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Living in a Material World:
HBO's Girls and the Culture of Critique
An article by L.K. Weston
 

This article contains some plot spoilers.

 

Unless you've been living under a rock or live somewhere with a lacklustre Wi-Fi signal – which for some of us amounts to the same thing – you'll have undoubtedly heard about HBO's hottest property, Girls, renewed for a second season a mere two episodes into its opening run. At the very least, you'll be aware that its creator, 26-year-old Lena Dunham, also writes, directs, and stars in the show. At most, you'll know all the ins and outs of the drama that ran parallel to the one unfolding week-by-week onscreen: the rollercoaster that is surviving a first season run in the age of the internet. From pilot broadcast to the closing credits of the finale, Dunham's show has seen itself at the highest peak of favour, looking down at that deathly drop and the twists and turns to follow, only to barrel down weeks later, weighed down by a barrage of negative criticism. But, against the odds, it held strong, with Dunham and her Girls proving those that doubted them wrong.

The most frightening thing about that progression? It only took ten weeks to occur.

The lifespan of any given TV series has always been somewhat fragile, but now, it can truly turn on a dime. Once, you only had the column inches of newspapers and magazines, or the odd rumbling on talk shows. Now, in the age of mobile phones, tablets, the internet and the pervasiveness of social networking, everyone's a potential critic. Everyone also has a platform to air those views, any way they like, when they like, even if that happens to be in the ad break of the very thing they're discussing.

As you'll already be able to surmise, Lena Dunham's work is polarising. You'll either connect with what she's trying to do, thinking it speaks to you in ways that other shows or films never have, or you'll consider it to be nothing more than pretentious navel gazing that's a celebration of post-collegiate ennui, exuding privilege and little else. There's no room for manoeuvre, and the odds are stacked against Dunham to begin with. Most people's response to her endeavours are consistently related back to the work of her parents, photographer and designer Laurie Simmons, and painter Carroll Dunham. Rather than hang upon their coattails, Dunham chose to create work with a voice of its own. Biographies will tell you that her path from Oberlin creative writing major to multi-faceted creative force behind comedy-drama Girls was relatively swift one, but make no mistake, Dunham puts in the work and it shows onscreen.

Girls sees Dunham at her most accessible. Fortunately, in switching medium from film to television, she loses none of her trademark wit and authenticity. The basis for the premise, characters, and plot were drawn from Dunham's own experiences after graduating, and expands upon themes explored in her SXSW award-winning second feature, Tiny Furniture. Amongst those impressed by it was Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared writer Judd Apatow. Sensing potential, he approached Dunham to collaborate on a pilot for HBO (he remains on board as an executive producer). His hope was that her perspective would provide men with a better insight into the lives of women. Girls is the fruit of that collaboration, and more than achieves its aim.

The series follows the trials and trials and tribulations of four young women in their early twenties living in Brooklyn: best friends Hannah (Dunham), an aspiring writer; and Marnie (Allison Williams), an art gallery assistant; college student Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet); and her nomadic, free-spirited cousin Jessa (Jemima Kirke, Dunham's school friend, who also appeared in Tiny Furniture). So far, so familiar. Where Girls comes into its own, is in the subtleties of each character that revealed over time, layer by layer. This impulse is obviously driven by Dunham's capacity to lay herself open, to not care about making herself look ridiculous, but it's also an important part of breaking down stereotypes and creating three-dimensional characters. It's a testament to the show's writing that characters with personality traits or exhibit behaviour that makes them hard to like, ultimately become likeable in spite of their flaws.

At first glance, it appears that the girls shouldn't really have anything in common, aside from shared college and city experiences, but they're all part of the same grand puzzle. The balance is such that one couldn't work without the other. Take one of them away, and the whole dynamic falls apart. Though the circle of friends is a tight one, there's for room men in their lives, arriving in the form of Charlie (Christopher Abbot), an aspiring musician, and Marnie's long-term boyfriend; his misanthropic best friend Ray (Alex Karpovsky, another Tiny Furniture alum), a coffee shop barista; and Adam (Adam Driver), an actor-turned-carpenter and the object of Hannah's affections. Like the girls, they function as a clever microcosm; this time one that's reflective of the sliding scale of modern masculinity. Their presence flags up something else important too: Girls isn't just for girls.

The group we meet at the beginning of the series isn't the same as the one we say goodbye to at the end of it. What makes that journey so appealing is the fact that for the most part, these articulate, intelligent young women are a work in progress. They have no real idea who they are, what they want, where they're going or whether they have a place in the world. In a culture that's over-saturated with talk shows and self-help books that place undue pressure on people to succeed and meet goals, it's refreshing to see Girls show how that pressure ultimately effects us, by simply allowing Hannah and the other girls to admit to their confusion and aimlessness.

The subject matter, and the New York setting mean that comparisons with another HBO show, Darren Star's iconic Sex and the City, are inevitable. Initially it seems, the shadow of the show looms impossibly large. However, in typical Dunham style, rather than eschew the relation in the name of politeness or embarrassment. Shoshanna is a fan, and a promo poster takes pride of place on her wall. While a newly-arrived Jessa unpacks from her latest trip, the show is referenced again when Shoshanna proceeds to theorise which of the City women she and Jessa are during their catch-up chat. Rather than City being an albatross around the show's neck, it's used instead to highlight its cultural significance – implying that Carrie and company inspired them to setup in New York in the first place, aspiring for the life they saw on television. Intriguingly, it's Marnie, the most City-like of all the girls, who confesses later that her reason for moving there at all wasn't Sex and the City, but Jonathan Larsen's seminal musical RENT, clearly hankering for the freedom of La Vie Bohème.

The New York shown in Girls – unsurprisingly given Dunham's independent roots – has more in common with Larry Clark, Gus Van Sant, and mumblecore than any of the glamour found Sex and the City or Josh Schwartz's Gossip Girl, and it's no accident. Dunham wrote towards that different kind of place (and different kind of girl) in order to show something she hadn't yet seen, and it certainly fills that gap. For all its newness, there's something about Girls that feels like it belongs to another time, in the era of Winnie Holzman's My So-called Life, Paul Feig's much-loved but short-lived series, Freaks and Geeks or J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves' Felicity. Were it not for the prevalence of social media, allusions to contemporary culture, and meta-referencing, it's entirely plausible to imagine the show is set sometime in the mid-1990s. Nostalgia, of course, has many caveats and could well be the driving force behind the positive reception the show has generated between rallies of negativity. In simple terms, you either were one of the girls, knew someone like them, or you are them.

Basking in the glow of post-pilot hype, Girls looked every inch the critics' darling, and had a TV spot to prove it. With everywhere from Entertainment Weekly to Vogue singing its praises, it was hailed it as the televisual Second Coming, a product of the post-feminist, media-savvy era. Girls was presented as something fresh and unique, with wit and insight. Made by and about women, it stood as a lone reed in the male-dominated television swamp. It was asking for trouble, no matter how true those judgements were. No one likes a show-off, and to prove the rule, just one episode later, the knives were out, and teeth were bared. The backlash had begun in earnest. Suddenly, all the laudable positive attributes paraded around in promotional material and reviews from early screeners were sidelined by louder, angrier voices. Though not all dissenting opinions were without merit, most were expressed without the levelling measure of perspective. Tellingly, the comments being made weren't entirely new, having lingered in the background for far too long.

Suddenly, all the discussion surrounding the show was labelled with 'isms.'

First, Girls was attacked for its so-called nepotism, zeroing in on the famous lineage of Dunham, Williams, Kirke, and Mamet – neatly encapsulated in this manipulation of the show's promo poster – suggesting that it was their connections that got them the part as opposed to their talent. Luckily, they do have genuine talent to fall back on, and are universally strong. Initially, there's some novelty in seeing these bright young things all together – a kind of creatively-inclined supergroup, if you will – but that soon fades, because you become too involved with their characters to remember who worked with whom, whose mother did this and whose father did that. To deride Dunham and her team for the choices they've made comes off as rather childish, but given the nature of Hollywood – an industry defined by connections and collaborations from indies to high concept big-budget features – it seems a little disingenuous too.

Then, it was branded as racist by virtue of the fact it was considered too white, and ergo an unrealistic representation of modern multicultural New York. On this front, Dunham held up her hands, ultimately forced to defend the show on NPR's 'Fresh Air,' after the furore took on a life of its own during the fourth week of the series run.

Once highlighted, that lack of diversity is inescapably obvious, but the volume of criticism Dunham and the show have received as a result seems wildly disproportionate. Dunham is current, well-known, and thus visible. That visibility means she's become scapegoat for a longstanding and frankly endemic problem within the media: the failure to accurately represent something other than whiteness.

By her own admission, the lack of diversity wasn't intentional, but the outcry against it was something Dunham feared might happen. Conscious of the issues at hand, she was quick to say that she wanted the show to remain honest and authentic, and in writing for person of colour, she felt she couldn't do so accurately. Why? The answer is simple: because it's something we don't commonly see. That alone says more about what's being greenlit by studio bosses than what's being written by those working within the industry. The fact that in 2012, Shonda Rhimes' Scandal, stands as the first show on network television with a black lead character (played by Kerry Washington) is a sobering statistic.

Dunham has also made it clear she wishes to redress that imbalance during the show's second season. In truth, she's damned either way, regardless of her intent; the inclusion of new character who is also a person of colour playing a prominent role will look like tokenism, and their presence is purely to appease critics rather than drive the story. If she were to take the opposite line, and continue in the same vein, absence of such a character would be an indicator of arrogance, very much adding fuel to the fire of those that believe her work is concerned solely with white privilege. Her task is in impossible one. No matter how hard someone tries, no show can be all things for all people. However, it appears Dunham is a woman of her word, after on set photos recently surfaced featuring her with Community actor Donald Glover. Though she's yet to elaborate on the nature of his role, Glover's presence certainly points toward the arrival of new characters who will expand the Girls universe, both in terms of scope and representation. Even so, there's a small part of me that wonders how quickly her earlier comments upon writing accurately will come back to haunt her.

Eventually, even the fact that Girls is about girls at all became a point of focal interest, and not always for positive reasons, in spite the fact that the majority of Dunham's key staff are women, with Apatow in the minority, meaning it's something of rare beast. Statistically, women make up the majority of the television viewing audience, just fifteen percent of writers working in the industry in 2010-2011 were women – yet another sobering statistic to ponder. It seems that marketing men aren't interested in telling stories about women either. However, if Lee Aronsohn, creator of Two and a Half Men is to be believed, the representation of women has apparently reached its peak, or as he so artfully put it, reached 'labia saturation'. If Girls is anything to go by, it certainly hasn't. The positive comments regarding its fresh and unique approach only serve to reinforce that the surface has only just been scratched, and there are many, many stories left to tell. Despite emergent talent like Dunham, and work of critically-lauded women before her – Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig, and Maya Rudolph to name a few – women in both television and film remain a minority. On statistics alone, before the moral implications of his comments are taken into account, Aronsohn's assessment is clearly wide of the mark.

If the tables were turned, and the show was called 'Boys,' and Lena Dunham was instead, Leo Dunham, it wouldn't have generated half as much critical heat as it has. The pressure and on women is always, for good or ill, akin to laser focus. Mainstream critical discourse – and the wider sphere of pop culture – is still far too concerned with gender roles, stereotypes, labelling, and boxing, to fully grasp anything which dares to go beyond the status quo.

The fact that the creative vision presented here is entirely Dunham's undiluted, without network level intervention from HBO, or any heavy leaning from Apatow should be celebrated not overshadowed by other controversies. In the tide of criticism, important things are being lost. Things like the fact these girls are imperfect, that they make mistakes, and are about as far from the primped and preened Manhattanites of Gossip Girl as you can get. Can you ever imagine Blair and Serena sitting at opposite ends of a bathtub, one eating a cupcake while the other shaves her legs, completely unfazed when one of their boyfriend's walks in on them? The very idea sounds ridiculous, and not just because Hannah and Marnie aren't Blair and Serena, but because few shows allow for moments of imperfection, particularly ones which centre around girls. To do so would shatter the myth of perfection, and make them seem too ordinary, which doesn't work in a medium whose primary function is to provide an opportunity to escape daily life. Maybe the real problem critics have with Girls isn't that it's too white or too rich, but that it dares to be different and a result, is too clever and far too honest for their delicate conditioned palette to swallow. Dunham's brand of candour is in particularly short supply.

In the space of ten thirty-minute episodes, Girls reveals more about its characters than shows of twice that length – both in runtime and episode order – often fail to do. That length is sometimes frustrating, especially now we're conditioned to sixty-minutes worth of programming, not because things feel rushed, far from it in fact, but because they feel like they're just getting started when the fade to black appears. It's a clever trick, since it makes the viewer curious and hungry. Sometimes, there are moments and lines that speak to something bigger, and you might feel short-changed, but its also reflective of the speed of our, and their lives in our instantaneous world. Everything is accelerated, lending it an air of giddy, youthful exuberance, as the girls lurch from one mistake to another. Let's not forget that it's set in the city that never sleeps.

Given that pace, you'd be forgiven for thinking that you don't have time to form any kind of attachment to these characters, but in fact, the reverse is true, thanks to the show's style. Despite the fact that directorial duties are split between Dunham, Richard Shepard, and Jody Lee Pipes (who also serves as its cinematographer, and worked previously with Dunham on Tiny Furniture), it feels cohesive as all three utilise single-camera setups, creating a quasi fly-on-the-wall almost documentarist feel. Though clear indication of Dunham's own aesthetic, it's also perhaps a reference to the rise in popularity of MTV and Bravo reality series such as The Hills, The City, and the upcoming Gallery Girls (which will follow a group of young women with the same job as Marnie). In the context of Girls, this mode is rendered so intimate that sometimes it feels too close to the drama. The sense of second-hand embarrassment we feel whenever the girls fail, and equally, the sense of triumph on the rare occasions they succeed, is palpable. The smallest things seem to matter, making it incredibly involving. It's almost as if we're another of the group's ever-expanding social circle, drifting in and drifting out, glimpsing parts of their life, and it's up to us to piece things together. It's not easy to tell how much time passes between one episode and another – or indeed if the girls 'live' between them. The only small marker are when the ever-sensible Marnie reminds Hannah at various intervals of their looming rent payment.

There's nothing remotely glossy or bright about the visuals on display. Sometimes, their apartments look positively drab, and the 'washed out' look takes getting used to after so much of the opposite. The only time colours pop are in the clubs and parties they attend, and in the clothes they wear. Clearly channelling into fashion as another form of creative expression, they're all individually styled, whether they throw their outfit on (Hannah); are fashion forward and make their own rules (Jessa); want to pretend they're someone else (Marnie's tailored work attire is particularly telling in this regard); or lift something completely from current pop culture trends (Shoshanna).

It's hard to imagine where Girls would be were it not allowed to incorporate all the music and branding it does. Such references play into show's identity by tethering it to the real world, it also has a bearing on how the show is received by the audience – thus blurring that life/art line that Dunham so enjoys dissecting. No matter the decade, no show exists within a cultural vacuum; there's always been constant interplay, but, turn back time, and imagine that Sex and the City existed in the internet age. It's no stretch to suggest that Carrie and friends would be accused of possessing many of the faults that Girls has had to contend with. In the face of such criticism, coupled with marketing man jitters, it's not likely it would've remained on air. If that had happened, seeing it consigned to an early grave, it wouldn't have been given the chance to become the pop culture landmark that it did.

Now sit back and apply that same logic to Girls.

Let go of your preconceived ideas, drop everything else you've read else elsewhere, and begin again. Watch with fresh eyes, judge it for what it is, not what it isn't, and take a moment to ponder what it could be. Just like Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshanna, Girls has real potential, and is already something quite special. If given the opportunity, it could achieve even greater heights, and turn out to be a cult classic.

 


Photos courtesy HBO/Jojo Whilden.

Girls

US 2012
30 mins each
director
Lena Dunham
Jody Lee Lipes
Richard Shepard
screenplay
Lena Dunham
cinematography
Jody Lee Lipes
Matthew Santo
editing
Shawn Paper
Paul Zucker
music
Michael Penn
production design
Laura Ballinger
starring
Lena Dunham
Allison Williams
Adam Driver
Jemima Kirke
Zosia Mamet
Christopher Abbott
Alex Karpovsky
production company
HBO
article posted
19 June 2012