Watching the first three episodes of Girls, the new HBO show about four young women charting their post-collegiate paths in New York, I felt something I have never before felt watching TV: despair.
At about this point, I imagine readers—particularly those who, like Girls’ star and creator Lena Dunham, had the benefit of a sterling liberal arts education—raising a battery of objections: Of course you didn’t like Girls; Girls isn’t meant for you; Girls is a show created by and catering to an audience of women in their mid-twenties who have to deal with finding jobs in a terrible economy and finding mates in a terrible dating pool and finding their selves in a world echoing with too many distractions; as a man, you can’t possibly understand what that’s like.
These objections might have been relevant if Girls was just another television show. It’s not, or at least not only. As the uncommon torrent of hallelujahs the show has received from critics and pundits might attest, Girls is a snapshot, in high definition, of its time—our time, my time. As a result, it invites a different kind of discussion, one in which the blunt tools of identity politics, so often wielded in conversations about culture these days, have no place. That’s because Girls isn’t a poorly made show; it’s a poorly made moral decision, a decision to remain at the still point of the turning world and retreat into a world that’s hardly larger than a Brooklyn neighborhood where no one has any sense of agency or urgency or dignity or grace.
To understand Girls, however, we must first talk about Lena Dunham. Having risen to prominence with 2010’s Tiny Furniture, her largely autobiographical mumblecore film about being a recent college graduate loafing about in her mother’s TriBeCa loft and searching not so much for something to do as for someone to become, Dunham was celebrated, from the very first, as a bard of her time, a designation with which she seems largely comfortable. In her show’s first episode, she declares to her parents that the memoir she had written—it’s short, she admits, as she’s yet to have done anything of note—might mean that she’s the voice of her generation, or at least a voice of a generation.
It’s supposed to be a joke. It’s better understood as an anthropological field note. The scene perfectly captures the emotional pendulum that defines Dunham, her work, and her generation, swinging between a sense of entitlement and a feeling of utter helplessness. Dunham’s characters feel like they deserve to be heard and seen and adored, but they expect others—parents, bosses, boyfriends—to provide them with the emotional stability and the financial security and the romantic joy they so deeply desire. And while Dunham herself, unlike the inert characters she plays on screen, had managed to translate her emotional turmoil into adored cultural artifacts, she shares with her creations the same firm belief that she deserves to be heard.
It might, one suspect, be a hereditary condition. Dunham’s parents are renowned artists. Her three co-stars are the scions, respectively, of a rock star, a vaunted television-news anchor, and a celebrated playwright. With such tall trees, the young apples strive not to fall too far. “I don’t want to be a makeup artist, and I don’t want to be a massage therapist, and I don’t want to be a day hostess,” Dunham’s character tells her mother—a successful photographer played by Laurie Simmons, Dunham’s real-life mother and, well, a successful photographer—in Tiny Furniture. “I want to be as successful as you are.” What neither character nor creator seem to understand is that success, defined on those terms, is impossible. If success is the goal, and if no other depths of feeling or breadths of interest are anywhere in evidence, what hope do these girls have other than making a spectacle of their lives? Like actresses in pornographic films, they play mostly themselves, or some very thinly veiled variations thereon. There’s really very little else they know how to do.
You may think the analogy unkind, but it’s not entirely inappropriate. One of the show’s particular afflictions is Dunham’s insistence on showing herself, naked, in compromising sexual situations. In the show’s pilot, for example, she’s penetrated from behind by her boyfriend, a petulant and self-centered man-child actor whose lovemaking and conversation alike display all the subtle charms of a hard-core porno. We’re supposed to feel bad for Hannah, a sweet and immature woman who falls short of society’s stringent ideals of beauty and who is being, quite literally, fucked by the world. Instead, I found myself asking what the hell was wrong with Dunham. As the show’s creator, she had the power to make of Hannah whatever she wanted, and what she wanted was to show her heroine—herself—objectified and exposed. “I say I’m not a political person,” she told a magazine reporter last month, speaking of the abundance of nudity in her work, “but it’s a political statement in a way. I know it’s going to gross some people out. There’s people who don’t want to see bodies like mine or bodies like their own bodies.”
This a conception of politics I find utterly dispiriting. To argue that there’s merit in awarding full-bodied as well as waifish women the right to be objectified and abused on camera is akin to Anatole France’s famous quip about the law, in its majesty, having forbidden both rich and poor from sleeping under bridges, begging in the streets, and stealing bread. It is—trust the Russians to have just the right word for it—poshlost, or a falsely righteous argument that hides the depths of depravity. And it seems to be all the rage these days. Consider the women flocking to Fifty Shades of Grey, the sensational novel of a younger woman sexually submitting to an older man. The appeal of that novel, an astonishingly inelegant and unintelligent piece of writing, is that the heroine signs a contract with her master and has the power to decide just what he may and may not do to her. That, presumably, is what passes for power these days, and I can imagine droves of women—the book’s fans, from what I can tell, are largely wives and mothers—explaining away their own subdued lives and unreasonable pressures by imagining that they, too, are secretly in control, and that real choice is the freedom to choose anything, including subjugation.
That’s a deeply skewed sentiment, with disastrous implications. And it seems to be just what Dunham believes. Explaining her numerous tattoos in one episode, she tells said doltish boyfriend that she got them because she had gained weight and needed to regain a sense of control over her own body. In other words, Dunham’s answer to the pressures of a society unforgiving of non-emaciated body types was self-mutilation with needle and ink and self-humiliation with camera and premium cable network. It may give her a sense of control, but, like the heroine of Fifty Shades of Grey, she’s still little more than a plaything for men. She’s not that different from the fundamentalist Muslim women who insist that covering themselves from head to toes gives them a sense of empowerment; it’s a slippery logic that leads further into benighted realms that women and men had fought bitterly and bravely to defeat.
Not that Dunham cares. The only feminine icons her show name-checks—constantly—are Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, and Miranda. Like the Sex and the City women, the Girls girls seem bent on an urban existence propelled mostly by sex and self-importance. And what, you may be forgiven for asking, is wrong with that? Isn’t Girls entertainment? Isn’t it meant to amuse? Must it really carry the burdens of society? Must it really be so serious?
It must, because women still earn 77 cents on a man’s dollar. Because women make up more than 50 percent of the American population yet only 16.8 percent of Congress members, 17 percent of senators, and 6 percent of all governors. Because of the Fortune 500 companies, only 12 are run by women. Because there is a major political party working tirelessly to repeal the rights of women to have abortions, use contraception, or have agency over their bodies and their health. Because we must believe that culture matters, that it has the power not only to make us chuckle but also to show us the world in a different light and, maybe, spur us to action. And because if the most visible young female auteur to have come along in a long time uses her clout to prance around naked and call it liberation—a logic that may seem sound in Oberlin but not in Washington—then we have missed a major opportunity for change.
Of course, there’s one more question to be asked (this time of year, we’re full of them): Why hold women to a higher standard? Isn’t freedom about having the right to choose one’s own path, even if that path is self-indulgent and insipid? Why can’t Dunham tool about like her male counterparts who celebrate their own aimlessness in a seemingly endless stream of television shows and movies? How you answer this question depends on how you understand the world and your role in it. If you believe freedom to be a given right, then surely it must include the freedom to devote your life to fripperies and grow old in the house of bondage, slowly forgetting that a land of milk and honey had ever been promised and that a better future is possible. But if you conceive of freedom as something that is hard-won and perpetually brittle and demanding of constant vigilance, you’re going to focus less on liberty and more on responsibility. You are going to understand that you have greater obligations than merely contemplating your own self, that the world is larger than Greenpoint, and that it’s your right, even your duty, to stand up to anyone who treats you abysmally. You are going to get serious. It’s much less fun. It’s hardly the stuff HBO shows are made of. But—and read the Hagaddah if you don’t believe me—it makes for a much better story in the very long run.
Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.