Television about women for women isn't as easy as it looks. It's far more difficult to get right, it seems, than television about men for men or television about men for all audiences. Satire and exaggeration apparently don’t come off looking too hot when women are involved. So what happens when a TV show directly tries to confront many of the stereotypes confronting women today? Well, that’s when you get something sort of akin to Girls.
The latest project from Lena Dunham, the 25-year-old behind last year’s instant hipster hit Tiny Furniture, and producer Judd Apatow, Girls premieres Sunday on HBO. And while HBO has kept quite the lid on their latest endeavor, the show has already received its fair share of press. Northwestern students got an exclusive first look at the first two half-hour installments in Annie May Swift Hall Wednesday.
The show revolves around three recent college grads and one relatively hyperactive NYU student living in New York where food is expensive and unpaid internships are the bain of any liberal arts college-educated person's existence. The show has already (and unfairly) drawn a bevy of comparisons to a previous HBO series about four New York women. Resemblance to Sex and the City aside, Girls seems adamant to forge its own path in today's television landscape. Unlike Carrie Bradshaw's couture world (or more recent iterations like Gossip Girl), everything is profoundly normal-looking. In lower-key Brooklyn, the show takes a stab at defining certain Gen Y stereotypes for a larger audience.
But don't sit down Sunday expecting something remotely feel-good. You may laugh, as well you should, but Dunham's writing isn't to be messed with. It's so self-aware it boarders on simple, and the complacent viewer may misattribute Dunham's largely astute social commentary as lazy self-aggrandizement. And while there is a hefty dose of that, we cannot forget that there is truth in jest, whether we like it or not.
But the show isn’t about what we should be comfortable with. It is more an examination of young adult life now. And Dunham, in her way, isn’t completely comfortable with that either. The constant awkward asides and self-conscious pauses signal that Dunham, too, wishes the culture was a little easier to stomach. One character's realization that an in-person conversation would be ideal but it’s “not of this time” states all too clearly that we have relegated many of our interactions to smart phones and laptops. And in this process, it has only become more difficult to navigate the waters of the social landscape that is emerging adulthood.
Critics will no doubt latch onto the fact that Dunham’s character is complacent when ignored and mistreated by her self-absorbed not-quite-boyfriend, as if we should expect every new show to tell us how to live our lives, as opposed to showing us how we already do. They'll gripe about how the show appears to willingfully accept that millennials are so isolated by our use of technology that we’ll settle for anything when it comes to face-to-face interaction. And to a certain extent, they’re right. How could young women accept this nonsense so thoroughly that they feel comfortable writing it for television? Surely Dunham, who claims in the first episode to be “the voice” of her generation, should be more confident than that.
But Dunham is more clever than she lets on. Stopping to analyze the critics is part of the exercise. Even before reviews of the show came out, writers on Salon, Mother Jones and even Frank Bruni of the New York Times, flew into a tizy in response to the way Girls portrays sex. Bruni writes:
You watch these scenes and other examples of the zeitgeist-y, early-20s heroines of “Girls” engaging in, recoiling from, mulling and mourning sex, and you think: Gloria Steinem went to the barricades for this? Salaries may be better than in decades past and the cabinet and Congress less choked with testosterone. But in the bedroom? What’s happening there remains something of a muddle, if not something of a mess.
Because Bruni is obviously an authority on how twentysomething women in New York live their lives. This show is not about our parents, and to be honest, I'm not quite sure it's even for them. Girls is astutely for the girls coming to age now and who haven't necessarily identified who their figureheads will be. While Steinem's feminism may have paved the way for today's young women, what we're seeing now is a new feminism, much less militant but effective in it's own way.
But Bruni does get some of it right: sex is a mess. Are we so embarrassed about how our culture has progressed that we can't even see it played out on television? Further, can we not understand where women come from when they write about their own lives candidly, and in a manner that rings true to the majority of the female population? I should hope not.
That isn't to say the show doesn't have its flaws. As much as I hear the voices of the people around me filtered through the show's scripted dialogue, pauses last too long and at times jokes fall flat. And while we are to believe these girls are the closest of friends, it is hard to believe they know each other at all. And witty, awkward, one-line humor can hardly sustain an entire season. With the glitz and sparkle of Sex and the City gone, it's far too easy to focus on the immaturity of the four leading ladies. Then again, as quickly as things change in New York (or even Brooklyn), Girls most definitely has the potential to grow up with the characters.