The Girls Backlash: 5 Things We Got Wrong

Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
Two days ago, I read an article titled "Why Girls Is Bad for Women." Writer Emma Woolf is hardly the first to find fault with Lena Dunham's HBO series but, having watched the show for the first time only recently, her reaction perfectly encapsulates two years of criticism into one post. The series has polarized critics since day one, and after three seasons we're well settled into the backlash. Wherever there is hype, there will be hatred; that truth is universally acknowledged.
But, for all the spot-on aspersions cast at Girls, there are some that are simply unjustified. Both viewers and professionals, while clambering to critique, have jumped on a few very problematic bandwagons. Discussions around sex, nudity, feminism, and race are never simple, and if you choose a side, it's important to take a step back and see just what you're attacking and why. Neither Girls nor Lena Dunham is perfect, but here are five criticisms of the show that we may have gotten wrong.
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Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
Girls Is Racist
You can't talk about Girls without talking about diversity. This was the first and biggest challenge this show faced, and the complaints were valid. The first season justifiably raised eyebrows, and Dunham admits that season was largely written by her, and was heavily influenced by her own experience. Perhaps her own experience has a whole lotta white people.

Some critics came to Dunham's defense, acknowledging that the issue itself is not black and white ("let’s not pretend that 20something NYCers never self-segregate" tweeted pop-culture journalist Mark Harris), but there's no doubt this is an enduring problem on television. Girls may not be the sole culprit but, in that season, it was a part of the problem. There are many not-so-diverse shows on the air, but Girls was clearly marketed to be a realistic portrayal of young, professional 20-somethings in New York City, and many of their real-life counterparts were rightly disheartened to tune in and find a whitewashed version of their lives. Tiny Furniture, the film that launched Dunham into stardom within, like, hours of her college graduation, had a similar dearth of diversity, and yet critics threw nothing but wild praise at it. But, there's a big difference between putting out a low-budget, post-grad, indie film and being the face of a national television show. With great audiences come great responsibility.

What's crucial is the way that Dunham responded both personally and via Girls' second and third seasons. To her credit, she consistently replies to the press on this subject with thoughtfulness and gravity — and a willingness to acknowledge her misstep and be corrected. On Girls, however, the true and murkier side of the story came out:

"'Oh, I'm a white girl and I moved to New York and I'm having a great time and I got a fixed gear bike and I'm gonna date a black guy, and we're gonna go to a dangerous part of town.'" Donald Glover's character, Sandy (who turned up ASAP in Season 2) mocks Hannah, mid-breakup. She counters, "The joke's on you, because you know what? I never thought about the fact that you were black once." The viewership rolls its collective eyes, and Sandy comes back with the only feasible reply: "That's insane." This messy, awkward, self-conscious scenario was, I think, a pretty solid comeback to the critics, simply because of it's messy, awkward, self-consciousness. (In Season 3 Dunham — and her expanded writing team — created a significantly more diverse supporting cast without having to hit the nail quite so squarely on the head.)

In a recent interview with Marc Maron, she reflected on the lessons learned during Season 1, first and foremost, "that it's really important for people to see themselves reflected on television." That's the bottom line. Let's not let her forget it.
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Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
But, No One Acts Like This!
"Since when do they talk on the toilet, their boyfriends drifting in and out of the bathroom?" asks Emma Woolf in Monday's op-ed. Says me: "Since always?"

Woolf's post may have come a little late in the game, but it perfectly distills the last two years of often misdirected criticism about Girls. When viewers and journalists use this argument, what they seem to be saying is, "But, I don't act like this!" Maybe not everyone chats with their best friend in the bathtub or accidentally jams Q-Tips into their ear canals. But, empirically speaking, some people have. HBO did not go under the day after Hannah put on a mesh tank top and did coke with her gay ex-boyfriend. Life is weird. Maybe it's a different kind of weird for you, but that doesn't make this weird weirder.

"Are we supposed to believe that young women actually live like this? Is the lead character, Hannah, played by Lena Dunham, intended to be likeable or odious?" asks Woolf. The answer is: both. Neither. You can make up your own mind, here. The "problem" most people have with Girls is that Hannah Horvath is not an everywoman. She's not an easy protagonist to get behind. She makes big mistakes. She behaves selfishly sometimes. She acts like an idiot when she's drunk and sometimes when she's stone-cold sober. Sounds like a lot of 24-year-olds I know (and a lot of 24-year-olds I was). But, she may not be just like you when you were 24, and that's okay because she's a fictional character based on a real woman who is also not you.
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Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
Girls Isn't Feminist Enough
In these scenarios, I'm reminded of the best check-yourself axiom my best friend ever taught me: There's My P (my problem) and there's Y P (your problem). For some reason — maybe because the star and show runner of Girls is a young, smart feminist — audiences decided that the show was supposed to be the modern definition of feminism in popular culture. NO PRESSURE, LENA.

To be clear: Girls is a television comedy. While TV is a huge part of what influences our cultural consciousness, it's certainly not the only factor. Furthermore, the Girls writing staff doesn't sit down every week to hammer out perfect female icons, but complex, dynamic characters that go through both ups and downs. If everyone said and did everything right all the time there would be no story.

As with the diversity issues, Girls has borne the brunt of this argument, though many other television shows are lacking in the feminism department. With Girls, however, the characters are at least smart and savvy enough that we expect them to live up to our expectations. So, we're naturally disappointed when they act like average, floundering jerks instead of behaving like Gloria Steinem all day long. But, if you are looking to a TV show to be your feminism benchmark, then that's a Y P. That is not Lena Dunham's P.
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Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
Too Much Sex (And, Sometimes It's Bad Sex)
Frankly, I think this is inarguably a good thing for television. Unless you're letting children watch it (and that's really a Y P), seeing realistic sex on TV will only serve to help kill the notion that your sex life needs to be one long simultaneous orgasm.

And, as for those few scenes that depict questionable or even slightly less-than-consensual sex, that is also a realistic part of life. I'd be willing to bet that Girls validated a lot of confusing or traumatic experiences for some viewers. Others may have been triggered by it. But, the fact is that not everything can come with a trigger warning. Yes, we should be mindful, but we should not censor the good, bad, and ugly about sex.

Like bodies, relationships, and everything in life, sex has the potential to be graceful or messy or wonderful or painful — especially when you're a "Girl" who hasn't yet figured it out. For all its flaws, Lena Dunham's show made a space for the very real experience of young adulthood on television. It's not perfect and it probably won't go down with M.A.S.H. or Mad Men as one of the great artistic feats in television history. But, it tells an honest story. For all those critics who claim it "goes too far," I'd say that it's the first time television has gone far enough.
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Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
Why So Naked?
When Dunham first came on the scene with Tiny Furniture, much of the commentary was on her refreshing willingness to show off her body — the barely unspoken end of that sentence being, "as if she wasn't ashamed of it!" It's one aspect she brought back in full force with Girls, as if to reply, "Why should I be?"

There are dozens of reasons why Dunham's nudity (in addition to the other actors') is important to the show and to the cultural landscape. Yes, it reflects the image of a female body that exists nowhere else on television, but all over the place in real life. Yes, it acknowledges the fact that sex is not just for the skinny. But, furthermore, people are naked sometimes in life! Or, at least, Dunham admits that she has been naked a time or two, and therefore suspected that others had, as well.

She certainly admits there's a bit of defiance in her nudity, specifically, and why not? She is but one single drop in a bucket of typical Hollywood bodies. If this is an argument against the show's validity, it's feeble at best and ignorant at worst. "I don’t get the purpose of all of the nudity on the show, by you particularly," said journalist Tim Molloy at a recent panel with the cast and creative team, a broken-record question that incited mass rage across the Internet. Dunham came back with a reasonable, if reasonably pissed-off reply: "It’s because it’s a realistic expression of what it’s like to be alive, I think, and I totally get it. If you are not into me, that’s your problem, and you are going to have to kind of work that out with whatever professionals you’ve hired."

The Guardian's Eve Wiseman said it even better: "What the journalist was really asking, wasn't 'Why are people naked?' but 'Why is Lena Dunham naked, when I don't find her body titillating?'"

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