Girls on Film: Loving and Loathing Lena Dunham’s ‘Girls’

Girls on Film: Loving and Loathing Lena Dunham’s ‘Girls’

Apr 19, 2012

Girls on Film is a weekly column that tackles anything and everything pertaining to women and cinema. It can be found here every Thursday night, and be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter Feed for additional femme-con.

Note: Tomorrow is the 3-year anniversary of the first Girls on Film piece. Thank you for your continued support and stay tuned to the feed on Friday for a little reminiscing.

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Warning: Labia saturation has been reached. As Lee Aronsohn flees to his macho man-bunker, Tiny Furniture director Lena Dunham revisits ”Ladies in the Big Apple” with the HBO series Girls. Unlike its Sex and the City predecessor, this isn’t flamboyant, shoe-loving women acting as the voices of gay male writers. Girls is one hundred percent Dunham. At the young age of twenty-five, she acts as creator, writer, producer, director, and star of a television series. Executive producer Judd Apatow opened a door to the mainstream and Dunham stepped through, immediately embodying the benefits of mentorship and professional connections as she traded her indie status for a potential HBO phenomenon.

Girls filters a very particular mixture of feminism and culture, heavily focusing on female interaction, publishing, New York, and identity. Her writers were given a “syllabus” that might as well be a strict blueprint for the series. The scribes were introduced to The Best of Everything, Rona Jaffe’s novel about female professionals in the ‘50s, and The Group, Mary McCarthy’s tome about women trying to find their place in the world after graduating from Vassar in the ‘30s. The films on the list explored the nature of female interaction, the quest to find meaning and eradicate emptiness, and the love of cerebral pursuits – Party Girl, Me Without You, My Summer of Love, Clueless, and Walking and Talking.

Girls evokes familiarity, especially for those who were young in the ‘90s. Hannah’s (Dunham) world is unabashedly raw, existing against the barrage of today’s glitz culture, much like youth-centric films that wrapped up the last millennium. Like Quentin Tarantino, her work is infused with a passion of past creations. Alongside ‘90s girl-staples like Party Girl and Clueless lies her love of Mike Leigh’s Career Girls, the works of Noah Baumbach, James L. Brooks, and of course, Whit Stillman. Dunham’s New York is Whit’s, the pretension of ignorantly immature young intellectuals traded for the identity crisis of children born into the media age, well-schooled, well-coddled, and searching for authenticity.  They just lack the same conversational fervor: “I love Whit Stillman. I love his work so much, but it’s – it’s rarefied in a way I don’t want to be. It’s so specific.”

Yet Girls boasts Stillman mainstay Chris Eigeman as her literary boss; Hannah is living the modern version of The Last Days of Disco. As Irin Carmon writes for Slate, the women in Girls are “left feeling both entitled to more and vaguely guilty about their right to be upset about not getting it.” Following the habit of Stillman films they “talk through it as articulately and self-deprecatingly as possible.”

Girls, nepotism posterThe Girls are, quite literally, the daughters of privilege – Dunham is the daughter of New York artist Laurie Simmons and Carroll Dunham, her best friend is Brian Williams’ daughter, and their two other friends are played by “The Drummer from Bad Company’s” daughter and David Mamet’s daughter. Though it instigates charges of nepotism, the casting is fitting. As much as the collection of young women works as a suffocating embodiment of white privilege, it also works as a metaphor for their generation. The characters in Girls are not the offspring of celebrities, but they are the children of celebrity culture and coddling. They’re the product of their environment, Rapunzel broken out of her comfortable tower of parental support and easy living, thrust into the real world without the armor of formative experiences.

Girls stands on the precipice of great potential and disappointment. Their white-girl privilege only works if Dunham can break them out of it. The days have changed since Sex and the City and the public is a lot more used to, and expectant of, diversity. Female casts, especially, have seen dramatic change, like the women of Bones and Shonda Rhimes’ varied output. As a fledgling show, the all-white cast (save two unfortunate stereotypical shots in the pilot of the computer-competent Asian girl and black homeless man) exemplifies the sheltered world of Dunham’s protagonist. It stands to reason that a cutting of the purse strings and financial comfort will eventually lead to a greater discovery of the world, and recognition of the “rarefied white hipster thing.” It doesn’t, however, help that one of the show’s writers recently tweeted: “What really bothered me most about Precious was that there was no representation of ME.” Narrowed, possibly expanding viewpoints are one thing; audaciously lame racial “jokes” are quite another.

Girls also teeters between worlds of alienation and recognizability – a decisively narrow sliver of life existing without Hollywood’s polish. The show begs a question rarely considered – does an unrealistic sheen broaden an idea to a larger audience and allow the viewer to dehumanize and therefore more easily accept the protagonist’s differences? In Dunham’s own words, the show is “raw and bruised, not aspirational.” Good’s piece on the show interestingly noted: “we were pissed that it didn’t exactly represent our lives.” We take it personally. We don’t usually get angry at a film for not perfectly representing our experience, but then, how often do films or television really attempt to reflect reality? Sex and the City was also about white, privileged women loving and lounging in New York, but it didn’t feel so decidedly narrow. As much as the fashion and bling often seemed at odds with its relatable conversations, the show was offered as a package that a large, diverse fan base consumed. Girls, alternatively, seems to polarize its viewers. By seeming real, we expect it to be our experience.

It is, quite distinctly, a feminist experience. No matter what narrowing of the frame Girls exposes, no matter how lovable or unlikable the girls are, the show absolutely relishes in the female experience – in powerful women, popular women, and between the actresses – female relationships. Hannah and Marnie fall asleep watching Mary Tyler Moore and spoon each other. They have frank talks in the bathroom and exist relatively comfortably in their skin; they’re not twisting for that polished, heavily made-up look, they’re not caricatures extricated from natural bodily functions. These are intelligent women who can name-drop Flaubert and pass The Bechdel test with flying colors. Dunham herself intermingles daily minutia on her twitter stream with pictures of Joan Didion, Anna Karina, and Sondra James, while also being drawn to pulp stories like Elizabeth Smart’s wedding.

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But there is an inclusivity inherent in feminism that makes Girls problematic. Notions of race, gender, and privilege often come hand-in-hand with feminist discourse, and since this is a female-centric show with a woman wearing every hat behind the scenes, it inevitably gets a harsher critique – a habit not nearly as prevalent for any of the white-male-dominated shows.  It also gets a patriarchal critique, which makes her show – while problematic – all the more necessary. At SxSW, a man criticized the sexuality in the show and said it “cheapened” her character in an unappealing way. At a Halloween party, a “successful comedy writer” complained about the hotness of the characters and how they interact: “I don’t want to see girls going to the f-in bathroom together. I wanna see girls making out!”

When Vulture asked Judd Apatow about the backlash against the series, he said: “When we made it, we always knew that it was a show you should fight about. It was built to be a show that you'd have to defend or argue about — for some people, it would make them angry — and we go over that terrain for the course of the ten episodes. So hopefully people will fight about it every week! Not just one week."

In many ways, Girls is a singular reaction, a starting point to a larger discussion. A superfluous viewing doesn’t tap into the provocation. At every turn there’s a morsel to digest and discuss. As Hannah’s mother warns, her daughter is “a major f-ing player” who might seem pitiful, but is calculating. She’s a girl trying to live and write like Henry Miller without truly opening herself up to risks any greater than giving her heart to the boy who doesn’t like her. Hannah desperately needs to branch out.

This seems to be the beginning of a worthy coming of age story. The question is, can it live up to our expectations?

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