You’re a twentysomething woman. You’re a feminist. You’re Jewish. You’re a writer, or you’re trying to be. (You always say that in a hurried sort of way when people ask you about it.) You live in New York. You sometimes feel like a caricature of yourself and you sometimes think Lena Dunham’s Hannah Horvath is a caricature of you. Then you meet Dunham at a fancy party. What do you say?
On Thursday evening, I unexpectedly found myself in this situation at the premiere of the final season of HBO’s Girls, premiering Sunday February 12. The audience was treated to a screening of the season’s first two episodes, which include a fun Jewish Easter egg (is that an oxymoron?) in the form of funny scene where Hannah, during a meeting with a magazine editor regarding an article she’s writing about a posh Hamptons surfing retreat, goes on a mini-tirade about whether Gidget was Jewish (she was). Following that, we boarded coach buses; it was strangely reminiscent of an edgier, more celebrity-studded bar or bat mitzvah. When we arrived at the lavish event hall in midtown, I casually spotted Maggie Gyllenhaal, Penn Badgley, and Malia Obama, and took advantage of the plentiful, exquisite food and drink offerings. Then, I found myself two feet away from Lena Dunham, who was hard to miss in a metallic, floor-length skirt. My companion urged me to engage her in conversation: If I didn’t, she said, I’d regret the missed chance. So I approached her.
“Your show was the first time I felt like there was someone on television who truly represented me,” I told her. “I’m Jewish and a writer and I want you to know there are people out there like me who think your work is really relatable and important.” Dunham, maybe a bit overwhelmed by my gushing praise, nevertheless appreciated the sentiment. “That’s so nice of you,” she said. Then, she fluttered off. It was, in fact, a situation I could imagine taking place in an episode of Girls.
Not everyone likes Lena Dunham and Girls as much as I do. Some people raise legitimate criticism of her public persona, citing failures of intersectionality, tokenism, and tone-deafness; others conflate Dunham with her Horvath, feeling alienated and disgusted by her character’s narcissism (see: her infamous “voice of my generation” comment in the series pilot). The former kind of criticism is an essential part of responsible cultural discourse about entertainment, and I agree with much of it; I also agree with the critics who have provided evenhanded and nuanced responses to it without resorting to defensiveness. I find the latter sort of criticism, on the other hand, to be short-sighted because it condemns Dunham on the basis of Hannah’s shortcomings, a criticism that fiction writers face all too often. Horvath may be narcissistic, but that, I believe, is what makes her realistic, annoying or otherwise: She’s not perfect, and most women aren’t.
The reasons I love Girls are specifically linked to my identity as a Jewish woman. The particular and oft-criticized feminism of Girls is, I would argue, particularly relevant to Jewish women. At the premiere screening, Dunham, who along with Judd Apatow and Jenni Konner introduced two new episodes to the audience, spoke a bit about why Girls has been rewarding for her. A woman, she said, once came up to her and told her that Girls made her feel confident being on top during sex despite her self-consciousness about her body shape. If that had been the only success she could claim for Girls, Dunham said, it would have been enough. That sounds familiar, I thought, and a split-second later, either she or Konner said it: “Dayenu.” And the audience laughed.
This joke may have been nothing more than a spontaneous one-off, but it is symbolic of what Girls represents for me: unthinking, natural blending of frank sexuality and Jewish sensibility. Just as Girls has been rightfully criticized for its lack of representation of women of color, it should be lauded for its representation of (white) Jewish women for whom its sexual forthrightness has a specific resonance. Jewish women have historically been subject to stereotypes that stem from every different kind of marriage of anti-Semitism and misogyny: the overbearing Jewish mother, the Jewish American Princess (which Shoshanna’s character plays on), the seductive Jewess, the prude. In addition, Jewish women’s bodies are often sexualized and stereotyped; many of us Jewish women are curvy, but many other Jewish women are not. Dunham, whose body is ubiquitously on display throughout Girls, has been the target of body-shaming; as Emily Nussbaum wrote, some viewers felt Dunham was “too fat to have sex on cable television.”
One of the show’s strengths is its portrayal of Hannah’s sexuality without caveats and without apology. Her body does not match up to mainstream beauty standards, and this is, hard as it may be to believe, not really an issue for the story. The fact that viewers have made it into one is a rejection of what the show does so well: Girls reminds us that Jewish women, like everyone else, have diverse sexual experiences. We have good sex and bad sex and awkward, cringe-worthy sex just like everyone else; sometimes, like everyone else, we abstain from it and don’t have it. Our sexualities are varied and idiosyncratic and cannot, in fact, be reduced to whether we hate or love fellatio. We have bodies of diverse shapes and sizes. These bodies can be beautiful and they can be ugly.
Is Girls the end-all, be-all, definitive representation of women and female sexuality on television? Is its feminism adequately subversive? Does it speak for the experience of all, or even many, different kinds of women? Certainly not. Dunham isn’t perfect, and she has created a show about women who are likewise imperfect, whose stories are still worth being told. That is progress, and that is why I, as a young, curvier-than-average, outspoken, feminist Jewish woman, admire her.