Also: It kinda sucks.
This post contains mild season 3 spoilers.
As far as I can tell, this show has two feminist-y credentials. First, Lena Dunham is kind of heavy and frequently appears naked, a topic which the Internet has already discussed. At length. And then some. Second, it’s a show in which very flawed, complex women are the main characters. It’s a great concept, the execution has left much to be desired.
For all the accolades liberal sites like Jezebel and Slate give the show, few commentators have recognized one obvious criticism: the male characters are sympathetic, the female characters are petty, immature, and selfish. (Granted, this could be a subjective judgment, but hear me out). Dunham makes it a point to showcase her protagonist, Hannah, as a self-centered brat without any concern for other people—for example, by asking her recently-deceased book agent’s widow for a referral to another agency… at the funeral. Manipulative Jessa has left a dozen bodies in her wake as she employs her sexuality and her pretentious, nonsensical life tips (“I can’t go into open water unless I’m menstruating”) in avoidance of dealing with her—wait for it—Parental Issues. Girl Next Door Marnie is admittedly nicer than the self-absorbed Hannah and Jessa, but the script has set her up as a down-on-her-luck pretty girl the audience is supposed to love to hate.*
Meanwhile, sad-sack Ray is frequently left playing the straight man, dispensing the sharp take-downs of the main characters that would seem to mirror what the audience is really thinking (“Why don’t you place just one crumb of basic human compassion on this fat-free muffin of sociopathic detachment?”)** Twitchy, awkward, idiot-savant Adam’s job seems to be highlighting, through his struggle with addiction, blunt moral proscriptions, and strong sense of self, just how self-indulgent Hannah is. This contrast remains even when Adam behaves badly. One of the biggest season 2 controversies was an episode that suggested that Adam might have raped a woman. When that same woman has a public meltdown at Adam in the following season, the scene’s drama hinges on how her history with/anger toward Adam makes Hannah uncomfortable***. The show opened a real-world dialogue on sex and consent but effectively answered it with “bitches be crazy.” (Here I was thinking AMC had already captured the men rule, girls drool territory).
As a scripted TV series, Girls’ big shortcoming is the disjointed plot structure and (so far) lack of growth for its female principle characters. Perhaps the show is just art imitating life, in which conflicts are rarely resolved nicely within 28 minutes. Regardless, the more I watch, the more I’m convinced that Girls is like an acid trip: dig as deep as you want, but at the end of the day, there really is is no there there. It has its funny or poignant moments, but you know what they say about stopped clocks. Is there a point to this journey?
Girls feels like the logical result of a popular culture overloaded with irony, self-referential meta-memes, and Judd Apatow movies. The show’s tendency toward self-parody (“I really think I am the voice of my generation,” Hannah tells her parents as justification for why they should keep paying her rent) tricks the viewer into assuming that it is across-the-board self aware, and therefore, clever. I would argue that all the “nudge-wink, Aren’t-I-So-Annoying” aspects of the show allow Dunham et. al. to critique millennial/hipster culture while pretending like they aren’t participating in and reinforcing that same culture.
Dunham might be a great screenwriter someday, but Girls is trying to have it both ways – deliver an occasional glimpse of depth and human emotion, while trying to maintain some distance from anything thought to be too sincere, and therefore, subject to criticism. I guess in that respect, Girls really is the voice of an overly-ironic, apathetic, insecure, often annoying generation. #MillennialProblems #DotTumblr
*Shoshanna, the only not-horrible female character, is saddled with Lady Gagaesque hairstyles and valley-girl characterization, which trivializes any insight she might have. The Unexpectedly Wise Fool can be an effective screenwriting convention when deployed properly, but in the case of Girls, if you’re trying to write a show about women and the only likable woman is a cartoon character, you might be doing it wrong.
**More of Ray getting real.
***Dunham explained that this was her intent in a post-episode commentary.