The Glass Teat: Girls


Privilege and prejudice

The unbearable whiteness of being Lena Dunham

Pride and Prejudice is an okay book, or would be if Jane Austen wasn't so blind to her own privilege! Where are the people of colour? Where are the working classes? Austen is so wrapped up in her own insular world, she didn't even bother to critique British Imperialism and the trans-Atlantic slave trade! — An Exemplary Critic

By Geoffrey Dow
Managing Editor, True North Perspective
Originally posted at Edifice Rex Online
Glamourous hype

Since before it went to air, Lena Dunham's Girls has been lauded and reviled; welcomed on the one hand as a landmark of feminist television and, on the other, excoriated as yet another example of white privilege at best, of unadulterated racism at worst.

For many viewers — at least, for many critics — the question, Is Girls any good? has been forgotten in the rush to self-righteous judgement. Unfortunately, I feel compelled to enter the fray myself before discussing the merits of the 10 episode series proper.

So I will say up front that Dunham has made a very good five hours of television. It didn't quite make me cry, but it made me laugh consistently via convincing characters about whom I was interested, even when I did not much like them.

Girls arguably is an American television landmark. Almost entirely absent, from story or camera, is any sense of the "male gaze", even when — maybe especially when — Dunham's autobiographical stand-in, Hannah Horvath, strips herself internet-naked, love-handles and all.

Grungy reality

The nudity and fairly graphic sex is never gratuitous nor meant to be arousing. Sweaty and confused, sometimes kinky and often funny, sex on Girls serves to explore and (yes) to expose character and advance the narrative.

It is handled with a casual touch that could (almost) only have come from a creator come of age with internet porn, cam girls and sexting. Lena Dunham is now 26 years old; it's a good bet that she and everyone she knows have at least one or two photos of themselves floating somewhere in the aether that they — or that anyone over 35 — would wish they could have back.

Or maybe not. Maybe Dunham's willingness to disrobe, to expose her ordinary body to the camera's merciless eye is a signal that, to her generation, nakedness is not what it was to the one that came before. And maybe, it is a sign that a lot else has changed as well.

Girls could serve as a long-form video definition of the term, post-feminist. The women (the girls?) of Girls take it for granted that, if the world is a rough and an unfair place, it is still as much a woman's place as it is a man's.

There are, in the course of the first, 10 episode season, a few instances which directly address male/female issues, when the threat of male violence becomes an explicit part of the narrative. One involves the scene when Hannah's room-mate's boyfriend Charlie, learns that Marnie is growing tired of him.

Enraged and amidst a three-way shouting match, Charlie knocks over a table he had built.

Hannah, sounding scared, but in almost a theoretical way, shouts, "Holy shit! That's the kind of thing you do right before you hit us!"

Charlie replies, "You're a dick!" and up-ends the table completely.

"Charlie," Hannah yells, "don't hit us!"

Charlie calls Hannah a "dick" again, then storms out, taking the table with him.

The scene is a marvel of observational writing, generating both tension and comedy while staying utterly true to its characters' natures.

When I first watched that scene, I also rolled my eyes. Hannah's reaction seemed over-the-top, ridiculous. Charlie had every right to be upset and what's the big deal about over-turning a table? Hannah's reaction — "That's the kind of thing you do right before you hit us! — struck me as ludicrous, the product of some kind of feminist indoctrination utterly out of touch with the real world.

And yet, on sober second thought, even if I have never followed up a shouting match with physical violence, the truth is that when domestic violence happens, it very often does follow on shouting and the over-turning of furniture.

If women are nowadays being taught to point out the fine line between shouting and hitting during a conflict, maybe that's not such a bad thing. Maybe there's more to the changes this program suggests have occurred than its creator's willingness to get naked in front of a camera.

The women of Girls seem to be innocent naifs at first, wandering like children through a dangerous world they know only through book-learning and theory.

Charlie calls Hannah "a dick", then upends his table.

Or maybe they are not so naive, and maybe the world is not quite so dangerous for women out in it on their own as popular fiction (and fearful parents) would have us believe. Just as most virgins are not impregnated on the first fuck, neither does every drunken kiss lead to a rape, and Girls is an issue-of-the-week kind of a how.

Girls is about four not-especially-together young women trying to make a place for themselves in a complicated and confusing world. And since the program is a comedy, there is a hint of absurdity to their adventures, but most of the laughs, as well as the tension, arise from the characters' struggles with the contradictions of their own natures, not from melodramatic threats from the outside.

If post-feminist means taking for granted the rights earlier generations of women fought and struggled to gain, then Girls is a post-feminist story. It presumes — at least, its characters presume — if not full equality between men and women, then an equivalence, a belief that the individual is defined by a lot more than what he or she sports between their legs.

The women of Girls consider themselves full citizens, to the point where the idea they might not be simply doesn't compute.

Privileged? Oh yes. Naive? Maybe so. We should all be so privileged.

The (very) (white) elephant in the corner

The girls. Lena Dunham as Hannah; Allison Williams as Marnie; Zosia Mamet as Shoshanna; Jemima Kirke as Jessa.

Girls was hyped as the next "it show" for today's women and Dunham's protagonist, the striving writer Hannah, explicitly says she wants to be "the voice of my generation". With that kind of hubris, it should be no surprise that a good many members of her generation soon asked, Where are all the other people at? Where are the blacks and the browns and the yellows?

Set in Brooklyn, a borough of New York City that apparently rivals Toronto in multi-ethnic urbanity, there is no getting around the fact that Girls is a very white program. Its main cast and the vast majority of its secondary players all sport white skin; Dunham's Brooklyn is an island of whiteness in a multicultural ocean somehow, remains forever out of sight. The absence is striking, but is it, as Alternet's Julianne Escobedo Shepherd put it, an example of "the worst kind" of racism?

Reviewing the season as a whole, Shepherd wrote:

So after watching the full season, which I sometimes hate-watched and sometimes like-watched, the ultimate message was clear: despite all its frank talk about abortion and HPV and sex, this show's advances in the realm of progressive womanist television are very nearly undermined by its oblivious, exclusionist and unknowingly racist (the worst kind, no?) aspects. One would hope that younger people know better — that we have learned from the institutional racism and privilege of older generations, and that we’re all working toward something freer and more just.

One would hope that younger people are more enlightened than their forebears, but one would also hope that a critic would have the sense of proportion to know that being "unknowingly racist" is not as bad as participating in lynchings or pogroms or ethnic cleansing; that the Trail of Tears, the genocide in Rwanda and the Holocaust are all much worse than a little nepotism in the casting of a television show.

Shepherd's insensitive and frankly lunatic rhetoric aside, her belief that art's highest purpose is to serve as propaganda for her particular political agenda would be comical were it not so common — not just among progressives, but among ideologues of any stripe.

Another commentator, one considerably less articulate than Shepherd but just as self-righteous, put it another way after viewing the first episode on YouTube. The post, alas, has been taken private, but I managed to snag TubeZoogy's words for posterity.

... this is the voice of over-privileged [sic], narcissistic white people.

If this generation is comprised of spoiled whiny brats like the show portrays, our future is in serious jeopardy.

And yes, I did watch the entire episode. I could barely stand it.

To a point, that's fair enough. If you're uninterested in watching a show about narcissistic white people, by all means change the channel. But here again is the dangerous (dare I say fascist?) conceit that art's purpose is to promote a political agenda, to be morally uplifting, like an infomercial for The One True Way.

Dunham herself has been taken aback by these sorts of charges and has taken them seriously (maybe too seriously). In an interview with NPR she said,

"[...] I am a half-Jew, half-WASP, and I wrote two Jews and two WASPs. Something I wanted to avoid was tokenism in casting [...] I feel like — not that the experience of an African-American girl and a white girl are drastically different, but there has to be specificity to that experience [that] I wasn't able to speak to. I really wrote the show from a gut-level place, and each character was a piece of me or based on someone close to me. And only later did I realize that it was four white girls. As much as I can say it was an accident, it was only later as the criticism came out, I thought, 'I hear this and I want to respond to it.' And this is a hard issue to speak to because all I want to do is sound sensitive and not say anything that will horrify anyone or make them feel more isolated, but I did write something that was super-specific to my experience, and I always want to avoid rendering an experience I can't speak to accurately."

Dear Lena:

You're a story-teller. You're under no obligation to tell Demographically Correct stories. If would be nice if you could do so, but it's not your primary job. Writers often find inspiration in themselves and in the people close to them; some of the very best fiction ever written has been of this type. Not everyone is (or aspires to be) Leon Tolstoy or Charles Dickens. Some writers (at least some of the time) would prefer to emulate Jane Austen instead.


Let's talk about Jane Austen for a moment. Let's talk about Pride and Prejudice, one of my favourite novels.

Pride and Prejudice is the stories of bourgeois white sisters in search of husbands and security. The action seldom strays beyond the confines of a small hamlet a couple of days' ride from London and critiques of British imperialism, of the slave trade and of class-conflict are entirely absent from the text. While Austen's characters probably don't qualify as narcissists, but they are certainly white and certainly privileged, however insecure they might be in that estate.

And yet, though I am not a woman in search of a husband, and though I live 200 years and several thousand kilometres from Austen's time and place, Pride and Prejudice remains a marvellously funny and moving story. Somehow, in writing about specifics so narrow as to be almost absurd in their focus, Austen revealed "the universe in a grain of sand" so clearly that I, and thousands of others not at all like me, have and still do revel in the awkward romance between Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzilliam Darcy.

One could make a case, I guess, that Pride and Prejudice might have been a better novel had Austen told a broader, more inclusive story, but it would certainly have been a very different novel. And Austen would have had to be a very different person to have written it.

But is it art?

Hannah's sort-of boyfriend tells her where he keeps his money. And yes, he is doing exactly what you think he's doing.

Lena Dunham is, yes, the daughter of an artist well-enough known to have her own Wikipedia entry) and has the good fortune to be well-connected. She is privileged, probably more privileged than are the characters she has created.

And yes, her characters inhabit a limited world, one populated mostly by white people. That's not ideal, but (I hate to break it to you) in the real world, it is not that unusual for a group of four friends to all be of the same skin-colour. It's not a happy truth, but it's a reality. Are writers to be forbidden from portraying it? Are they racists if they do?

In truth, most stories focus on just a few characters, and are set in a particular time and a particular place. Leaving Jane Austen aside, many good writers — take Canada's own Mordechai Richler, for instance, a writer who seldom ventured beyond the confines of Montreal's Jewish ghetto — can, through the magic of a tale well-told albeit through the prism of their own experience, bridge generations and geography, race and class, men and women.

To condemn Girls for what it is not — a broad portrait of multi-cultural and multi-ethnic Brooklyn — is to ignore what it is: a portrait of the artist as a young woman, disguised as a comedy of manners.

Dunham is right to reconsider her work in light of the criticism she has received, but she is right, too, to be leery of tokenism and the pressure to become a propagandist. That way leads, if not necessarily to madness, at least to the loss of an artist's soul. If she can expand her scope, wonderful; but Girls is not all of American television, whether writers like Julianne Shepherd are willing to acknowledge it or not.

"'Sex from behind is degrading. Point blank. You deserve someone who wants to look in your beautiful face, ladies.'" — Virginal Shoshanna Shapiro quotes admiringly from a self-help book for "ladies".

"What if I want to focus on something else? What if I want to feel like I have udders?" — World-travelling libertine Jessa Johansson disagrees.

Comedy is the most subjective dramatic form there is. Mood counts for a lot; something that leaves me cold one day can make me bust a gut the next. That said, over ten episodes, Girls made me laugh consistently and its characters were engaging and convincing.

She'll be back. A scene from Girls' first season finale.

Dunham is a strong observer of the absurdities of the human animal and already a trenchant and merciless humorist. From the end of the very first episode, when Hannah steals tips intended by her parents for the hotel's maid, to the scene in which her room-mate Marnie cruelly (and, in the sense that character is destiny, inevitably) breaks up with her boyfriend after going to extraordinary lengths to win him back, it is clear that Dunham's loyalty is to story above all else.

There are no role models in Girls, no lessons to be learned. Girls is nothing more (and nothing less) than a story about about four individuals, four young women and the people in their lives. And because those young women are fully-realized characters, their stories approach the universal. You don't need to be female, or white, or young, or from Brooklyn, to want to find out what mistake they are going to make next.