevitably will not be.

I could look at this as a simple oversight—and certainly Girls is not the first show, and will not be the last, to make this mistake.  Except that all along, Girls’ casting decisions have seemed very racially self-conscious.  In the first episode, there were only two minorities with speaking parts: a homeless black man and a smart Asian girl.  In the fourth episode, blond-haired, blue-eyed Jessa becomes a nanny.  When she takes her charges to the park, she meets up with several other nannies, including the tough-as-nails black woman and the sexy Latina.  In the same episode, we also saw Hannah’s “pleasantly plump” Latina coworker—who spoke like a Saturday Night Live parody of Rosie Perez.  (Don’t believe me that the casting choices were so obvious, or intentional?  Check out the casting notice for the episode.)

As I said before, Girls is not the only offender on this front, and plenty of other shows that have taken place in New York City—Friends and How I Met Your Mother among them—have all but ignored race.  But as I pointed out in the previous section, Girls doesn’t exist in the same comedic universe as these other shows.  The moments of Girls that work the best are the ones that are realistic…and in the real world, New York City doesn’t have the same racial demographics as Des Moines, Iowa.  Hell, even when you look at the crowd scenes, everyone looks glaringly white.

Honestly, I expected better from HBO.  True Blood, which takes place in rural Louisiana, has a much more diverse cast than Girls.

Mean Girls Take Manhattan

As I mentioned previously, there aren’t many depictions of female friendships on television.  More often than not, shows with a female lead focus more on the romantic partnerships of the protagonist than her female friendships, Sex and the City being the most recent exception (and the one that, thematically, Girls owes the most to).  But unlike the ghosts of female bonding past, Girls’ girls actually aren’t very nice to each other.  In fact, they’re downright bitchy to one another.

Marnie’s probably the worst offender. She continually talks shit about Jessa, whose devil-may-care attitude is in stark contrast to her own.  (Inexplicably, Marnie also kissed Jessa in episode 8—an incident that I suspect might be titillation for titillation’s sake, since it wasn’t even mentioned in the next episode.)  Marnie also says terrible things about her “best friend” Hannah when she’s not around—even going so far as to insult her “tiny” breasts.  She also held Hannah partially responsible for the destruction of her relationship—because her boyfriend found, and read, Hannah’s diary.  But Hannah’s not guilt-free in this, either, as she’s been financially sponging off of Marnie all season.  But Jessa may be the worst of all, abandoning her cousin Shoshanna after she had accidentally smoked crack to go flirt with her much-older employer.

Again, we run into stereotypes here—this time, that women are bitches to one another and female/female friendships are fraught with barely concealed antipathy.  Really?  If I had friends like Hannah, I think I’d be staying home a lot more on Saturday nights.

Kids, I Don’t Know What’s Wrong With These Kids Today

Or so Henry MacAfee said in Bye, Bye, Birdie, back in the 1960s…and so we continue to say today.

Girls relies heavily on the stereotype that Gen Y-ers are entitled and lazy.  Of the four female leads, only one, Marnie, actually has gainful employment.  (That Marnie is also the show bitch may or may not be a coincidence.)

I get that this is a personal problem, but I really, really hate that stereotype.  Although I am a few years older than the characters in the show (28 to their 22-25), I have been battling against this perception ever since I entered the full-time working world—which I did immediately after my college graduation in 2005.  I’ve had to listen to people tell me that my generation is lazy, that they don’t want to work, that they’re narcissistic, that they lack basic reading comprehension skills, etc. etc. etc.  Of course, those people usually manage to add, “Oh, but you’re not like that.”  Gee, thanks.

Not only am I not like that; I don’t know anyone who is.  The 20-somethings I know are all employed, hard-working, and independent.  They’re not delayed adults or aging adolescents.  So not only am I being lumped in with an offensive stereotype, I’m being lumped in with an offensive stereotype that I’m not even sure exists!

What gets me is that Dunham, a 20-something herself, is perpetuating this.  But I think it also shows a larger problem: that Dunham continually relies on stereotypes to support her writing.

The Non-Fat Fat

Lena Dunham is a girl with curves.  She’s got hips, a butt, a stomach, and maybe a couple of extra pounds.  One of the running jokes of the show is making fun of Hannah’s weight and body.  It’s grating because a) why should we continue to perpetuate the idea that women should be judged so much on their looks, and b) because DUNHAM’S NOT FAT.  In the real world, she’d be considered pretty and curvy.  In other words, she looks like many of us.  In TV world, she might as well be a hippopotamus.

Honestly, I’m sick of it.  And, since Dunham writes the show, I’m honestly wondering if she needs therapy to boost her self-esteem.

In Conclusion…

Girls is not a terrible show.  In fact, as I’ve watched the season, it’s continued to grow on me.  It has moments that are fantastic.  I love the Hannah/Adam relationship—who are, probably not coincidentally, the only two characters on the show who are so weird and idiosyncratic that they manage to transcend stereotyping.  And there are definitely laugh-out-loud funny moments, though most of them result from the dissonance between what you expect someone to say or think and what they actually think.  Truthfully, I’ve been enjoying the show more and more as the season has progressed, and I think these last few episodes have been its strongest yet.  But it’s still not as good as it could be.

Dunham excels in creating interesting, nuanced characters…when she tries.  She’s also created some genuinely funny moments, but just as many moments have fallen flat.  I think Dunham has potential as a writer, but her voice and style still seem to be developing.  In ten years, she might be the perfect person to write a dramady about the painful awkwardness of being in your 20s.  But right now, I tend to think she’s too busy being in her 20s to reflect on it.

Author: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor

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