The talk around ‘Girls’, the HBO series by Lena Dunham that premiered April 15, has been frenetic. I jump on the bandwagon to respond to critics of the show who want it to speak for an entire generation: We should let ‘Girls’ tell its own story.
When hype backfires
The week leading up to the premiere of ‘Girls’ brought an avalanche of press. I can’t keep track of the dozens of articles I read, from interviews and reviews to deep think-pieces. The level of hype made ‘Girls’ seem like a much bigger deal than it is, and it might have led many to start forming the wrong expectations.
I didn’t know exactly what to expect at these early stages, either. Late in the week, ‘Girls’ was being hailed as a transformation of TV, a “generational event” that speaks to — and speaks for — everyone born in the ’80s who’s trying to make it in the world. That’s not true at all, but it’s actually a good thing it’s not. Lena Dunham said herself, “The idea that I could speak for everyone is so absurd.”
When I watched ‘Girls’, I saw a brilliant show much like ‘Eastbound & Down’ and ‘Louie’ whose characters are divisive, unsympathetic, flawed, and highly specific individuals. They habitually screw up things. They’re very human, for better or worse (mostly worse). They aren’t designed to reflect our own personal experiences. We should view these characters only for what they are. The critical mistake is trying to see a reflection of ourselves in any of them. It’s not about us.
I took to Twitter to defend the show for what it was, and what it (thankfully) wasn’t. But as some who watched ‘Eastbound’ took away from it a role model in Kenny Powers, some who saw ‘Girls’ thought Lena Dunham actually created Hannah to be the “voice of her generation” — to speak for all of us. Cue the backlash.
“Fuck. This. Show.”
It’s one thing to dislike a show. There are plenty of shows on TV that I don’t care for at all. That’s fine. But in the days following the premiere of ‘Girls’, I began to see something in the arguments against it that I hadn’t seen in reviews of other similar shows. ‘Girls’ was burning people to the core, and they were pissed off.
The first type of argument was the typical misogynist rage — These girls are hipster trash. Lena Dunham is a fat whore. I don’t have any time for bozos who see Lena’s body type as a point of criticism. Meanwhile, the second type of argument was more of a misplaced feeling of rejection — I wanted to see someone like myself in ‘Girls’, but I don’t, so I hate it. Lena Dunham is a stuck-up bigot.
As the week went on, the negativity didn’t subside. Instead, it snowballed — to the point of near-parody. My favorite piece began with the line, “FUCK. THIS. SHOW.” I get the underlying concerns, but it’s a great example of the hyperbole.
In most arguments, the hate was oddly personal and targeted, as if Lena Dunham and her character Hannah were one and the same. In other words, because the characters on ‘Girls’ are all insular, homogeneous, entitled, pretentious, selfish and naive — which is true — we should hate the actors and their dumb show, right?
But obviously, in order to appreciate any scripted show, you have to separate the character from the actor. If you can’t do that, you might end up joining critics who are actually, seriously charging the show with nepotism — a head-spinning thesis that ‘Girls’ has some kind of responsibility to be the voice of the mythical common person but can’t because its actors come from fortunate backgrounds. That critical mistake happens here: We can’t and shouldn’t want to see ourselves in them.
The characters on ‘Girls’ don’t represent me. They don’t represent anyone at all who isn’t white, or who isn’t from a privileged upbringing, or who doesn’t live in Brooklyn, or who isn’t generally self-absorbed and indulgent. They don’t truly represent anyone but themselves. ‘Girls’ benefits creatively from its distinctive voice; its characters are in no way responsible for telling the story of anyone else.
Let’s work this out
‘Girls’ can’t be everything to everyone, so why did so many people think it must be? Maybe the hype machine was practically begging for a counterargument, or maybe the show looks so real in its style and presentation that some treat it with the same expectations as real life, giving it societal implications it doesn’t have.
My running theory is that the show’s title, ‘Girls’, facilitates the misunderstanding. For example, what if ‘Louie’ or ‘Eastbound’ were called ‘Guys’? The title paints ‘Girls’ with an extremely broad brush, but its characters couldn’t be more idiosyncratic. I recently came to the conclusion that if ‘Girls’ were known instead as ‘Hannah’, perhaps we wouldn’t have these problems. The expectations would be different.
There is infinite space in pop culture for a diverse array of voices, and the more TV shows that come about in the vein of ‘Girls’ but focus on other types of people, the better. We need to remember that ‘Girls’ is one show, created by one person with a singular vision that can’t and shouldn’t encapsulate the human experience.
We also need to keep in mind that a universally relatable character isn’t what makes a good show. ‘Girls’ would be nothing if its characters didn’t have entrenched, inherent flaws that portray them a bit likable, a bit reprehensible. That’s what makes it so interesting. ‘Girls’ is the first show I’m aware of to pull off that nuance from a female perspective. For everyone’s sake, I hope it’s just the first of many.
I took the time to write about ‘Girls’ because it’s an incredibly well written, produced and directed show, and the criticism of it had become exceptionally nasty. If we can’t critique the content of the show for what it is — if we’re caught up in whatever it’s not — then we lose all perspective of what we’re even talking about. [Medium]