The Problem With 'Girls' Is Men

Can Lena Dunham's HBO Series Rise Above Dating Clichés?

Courtesy of HBO

By Ezra Glinter

Published January 09, 2014, issue of January 17, 2014.
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I am not a girl, but “Girls” is about me. Like the characters on the HBO show — which begins its third season January 12 — I am in my 20s, white, middle class and live in Brooklyn. I work in a creative field, have friends who are actors and baristas, and sometimes, to my embarrassment, find myself talking about social media in public. Once in a while I’ll venture to a party in Bushwick, though I’ve not yet smoked crack in line for the bathroom. So far, so normal, at least as far as people who write about “Girls” are concerned.

Of course if I were a woman, then “Girls” would really be about me. I might identify with its female characters’ struggles in life and love, especially those of its protagonist, Hannah Horvath, who is played by “Girls” creator Lena Dunham. I might sympathize with her attraction to her bad-boy boyfriend Adam (Adam Driver), and praise Dunham’s willingness to display her entirely normal body onscreen. I might go as far as Emily Nussbaum in her 2012 New York magazine feature, in which she proclaims the show to be “FUBU: ‘for us, by us.’” For many women, “Girls” has been a revelatory depiction of their own lives.

Representation, though, is a tricky business, and the attempt to realistically portray young women on television has brought down an avalanche of criticism. The expectation that the show should mirror the lives of its viewers has resulted in an odd dynamic, wherein “Girls” has been charged with not being enough like the world in which its critics see themselves, or would like to. For every writer like Nussbaum, who praised “Girls” for being “a sex comedy from the female POV, taking on subjects like STDs and abortion with a radical savoir-faire,” there has been another writer reproving the show for the narrowness of its view, especially when it comes to race. As Sarah Seltzer wrote on the Forward’s The Sisterhood blog, “In my own life… I can think of dozens of female friendships… that have been forged across culture, region, race and sexual orientation… All are just as ‘real’ as Dunham’s show purports to be.” In other words, the show’s white complexion isn’t a concession to realism, but a failure of realism itself.

I agree with this argument — including a black character among the main cast wouldn’t have been off-key — but the focus on the show’s accuracy assumes “Girls” to be something it’s not. Realism is as much about narrative methods as it is about verisimilitude, and “Girls” doesn’t measure up. Unlike a novel such as “Middlemarch,” whose breadth and detail make me think I know what it’s like to live in a 19th-century English town, or a TV show like “The Sopranos,” which leads me to assume a familiarity with the lives of New Jersey mobsters, “Girls” doesn’t feel like the life of anyone, whether I know them or not. This isn’t because of its focus on white, Brooklyn-living, middle-class characters, to the exclusion of other groups. Rather, it’s because “Girls” is a show almost entirely about dating and relationships.


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