A young woman writing comedy is a lot like a black man driving a BMW. These minorities attract attention from a suspicious number of people because of the prevailing assumptions that rumble under even the politest society. And with Sunday’s debut of HBO’s much-hyped comedy Girls, there’s a new target in town. If female-written comedies are the new driving-while-black, Lena Dunham is the next Rodney King. (Too soon? Too late.)
Although Dunham, the 25-year-old creator of Girls, has earned zealous critical praise, she’s caught heat in some quarters, including from Tablet’s own Liel Liebovitz, who encapsulated many critics’ arguments when he highlighted what he saw as the show’s “disastrous celebration of entitlement and helplessness.” Ordinarily, I like to see a crazily successful young person get beat down as much as the next gal. Did I wring my hands at a senseless god when I learned this industry leader was a zygote? You bet. But I’m compelled to put envy aside and stand up for Dunham—not simply because her show is as groundbreaking as the critics have asserted, but because the criteria by which she’s being skewered are so deeply misguided.
Let’s start with the most obvious and easiest criticism: that by showing a flawed, vulnerable lead character—as opposed to a wonder-woman type—Dunham is a disappointment to feminism. Let’s not forget that until very recently, there was an era when women on TV were depicted only as skinny cutebots. That era was called Always. Women’s minds and bodies have always been sanitized for the small screen. Yes, a stray Roseanne Barr or Joan Rivers might have slipped past the censors, but the exception proves the rule.
With Girls, we’re treated to characters who have the bodies of normal women and talk about relatable, realistic issues in language that truly reflects the way that girls talk now. Compare this to what we usually get: an endless volley of only-on-TV quips spouted by only-on-TV faces attached to only-on-TV bods.
But this show isn’t a triumph simply because it shows cellulite; it’s a triumph because it masterfully weaves well-paced hilarity and drama and because it doesn’t offer us canned girlie stereotypes, as in Sex and the City’s smart redhead, slutty blonde, and modest brunette, god bless them. Hannah’s cohort are distinct, pitchable types, but they’re so much more unexpected than what I’m used to seeing on TV. For a female TV viewer who’s suffered from a stream of same-old same-old, this show is one rolling blended sigh-of-relief-gasm.
Beyond this, the simple fact that Dunham bagged the rank of female showrunner—who writes, directs, and stars in her own material—justifies her feminist stripes. In my opinion, she’s even earned some fuck-around points. Let’s say from this point forward she indulges in heinous celebrity frippery, names her babies Laptop and Pork, and starts wearing a vial of her boyfriend’s blood on a diamond anklet. The strength of even the first three episodes of Girls means her net femworth is still easily in the black.
But the real question is: Why is her show being put to a political litmus test? Evaluating comedy on its political merit is like disassembling a vibrator to analyze its mechanics: You can do it, and it might be sort of interesting, but that’s not what it’s for.
This is humor, people. Critics fault Dunham for showing her lead’s vulnerability, but that’s Funny 101. Creatively showcasing the chinks in your protagonist’s armor is a comedic exigency and an art in itself. Representing something isn’t celebrating it. Showing bad sex, eating cupcakes for breakfast, and mooching off one’s parents doesn’t mean Dunham is glorifying those choices or the characters making them. In fact, it may even mean the opposite. Her decision to show complicated, funny, lifelike characters—exaggerated for the sake of humor, satire, and tragic-effect—is precisely why this show is making such a splash. Because she is an artist, it’s not Dunham’s responsibility to create agitprop television. If it’s whitewashed flaws and idealized characters that you want, check out North Korea’s Thursday night comedy block. Or a Leni Riefenstahl festival. Or any fascistic Arts Information Programming that seeks to galvanize self-improvement through cartoony aspirational schmaltz.
Indeed, to conflate Dunham the writer with her character is to commit art criticism’s most egregious no-no: assuming that the creator and her creation are one and the same, a presumption that subtly but very clearly dismisses the possibility that the artist brought any creative skill to bear in the drawing of her characters (or maybe even that she has any at all). If portraying her show’s lead as a thinly veiled version of herself is a lazy choice born of immaturity and incompetence, then I guess Dunham finds herself slumming it with the likes of showbiz know-nothings like Woody Allen, Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld, and Louis C.K. These losers redefined comedy by playing exaggeratedly selfish, silly, and stupid versions of themselves. Perhaps Seinfeld should have been about community organizers. Or maybe Curb Your Enthusiasm would work better if Larry volunteered for the Red Cross.
It’s not Dunham’s responsibility to redefine the country’s tastes; it’s her job to make a good show. She represents funny women hard-core on that front, but I think she gets extra kudos for making inroads into the Reign of the Schlub (Knocked Up, 40-Year-Old Virgin, Superbad, Pineapple Express)—a genre that was fun and valuable in its own right but has become chafing in its monotony. It has an exasperating habit of pitting its men-children protagonists against responsible shrews, or at the very least, hoarding all the good bits for the boys and assigning the girls variations on vanilla. I know that the architects of these men-child movies aren’t trying to represent all women in their killjoy girlfriends—just the ones that would be the best foils to their funny guys—and I respect that they’re making the character choice that best serves their comedy. It’s just gotten old. And old isn’t funny. Unless it involves adult diapers.
Finally, here’s a show that not only assumes a female standard, is funny and weird, and features topical, edgy issues—but is so good in its own right, beyond any gender-bias, that it might just contribute to elevating the standard for what we expect from a sitcom. Keep in mind, this year TV was touted as groundbreaking for an influx of female-anchored comedies (Whitney, The New Girl, Two Broke Girls, and Are You There, Chelsea?). Girls sticks out of this pile of predictable, sanitized phooey like a sore thumb sticking out of a pile of hair extensions and teeth-whitening trays.
Girls’ female orientation means women’s issues—like body image, stale couple sex, abortion, and “the stuff that gets up around the side of the condoms”—are treated as matters of course. That advantage alone is worth its weight in gold. I filtered my early sense of self through so many strong male characters—Holden Caulfield, Kevin Arnold, and Huckleberry Finn—that I started absorbing the message that boys were the standard, and girls were an idiosyncratic variation thereon. Identifying with complex, self-deprecating, brilliantly drawn female characters is an electrifying thrill I’ve enjoyed all too infrequently. I’m confident both girls and guys would be well-served if we slipped a few more Hannahs into the mix.
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Jen Spyra is a comedy writer living in Chicago.
Jen Spyra is a comedy writer living in Chicago.