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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In other words, it’s not the content of “Girls” that’s out of whack, but its emphasis. Of course, sex and romance are perfectly valid subjects for art, and many critics have praised “Girls” for its handling of these issues. Elaine Blair, writing in The New York Review of Books, singled out the show’s “frankness and naturalism” when it comes to sex, and Dunham’s work as a whole — starting with her student film, “Creative Nonfiction” and her 2010 feature, “Tiny Furniture” — for engaging in “heated dialogue with romantic comedy conventions.” And it’s true; there are plenty of interesting things about Dunham’s work, starting with her examination of sex from hitherto unseen angles.

But it’s sadly ironic that a show intending to portray the lives of young women winds up depicting them primarily in terms of their relationships with men. “Girls” does pass the Bechdel Test — that is, there are scenes in which two women talk about something other than a man — but that is a low bar, and “Girls” barely squeaks by. Indeed, relationship plotlines tend to invade parts of the show that should be engaging in their own right, including the professional aspirations of most characters. Unlike an inferior show such as “Entourage,” in which male characters’ struggles to make it in Hollywood take precedence over affairs of the heart, in “Girls” it seems that women’s careers would be dull without roping in love interests. Work here isn’t the main source of anxiety or aspiration — men are.

This is true not just of joe jobs like babysitting or hostessing, but even of Hannah’s all-important writing career. When Hannah is invited to give a reading at the Salmagundi Art Club by a former professor, the episode is laced with the possibility of something more developing between them. In the new season, when she gets a day job writing for the advertorial department of a major magazine, she can barely sit down before a cute, infidelity-tempting boy sticks his chestnut mop over the cubicle wall. Most egregious is Hannah’s struggle with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, which prevents her from filing a critical draft of her book. Though it starts as one of the most affecting parts of the show, at the end all is made well by Adam running shirtless to her rescue through the streets of Brooklyn. It’s a neat little ending, all tied in a bow, but wasn’t the point of “Girls” not to be so well put together?

The reason for such choices, I think, isn’t because Dunham is a traitor to feminism — it’s because “Girls” is a 28-minute TV show. In a movie like “Tiny Furniture” — which depicts a Hannah Horvath-like character recently returned to the parental nest after college, and which serves as a sort of prologue to “Girls” — sex and dating take an equal place alongside work and friendship and other life problems. But on a TV show there have to be choices to make and problems to solve every half-hour, and these can’t just be pulled from the ether. There’s a reason, after all, that so many shows center on law enforcement, organized crime, or politics, all of which have built-in dramatic engines. Sitcoms are different, but “Girls” isn’t a sitcom, despite some comic moments, and its basic situation — four friends living in Brooklyn — doesn’t lend itself to a state of terminal crisis. So, in order to “add stakes” (in the words of executive producer Judd Apatow), “Girls” resorts to tried and true plot points: hook-ups, break-ups, love and heartache.


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