Sean’s Thoughts on Girls

It’s been about a month since Lena Dunham’s Girls premiered on HBO. Before the premiere there was a lot of hype and when the show finally premiered there was backlash. Actually,  a ton of backlash.

I personally love Girls. I think it’s absolutely hysterical. The interplay between characters is great, and the awkward sex scenes are really brilliant. We’ve spent our whole lives being lied to about sex by Hollywood. Honest, raw depictions of sex is incredibly refreshing and really important. I’ve wanted to write about this show for the last month, especially since the intense backlash following the premiere, but decided I didn’t want to judge the show solely on it’s premiere. And I’m glad I waited because I think it gotten better with every episode. Girls is actually probably my favorite show on television right now (until Breaking Bad‘s final season blows up the universe). In this blog I’ll address a couple of the criticisms this show has received.

I’m going to start by talking about the biggest criticism Girls has received- how it addresses race. Let me begin by saying, I have always argued there needs to be way more films and television about people of color. How people are represented in the media is incredibly important because it truly does have an effect on how people interpret and act in our world. At least one of the main characters in this show should be a woman of color. There is absolutely no denying this show should be called White Girls, and the show deserves the criticism it has received regarding race, especially after the initial pilot (actually the whole industry deserves this criticism). But I’m going to kind of defend Girls here and trust me, I feel awkward about it… Here it goes…

A lot of people complained there were only two moments where people of color even appeared in a pilot that takes place in New York City. This wasn’t a realistic representation of the city they lived in. But here’s the thing- the vast majority of the pilot took place inside the apartments of these privileged white girls, and honestly, it is incredibly likely this is a realistic representation of their life. Maybe that idea makes you feel really uncomfortable, especially in a country that likes to pretend it’s color blind, but Hannah being friends with only white girls feels real to me.

Is this a conscious choice by Lena Dunham or is she guilty of what countless other white filmmakers do every day? There’s no way to be sure yet, but I think there’s actually a chance Dunham may address race at some point in the future. She actually kind of did in the most recent episode. As Jessa was at the park, babysitting a couple kids, she spent some time with other baby sitters (who  were women of color) and began telling them she is just like them. They give her a look that says, “This white girl is clueless.” When Jessa finds out how much more money she’s making then them she tries to unionize them and even offers to take a pay cut. I felt like this was actually a pretty funny critique of the white savior complex. This is just a small example, and it definitely doesn’t excuse the fact that there should have been more people of color in Girls,  but white filmmakers are consistently guilty of unconsciously assuming the norm is white. I think it’s more important to think about why this happens than attacking the individuals. So yes, Girls has issues with race, but the whole industry has issues with race, and Girls deals with some great things television never does, like women’s sexuality and the following:

A lot of people seem to miss this, but Lena Dunham is criticizing these girls and their lifestyle. I’ve heard so many people complain the characters are just stereotypes and aren’t likeable! “The show is just about selfish, entitled, upper middle class white girls who think they’re life is so tough! I’m sick of seeing shows about the 1%!” But here’s the thing- Dunham doesn’t glamorize these girls’ selfishness. She doesn’t want us to like these characters at first. She never says, “Look how great it is to live off your parents!” What she’s actually saying is, “It’s not adult life if your parents pay for your blackberry.” These characters are clueless and they have a lot to learn. They’re still in their early 20s after all. I think Dunham showed a lot of courage beginning a TV show by revealing such flawed characters. Most shows would present very likeable people before and reveal their flaws later on. It’s easier to hook an audience this way. And yeah, at first the girls do come off as stereotypical, but this is how a lot of people see others before they get to know them. It’s easier to project media stereotypes onto people than taking the time to really learn about someone. What’s so amazing about this show is how far these characters have came in only four episodes. We’re slowly getting to know these characters and beginning to love them despite their flaws. This slow burn has already had an incredible dramatic pay-off. The latest episode ended with a truly emotional scene- something I didn’t even realize the show would be capable of. It kind of broke my heart. I’m really looking forward to these dramatic moments that appear to be sprinkled throughout the show. Honestly, I really love this show. If you gave up on it after the pilot I think you should give it another chance.

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5 thoughts on “Sean’s Thoughts on Girls

  1. Xander says:

    Thank you! Great article.

    It’s been bizarre to see others taking the show at face value when it’s so obviously satirical and critical of its characters. I don’t really understand how people are misreading it.

    Perhaps because the humor is relatively dry compared to typical American comedy? Or maybe viewers are taking the confronting sexuality stuff as a cue that they should take the entire show completely seriously?

    And I agree with you that the race thing is not an issue. After the scene with the babysitters, it’s looking like it might very well be intentional, as a setup for character growth further down the line. How long was it before LOUIE had any major black characters? That sequence where he hangs out with the black comics was in, what, episode 10?

    • Sean Temple says:

      I wouldn’t say race isn’t an issue. It’s definitely an important thing to think about, but I felt like the immediate response was really intense. Because it’s the first episode of a show that will have at least 10 if 20, 30, or 40 episodes. Like you said, if you’re going to have characters grow they can’t be perfect in the beginning. And I’ve heard Dunham say race is going to come up in the future, but didn’t want to mention that because it’s easy to say that when you’re facing the criticism she’s received.

      One thing that’s worried me, and I didn’t really mention this in the article, is why is Dunham and this show is getting attacked so hard in so many ways when so many shows don’t ever deal with race AND glamorize these kind of characters. I think a major reason is a lot of people don’t like that a 25 year old woman has become so successful so fast.

      • Xander says:

        Okay, I suppose it’s not quite right to say race isn’t an issue.

        But personally, I accept the reality that the show presents, i.e. these privileged, sheltered white girls don’t really have any friends who aren’t white. That seems truer to the characters — not to mention more respectful to the audience — than the uncomfortable tendency of American comedies to shoehorn in a black character so that the audience doesn’t have to worry its little head about racism. (See MODERN FAMILY’s awkward attempts to incorporate Phil’s neighbor, or BEST FRIENDS FOREVER’s ever-present sassy kid. Even HAPPY ENDINGS never quite earned this, and was often reduced to making jokes about itself.)

        If GIRLS is going to tackle race then I’d much rather it starts from a position of honesty, no matter how painful that is for the audience to watch. It seems Dunham is genetically incapable of writing anything less than raw, emotional honesty. So when we get it, I imagine it’ll be good.

        And I agree completely that the savage response to the show is fascinating and revealing. People are deeply disturbed by the show and by Dunham. There’s a very ugly sense of wanting to “put her in her place”.

        • Ciara says:

          Dunham says, “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.” via
          Also, I totally agree that there is a disturbing quality to people’s criticism of wanting to put Dunham in her place. It also seems like people are very resistant to hearing a narrative about, by, and from young women, which is sad but indicative of where our culture is right now.


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