The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Rebuttal: What “Girls” Gets Right

Written by: Phoebe Raven, CC2K Staff Writer


Last week CC2K Book Editor Beth Woodward wrote about all the things she thought HBO’s Girls got wrong. This week, TV Editor Phoebe Raven responds with a rebuttal.

I have resisted all season getting in on the discussion about Girls, because it seemed everyone had an opinion and there was nothing I could add to it while tempers flared. But now that the season has ended and everyone has made up their minds about the show anyway, I feel it is time for me to set some things straight that have bothered me in the debate surrousnding Girls all season long.

I believe the relative disappointment with the show that many haters feel comes primarily from wrong expectations and wrong assumptions about television in general and Girls specifically.
The defendants of the show on the other hand are also doing a terrible hob of explaining why Girls matters. I shall attempt to rectify this and maybe offer an approach to Girls that has to neither lead to abundant love for the show nor to seething hatred.

False Assumption No. 1: Lena Dunham is Hannah Horvath (or vice versa)

Whenever I read about Girls, be it a positive review or a negative comment, the trend goes towards equating Hannah with writer/producer/director Lena Dunham. This lead to such arduous complaints that when Hannah proclaims she wants to be “the voice of [her] generation” she is also saying Lena Dunham has the same aspiration. Which is just false. Hannah is not Lena.
While I admit that Lena Dunham has made some rather questionable and unfortunate comments in interviews about Girls, she has also clearly stated that she finds the notion that she supposedly is the voice of her generation ridiculous. She is very aware that she could never speak for everyone, she can hardly speak for anyone but herself, which is exactly what she is doing. She is following the advice each and every writer has ever gotten: “Write what you know.”

If we take Girls as nothing more but a “write what you know” story by Dunham, it becomes much easier to forgive her shortcomings. Yes, she may want to attempt to write in more diverse characters of different skin colors. But she may also suck at it, and critics may judge her for that more harshly than for never trying. Personally, I take less offense from absence than I take from token presence that simply gets it wrong (and Germans as a rule are misrepresented in American TV and movie fare, so don’t even get me started).

Similarly, the body issues that Hannah has with her weight are not to be equated with body issues that Lena Dunham may or may not have herself. The fact of the matter is that while we may wish that our media provide us with a more enlightened take on social issues, this is not the agenda that Girls has. Girls is trying to paint a picture of a specific set of people in a specific age group with a specific set of experiences and the characters of the Girls universe are clearly imprinted with values and attitudes that are adopted from mass media and mainstream societal pressure. It is therefore accurate and realistic that Hannah should have body issues (and have these pegged down to the pound), because most young women do.

False Assumption No. 3: TV Should Show Us a Better, Enlightened Society

This is directly related to the point above. We may wish for TV to present us with role models to aspire to, but sometimes the best thing a TV show can do is throw our twisted reality back in our face. Sometimes the best thing is when TV presents us with something so alienating and yet so real that we come to grips with the fact that all we know is our own personal experience and understanding anyone else is a mountainous task we can work at our entire lives and yet never succeed.
I don’t doubt there are people exactly like Hannah and Marnie and Jessa and Shoshanna out there. Why do you?

False Assumption No. 4: (TV) Characters Have to Be Likable

I fundamentally disagree with the widespread cultural belief that only stories about “likable” characters can be engaging, engrossing and worth telling. I have expressed my problems with liking any single character on Breaking Bad, yet I recognize it is one of the top quality television programs on the air these days.
Consider a movie like No Country For Old Men. Was Anton Chigurh likable?
The stories of people who we would never closely encounter, because we would avoid them for not being “likable” to us, can be the stories that open our eyes the widest or at least broaden our perspective.
What does “likable” mean anyway? Likable to whom? The majority of viewers? Do we really want our TV shows to pander to the mainstream masses and tell us the same stories about the same characters over and over? Don’t we want our television to be challenging, to show us people whom we would never encounter otherwise? Would we rather have our TV shows carelessly toss in a redeeming quality for every character (for example: Hannah is self-absorbed, but she brings cookies to the old lady who lives downstairs and has no family)?

My answer is obviously no. And this is where I believe Girls pushes the envelope and truly is a little groundbreaking, as it has been described by the many TV critic fans of the show. Girls refuses to pander to its audience. It refuses to boil its characters down to a redeeming quality that can easily be shown in a scene or two. Instead Girls aims for alienation, which is precisely the point. The generational gap is becoming so wide, that even young people only a decade separated in age have problems communicating with each other. This is one of the fundamental truths Girls talks about. Girls is not about Generation Y. It is about the unnamed generation that is exiting college right now.

And contrary to popular opinion, I like the character of Marnie quite a lot. She is anything but flat and a spoiled bitch to me. She has clearly expressed her problems before, how much she hates being stuck in her own head, and how much she struggles with having internalized society’s propagated rules about acceptable female behavior. She is as much a product of her environment as Hannah is, and given the circumstances, I think Marnie is managing quite well. In her fight with Hannah at the end of Episode 9 I was squarely in Marnie’s corner.
Yes, she was rambling on about her ex-boyfriend hooking up with another girl two weeks after their break-up, but honestly, most females do this kind of incessant ranting to process their emotions. Usually it’s with their best friend, but all of Marnie’s best friends were conveniently unavailable at the time.

I even like Hannah, who makes it so hard to be liked because she is terrified. Of everything. Of life, of failure, of love, of herself, of her potential, of her potential non-potential… A lot of what Hannah does is motivated by self preservation. Add to that a healthy dose of a delusion of grandeur that is implanted in the American youth by countless speeches about “Be all you can be”, “You can be whatever you want to”, “You can do whatever you set your mind to” and all those other inspirational platitudes, when sometimes nothing would be as helpful as an honest “I think you should do something else”.

False Assumption No. 5: TV Should Be Entertaining

It may seem a little counterintuitive to list this as a false assumption, but bear with me. In general, of course we like our television to be entertaining, but entertainment can be understood on several different levels. The default understanding is that entertainment doesn’t force us to think, but smoothly guides us from one thrill to the next and leaves us with a smile on our face or at least some sort of catharsis. And yeah, I like that kind of popcorn TV, too. But it’s just not enough.
The other kind of entertainment is the one gained from intellectual stimulation, of making us think, think hard, and examine ourselves, our attitudes, our own moral make up. In the long run, this is the more worthwhile entertainment with a sustained effect, but it is also a lot harder to achieve and often requires work on the viewer’s part and a willingness to engage on a level that goes deeper than the surface.
I believe Girls not only demands but also warrants this kind of engagement. The show presents characters and situations that are alienating and frustrating and does so consciously, I believe. If we are frustrated just watching these characters, imagine how frustrating it must be to live them! And somewhere out there are young people living them.

False Assumption No. 6: Girls Should Be Held to a Higher Standard

I fail to understand why certain kinds of complaints are being brought up against Girls that aren’t brought up with every other comedy show on the air. Why are people going to town on Girls for its racial homogeneity, but they are leaving How I Met Your Mother alone?
Why are people bemoaning Girls’ characters are stereotypes, but don’t bash Community for doing (arguably) the same?
What in the world ever gave people the idea that HBO gave us Girls to guide us to the light and present to us the pinnacle of what a television show could and should be?
Why does Girls have to be everything at once when Two and a Half Men gets away with barely being one thing and record viewership?

For me, Girls is a show that makes me think about the mistakes I made when I was Hannah’s age, which wasn’t really all that long ago, but feels like a lifetime. It makes me think about the person I was back then and the person I am now. It makes me laugh. It makes me cry, too. And it makes me happy, simply because it exists.
Personally, I don’t ask anything more of my TV shows.