Why HBO’s Controversial ‘Girls’ Strikes a Nerve
Posted Sunday, June 03, 2012 4:44 PM
For something to be great-- truly great-- does it have to actually be good? Not always, it seems. Before it even premiered on April 15, HBO’s “Girls” was making headlines across the country. Created by 26-year-old Lena Dunham and produced by Judd Apatow, “Girls” is a comedy that was supposed to change the way that women in their early 20s are portrayed on television, from their love lives to their bank accounts. The only problem was, not everyone thought that the change was for the better.
To say that reviews for “Girls” were mixed is like saying that Meryl Streep is an “okay” actress. Tim Goodman of The Hollywood Reporter wrote that “HBO has a real and rare gem in ‘Girls.’” Exactly one month later, Mother Jones published a review that called the show “as profoundly bland as it is unstoppably irritating.” Emily Nussbaum, writing for New York Magazine, said that “as a person who has followed, for more than twenty years, recurrent, maddening debates about the lives of young women, the series to me felt like a gift,” while Andrea Peyser of The New York Post declared that “‘Girls’ is not really about girls at all-- a species uniformly presented as neurotic sex toys or psycho man-eaters.” It all depends on how you look at it.
If you’re a parent with a teenage daughter, you will watch “Girls” with one hand partially covering your eyes, thinking, “I hope my kid doesn’t turn out like this.” If you’re 20 years old and living in New York, struggling to both pay your rent and figure out how you’re going to make it in today’s world, you watch and undoubtedly say, “Thank you, Lena Dunham.” It may not be perfect, it may not even be good. But “Girls” is great for one reason: It depicts reality.
“Girls” may currently be the most controversial show about x chromosomes, but it’s not the first, and it won’t be the last. The 2011-2012 television schedule seemed to be chock-full of female power; there was “2 Broke Girls,” “New Girl,” and even the upcoming “Push Girls.” Of course, let’s not forget that other HBO show about womanhood, a little indie affair that ran for six seasons called “Sex and the City.” If you take the cheesy film adaptations out of the equation, “Sex and the City” is a show that will be remembered as witty, well-written, and sharply acted, all while having touched the lives of millions of women. On both “Sex and the City” and “Girls,” the highs and lows of the work, family, and love lives of four New York women are profiled. On the pilot episode of “Girls,” a velour jumpsuit-clad character named Shoshanna even proclaims that she is “definitely a ‘Carrie’ at heart, but sometimes Samantha kind of comes out.” The premises of the two shows may be nearly identical, but -- Shoshanna’s declarations aside -- the comparisons stop there.
For Carrie Bradshaw, and the countless 30-something women like her, the New York journey was about love, marriage, success, and attempting to redefine yourself if and when those things don’t happen. For Hannah, it’s about all of these things, too, but for the most part, it’s just about getting by. Women like Carrie knew what they wanted, even if they had to struggle to get it; girls like Hannah have no clue where to even begin.
For a 20-something young woman, watching “Sex and the City” is a total fantasy. It’s like catching an episode of “Game of Thrones,” or reading about adventures at Hogwarts in a Harry Potter novel -- entertaining, yes, but wholly unrealistic. Watching “Girls,” on the other hand, is like viewing a documentary, one so real that it perfectly captures all the joy, pain, and confusion of our shared existence.
Just the show’s title itself acts as the first and most telling clue to its power. To the average person, a 24-year-old female would be called a woman-- a young woman, yes, but a woman all the same. However, Lena Dunham, who plays Hannah, made the bold choice to call her characters “girls” because, while they may not be children, they have not yet fully matured into adulthood either. Even 25 years ago, a woman in her mid-20s was probably married, settled into some semblance of a career, or was likely to have already become a mother. For the daughters of these women, this is no longer the case. Many of the real-life versions of Hannah, Marnie, Jessa and Shoshanna do not have full-time jobs. Many of them live with their parents, and it’s not, for the most part, because of a poor economy or bad choices. It’s because things like jobs, relationships, responsibility, and independence are for adults only.
And whose fault is that? You can choose to blame the parents, the kids, or the entire society at large. Many of the show’s criticism are aimed directly at Dunham, which is perhaps fitting, as “Girls” is a monster entirely of her own creation.
Lena, the daughter of artists Laurie Simmons and Carroll Dunham, was raised in New York City, undeniably privileged. She graduated from Oberlin College in 2008, and in 2010 wrote, directed, and starred in Tiny Furniture, a film which won the award for Best Narrative feature at the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference. In the pilot episode of “Girls,” Hannah tells her parents -- albeit while tripping on a particularly pungent form of opium-- that she believes she can be “the voice of her generation.” This has prompted many to say, well, who is Lena Dunham to speak for me?
Of course, she can’t speak for everyone, but Dunham can certainly speak for herself, loudly and clearly. She makes no bones about the fact that she and her co-stars happen to be the spawn of accomplished, well-off parents. Allison Williams is the daughter of television’s Brian Williams, Jemima Kirke is the daughter of musician Simon Kirke, and Zosia Mamet is the daughter of legendary playwright David Mamet. Lena has portrayed herself with brutal honesty on the show, which features no-holds-barred nudity on her part and awkward sex scenes that would make any sane person cringe. These are scenes that she herself has written and directed, proving that she has no qualms about showing herself in an unflattering light. Hannah isn’t glamorous, and she doesn’t worry about how she’ll pay for her next pair of Manolos. She’s self-absorbed, insecure, and worries about how she’s going to eat if she stays at her unpaid internship, the only place that will employ her. She has 99 problems, and apparently, being a girl is the root cause of all of them.
Let’s get back to the main question-- how can one show can be so polarizing? The answer is simple: when it strikes a nerve. Maybe the viewers and critics who hate “Girls” simply hate the generation behind it. Maybe they see too much of themselves in the characters, all the complexity and uncertainty of being young. It could be for all of these reasons, or none at all. What we do know, however, is that if something is simple, easy, and pleasing to everyone, it is rarely noteworthy or special. But “Girls” is a lot more than that. “Girls” is truly great.
Loren DiBlasi is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.