How Girls challenges the masculine expectations of “good TV”

How Girls challenges the masculine expectations of “good TV”

Girls entered the world with the kind of hype that all but guarantees a backlash. Scoring an 87 on Metacritic—a score my own rave review of the first three episodes didn’t factor into—the show was the second-highest-rated new show of the 2011-12 TV season, behind only Homeland. It inspired think-piece after think-piece, often in New York-based publications that were apparently thrilled at having yet another show exposing the “truth” of life in that city. The series was almost fatally overexposed, particularly for an unassuming show that was bound to have lower ratings, being on HBO and all. That meant an “overrated!” backlash was all but inevitable, particularly given that the pilot isn’t as strong as most of the episodes that followed.

Yet there’s something unsettling and troubling about the Girls backlash, especially when compared to another show that debuted on HBO around the same time with a female protagonist and glowing reviews: Veep, which has inspired essentially no viewer backlash whatsoever. Don’t get me wrong, I like Veep a lot, but it doesn’t seem nearly as interesting or well-constructed as Girls. It’s a good show, but it’s the kind of good show that would have been remarkably hard to screw up, given the pedigree of everybody involved. It’s also the kind of good show that fits squarely within our masculine ideals of what “good television” is. (More about that in a bit.) Girls is on another tightrope altogether, subtly pushing at the limits of what TV can do, for which it’s been lambasted in some corners.

Some of that’s just the Internet, where the culture of comments sections—both here and elsewhere—all but guarantees that negative opinions will turn into an echo chamber, while positive opinions will fight for oxygen. (I visit a forum, for instance, that will gladly tell you how season four of Breaking Bad was Just The Worst, and to fight against that tide isn’t easy.) But the quality of the backlash against Girls and many other shows with female creators or protagonists—including New Girl, Suburgatory, Enlightened, 2 Broke Girls, Whitney, and yes, even Homeland—is at best uncharitable and at worst disturbingly sexist. Go back to that first TV Club review and scroll down to comments. Go to any review of the pilot and scroll down to comments. There were a lot of people out there who had made up their minds about the series before it aired a single frame, simply because of what it was about. 

One of my responses to these people was recently circulated around the Internet as an example of how to fight back against the sexism that’s greeted the show. That comment sounds angrier than intended, but I stand behind the bulk of it. What’s gotten lost in the shuffle is the idea that the argument was only against one particular point, that if we could just get people to stop saying Lena Dunham is ugly, then the Internet will be made safe from sexism forever. And, yeah, the argument that the show should be funnier because Dunham’s not hot enough to make up for it reeks of the boys’ club humor that too much of the Internet takes for granted as standard operating procedure. But that idea didn’t arise in a vacuum. If it had, it would be much easier to take. Instead, it comes out of a world where Dunham’s show can’t be good for reasons that are often poorly articulated. Too often, the underlying assumption is that the show can’t be good because Dunham is female, and she’s writing about distinctly female experiences. (Again, I point to this Film Crit Hulk article about how many of the initial attacks on the show—from people who hadn’t even seen it yet, in most cases—were driven by sexism.)

To be fair, not all of this is driven by sexism, though it’s driven by certain sexist attitudes we have about television. We have a very particular idea about what makes “good” TV in this age of episodic online reviews. “Good” TV is either a single-camera sitcom filled with pop-culture references or moments of pathos (ideally both), or a serialized drama—often on cable—that probes the darkest limits of the human experience and has a bad-boy protagonist. In essence, we’ve created a world where the only two shows that can be copied to make good TV are Arrested Development and The Sopranos.

There’s nothing wrong with this, actually. Copying those two shows has resulted in a lot of great series, including some terrific, distinctly feminist TV, be it the female heroes of Parks & Recreation or Mad Men’s multi-faceted portrayal of what it meant to be a woman in the ’60s. But copying those two shows has also resulted in a narrow TV palette, a limited series of colors to draw from when constructing the next “great” TV show. These series tend to have sensibilities that are very white and masculine, largely because they’re all created by white males, and, hey, write what you know. (It’s not like my reviews aren’t informed by this same perspective.) Even the shows created in this mold that have female characters at their centers—Damages, say—tend to define that female character by how well she fits into a traditionally masculine world. 

A few months ago, Mike White gave a talk to aspiring screenwriters at the Writers’ Guild, and he said something that cemented much of what I like about his series Enlightened. White and his co-creator, Laura Dern, had fumbled through a bunch of different ideas for the show after HBO commissioned them, but the one they eventually landed on centered on a distinctly feminine archetype: the too-emotional woman who’s often all up in other people’s personal space. White and Dern were going to present this character as something of an antihero, but they were also going to ask people to strongly identify with her, to understand why she was the way she was and root for her to find the insight she so desired. Male antiheroes have been so thoroughly disseminated in TV culture that it’s easy to forget the goals they pursue—money or power or sex—aren’t the only goals that can be pursued to a fault. On Enlightened, Dern is pursuing something that’s been codified as feminine in our society—connection—and she’s doing so in a manner that’s often off-putting (hopefully in a funny way). It took a while for critics, myself included, to get what was going on here, and the show was called everything from annoying to self-involved—just like any number of too-emotional women who are often up in people’s personal space.

Girls takes a similar tack. Its characters are distinctly feminine, longing to have voices in a male-dominated society and not taking for granted that they’ll have to squeeze those voices around the edges of the discourse, but they go about it in ways that are often antiheroic. One of the earliest debates about the series was whether viewers were meant to “root” for Hannah when she so often did bad things, like stealing a tip her parents left for a hotel maid or not seeming to care about anybody but herself. Part of this is just a general lack of comfort with comedic antiheroes, who are usually presented with a level of detachment that allows us to realize they’re not meant to be characters we emulate, but rather characters we recognize the darkest parts of ourselves in. (See also: David Brent, Larry David, Kenny Powers, etc.) Dunham presents Hannah without these filters. The show isn’t doing any judging for its viewers, instead asking them to judge the characters’ behavior for themselves. Girls’ world is essentially realistic, which makes it tempting to assume we’re supposed to root for the characters to tumble even further into self-absorption—particularly in the early going, before the series’ central figures got called on a lot of their bullshit. Hannah’s an unreliable narrator, and we’re constantly forced to re-evaluate the way we see things through her point of view. But this also means we’re sometimes wrong about our conclusions, and that’s never fun to realize.

Certainly there are other levels to the backlash against the show. I can even agree with the notion that the series is too white, despite the fact that this is a problem that bedevils nearly every show on television, though I wouldn’t want it to sink into outright tokenism. In addition, the backlash on the grounds that the show’s about children of privilege is understandable: Watching a show about women who begin the series living off their parents’ largesse is particularly galling in an age when plenty of young adults are having to move back in with parents who also have no idea how they’re going to make ends meet after losing jobs or taking pay cuts. Though I don’t entirely agree with either of these criticisms, I at least get where they’re coming from.

But there’s a lack of even the most basic critical charity extended toward Girls that clearly stems from those old sexist attitudes we have about what makes good television. (And these are attitudes I’ve frequently held myself: I certainly wasn’t on the Enlightened bandwagon from day one, because the protagonist was too “annoying,” something I’m not exactly proud of now.) Those attitudes have manifested in an overt, angry manner: During a live-chat I participated in for The Guardian, someone asked if I was only giving the show good grades because I wanted to perform sex acts on one of the characters. But they’ve also manifested in more subtle ways, in the way too many people don’t seem willing to give the show any benefit of the doubt. The series has more than borne out the suspicion many of us had that Hannah’s self-absorption was being criticized, not celebrated. Yet the idea that it’s meant to be a celebration is still held up as a frequent criticism. 

And every week, the goalposts move. One week, it’s that the show doesn’t depict the city of East Lansing, Michigan, entirely accurately. The next week, it’s that it somehow makes crack seem “fun.” One week, it’s the idea that the show’s “not funny enough,” whatever that means. The next week, it’s the idea that the show’s male characters aren’t well-developed enough. It’s not that there aren’t grounds to criticize this program—some of the supporting players could still use development, and Dunham occasionally becomes too enamored of over-the-top gags—but the series is too often expected to somehow be a perfectly realistic depiction of the lives of young people in the big city, while also the funniest show on television. 

All TV fans inherently understand that TV is about watching for a while to see where shows go, to get a sense of a series’ sensibility and point of view. Yet this basic critical charity wasn’t extended toward Girls by far too many of its angriest viewers. By the time the show had conclusively proved that those early episodes weren’t flukes, the narrative had set in to the extent that many couldn’t see what was good about the show. There are criticisms to be made of this show, but too many of the criticisms being made are largely baseless and unwarranted.

Alyssa Rosenberg wrote a piece in response to my comment that crystallized much of what I’ve been struggling to say about the backlash against the show. Rosenberg argues that one of the factors driving the anger against the show is that in the media, women who look like Dunham are rarely given agency. They’re the funny best friends, or the goofy girls the protagonist sleeps with but doesn’t tell his friends about, or the crazy bitches the protagonist tries to get away from. The world of entertainment still, all too often, values women only as objects of beauty to be placed on screen and ogled. I have no problem looking at a beautiful woman, but the world is full of other women who have profound, intelligent, often hilarious things to say, and Dunham is very quietly making a space for those voices on TV, in a way that’s revolutionary both in terms of the show’s gender politics and in terms of its presentation.

Or look at it this way: If this show was called Guys, and its showrunner/protagonist was in every other way similar to Dunham/Hannah—a dorky, slightly overweight guy who bumbled his way through Brooklyn, trying to find his purpose and working his way through a calamitous love life—would any of these criticisms have popped up? Would the people being uncharitable toward Girls have been uncharitable toward that series? I can point to a show that was pretty much just that: It was called I Just Want My Pants Back, it was on MTV, it got solid reviews (including from me), it was a pretty good show, and nobody raised a fuss about it whatsoever. But that show was firmly inside of our typically masculine ideals of what makes good TV. It wasn’t stretching those limits even a little bit. What’s most frustrating about Girls isn’t that there’s a backlash, or that some people say Dunham is ugly, or that the show is criticized at all. What’s most frustrating about Girls is that Dunham has something to say, and far too many people are covering their ears and screaming, “I’m not listening!”

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