Well, I finally got around to watching the premiere episode of HBO’s Girls today. (If you haven’t seen it, it’s available for your consumption on YouTube free of charge.) This is a show I really wanted to like, really. There was a lot of buzz about Lena Dunham in an amazing, brave performance, smartly written performance, the show as an updated and more gritty version of Sex and the City, and so forth. Well, I watched it… and I hated it. Here are a few ways in which Girls, in my assessment, falls short. [Spoilers follow.]
Diversity. I won’t say too much about this, because it’s been written about on other blogs. However, the show, not unlike SATC, presents a curious vision of New York City in which people of color are like furniture in the background. All of the major characters in the show are caucasian or Jewish. They are also straight and from upper- or at least upper-middle-class backgrounds (see more on this below). Dodai Stewart writes a thoughtful piece on this for Jezebel, which points to many other Internet sources that are discussing the issue. Stewart’s focus is on the lack of African-American characters, but in fact there’s a whole plethora of groups missing here. If this show is really meant to be representative of the life of today’s 20-something women, why not broaden the spectrum a bit? How many interesting and thought-provoking plot lines is the show missing out on by not including the lives and experiences of an array of “girls?” (Dunham has evidently been asked this question a lot, and has publicly recognized the weakness.)
Sexuality. In spite of the apparent lack of diversity of sexual preferences, the show is highly sexualized. I suppose that’s almost a pre-requisite to get on HBO these days, but a number of things bothered me about how these women’s sexuality is portrayed. Hannah, the main character played by Dunham, has a deeply unfulfilling and ick-inducing FWB relationship with a character named Adam, who is clearly less interested in her than she is in him. Their sex scene in the premiere is about as awkward as you’d imagine watching two people having sex in real life might be. This isn’t what bothered me, though. I’m more annoyed by the show’s perpetuation of the absolute myth that young adults can and should be having sex all the time. Hannah has a fuck buddy. Roommate Marnie has a boyfriend who she can’t stand, but keeps around anyway, their friend Jessa is knocked up. Not only that, but Hannah and Marnie sleep together spooning and shower together. I’ve had a lot of roommates in my life, and not once have I platonically slept with one or showered with one. Why are these scenes in the show? They only seem to serve to cram as much sexual content as possible into the episode, but by doing so they also take away the realism. By the end of the premiere episode, we know more about each character’s sex life than we do about their hobbies, careers, or hopes and dreams (aside from Hannah’s). Why? Because there’s clearly something wrong with you if you aren’t having sex with someone all the time.
This oversexualized version of the lives of 20-somethings was off-putting to me. While I share the frustrations of being with the guy who doesn’t want to be in a relationship, I can tell you that the life of a young woman starting out in a new profession is not all sex, all the time. In fact, it’s just the opposite. I regularly go months without sex, without even a date, and sometimes years between relationships. Surely I can’t be alone in this, but I kept wondering where my character–the hardworking, ambitious woman with little time for love–is in this show. Which brings me to my next point…
Privilege. What really angered me about this show was its failure to live up to all its promises of realism and authenticity. A lot of that failure comes from how the show revolves around privilege. Didn’t this show promise to be a more realistic Sex and the City? Much criticism of SATC revolved around the high-end lifestyle of its female leads. Before Carrie makes it big with her book and her marriage to land baron Mr. Big, we spent years wondering how she could afford all those Manolos. (Though some of that criticism is unfair, because the show did make a plot point of Carrie finding a second job and struggling to pay bills.) Girls may show some financial struggle, but it’s no more realistic. The first episode rotates around Hannah’s struggle after her parents announce that she’s getting cut off, immediately. Among her circle of friends, this is tantamount to a human rights abuse. Why? Because none of these people appear to have any sort of job whatsoever. Jessa seems to be a world traveller who, its implied by her designer luggage, is getting a hand from someone. Marnie, I have no clue about. She only seems to hang around to make faces at her boyfriend and be an all-around wet blanket. Hannah’s boy-toy gets an allowance from his grandma, which he supplements. Who are these people? Seriously? I felt at times like I was watching a show about rich college undergraduates. I doubt that it’s typical of the lives of most 24- and 25-year-olds that their parents or grandparents bankroll cell phones, meals, and apartments in New York City. I do believe that a lot of young adults get help from their parents after college, but a lot of that is young adults moving back in with their parents directly after finishing school, not receiving cash payments. And certainly in a year or two these young adults have found some sort of job and are off the teet. Of course, that would make for a much less interesting character setup, wouldn’t it. The privileged, entitled world of these characters could not have seemed much more ridiculous to me if they wore designer shoes. And here’s my final point…
General Unlikability. I could not find a single character on this show that I liked. Not a one. The girls are spoiled, pretentious, and at times kind of nasty. The men are either spoiled (Hannah’s FWB) or emasculated and underdeveloped as characters (Marnie’s boyfriend, Hannah’s father). Hannah’s mom, the only adult female character, is a missed opportunity in my opinion. While she could be the older, wiser version of the life of girls, she’s instead just another entitled bitch. (It’s revealed at the end that she’s cutting off her daughter from all funds with no notice because she feels she deserves a lake house. Her final act–or we assume it’s hers–is to run out on her daughter in a hotel and leave a $20 on the dresser in an envelope. Classy.)
It’s been suggested by reviewers that perhaps the unlikability of the characters–and all the other factors noted here that inspire such dislike–is the point. These young women are inexperienced, their growth has been stunted, they’ve failed to develop meaningful careers or relationships in part because of the society in which they’ve been raised. OK, fair enough. There’s nothing stopping Girls from being a show that winks at itself by portraying the meaningless lives of its shallow characters, but that’s not what I’m going to tune in for– and I resent the characterization of that as “realism.” Where are the girls I know? The ambitious young women like Hannah’s co-worker, who gets hired as Hannah gets fired–because the co-worker has practical skills. Where are the young professionals? The grad students living off loans and pulling all-nighters so that they don’t end up on their parents’ dime? Where are the girls working two or three jobs to get by? Oh, right. Their lives aren’t sexy or cool or fun to watch. But, come to think of it, this show isn’t fun to watch, either.