Why are girl things so despised? Consider the derisive response to music girls like, movies and television shows girls watch, social networking sites girls inhabit, activities in which girls engage, and the clothes girls wear. The criticism is always snide and condescending: girl things—which appeal to, attract, star, and represent girls—are considered, at best, vacuous and, at worst, distasteful. In a 1999 article, gender and cultural studies scholar Catharine Driscoll argues anything perceived as a “girl thing” is instantly dismissed without consideration of the importance it might have in the lives of real girls. While the Spice Girls and their fans offer an infamous example of this girl-targeted derision, there are no comparable examples of bashing boy-things; no ubiquitous hatred for boys and their things.
A new example that demonstrates the widespread social contempt for girl things has emerged: the HBO show, Girls. This show is a phenomenon not only for its twenty-six year-old wunderkind creator, director, writer, and star, Lena Dunham, but also for the mountain of scrutiny it has received. Girls is a show about four post-collegiate, twenty-something women living and grappling with girl-ish identities in Brooklyn. Both profoundly funny and devastatingly sad, the show touches upon themes of friendship among young women, their casual and often ugly sex with boys grappling with their identity crises, and emotions surrounding unrealized potential and the possibility of utter failure at life. But even though the characters are trying to make their way as independent adults in the “real” world, make no mistake…Girls is a girl thing, and, as a result, has become one of the most talked about and critiqued shows of our time.
The show has been called self-indulgent, self-absorbed, and too white. The characters have been described as unlikeable and impossible to care about. Lena Dunham’s “larger” body has been the centre of a massive attack; her detractors demand she refrain from appearing naked (which she does in nearly every episode), and specifically from showing her “jiggling” thighs. Perhaps most insultingly, Lena Dunham’s character, Hannah Horvath, has been accused of having too much sex for someone so conventionally unattractive. Given this negative discourse, as a feminist, I have to ask: Why this show? The answer: Because Girls is a show about girls, written and directed by a girl, starring girls, and about girl things.
Social psychologist, Christine Griffin, explains how dominant meanings of girlhood operate as binary oppositions that show the impossible standards against which girls are measured: girls are or have too much, are too fat or too thin, are too smart or too stupid, are too liberated or too regulated, are too “x” and never quite “y” enough. Like the impossible standards to which girls are held, Girls is judged by excruciating criteria that sets it up for imminent failure, freezing its complex storylines, untraditional female bodies, and honest take on sex in a state of perpetual inadequacy.
In a satirical article entitled, If People Talked About Seinfeld Like They Talk About Girls, Mike Trap makes the incisive point that Girls has drawn criticism that would never—could never—be levelled at a “man” show with a similar profile. Seinfeld, for example, features conventionally unattractive (as well as overweight), immature men having sex with gorgeous women, four white stars, and highly self-indulgent characters. But rather than being condemned, Seinfeld was hailed as an example of revolutionary television. The “pudgy oaf” hooking up with the “hot chick” is, in fact, a standard trope in situation comedies so naturalized it is never called into question.
Similarly troubling is the restrictive mould of femininity witnessed in shows marketed toward women, such as Sex and the City (SATC). Unlike the gritty realism of Girls, SATC presents four thirty-something, thin, and flawless looking women consumed by sexcapades, shopping, and lunching in Manhattan. Though troubling as a race- and class-blind post-feminist text, SATC did not incur the wrath of thousands of bloggers, media pundits, and television critics. Not only did the SATC stars all conform to a conventional (read: non-threatening) femininity, but the sex they had was pretty, neat, and often geared towards male porn ideals. Conversely, the gender performances of the girls of Girls are perceived as threatening and jarring. Hannah, Jessa, Shoshana, and Marnie are unpredictable, annoying, vulgar, loud, and, in some cases, considered unattractive by conventional standards.
Seinfeld and SATC showcase unrealistic storylines and limiting gender stereotypes. But Girls is powerfully realistic in that it shows young women who are not always likeable, thin, or magazine-smooth. Instead what Girls offers is a vision of young adulthood that is shockingly meaningful. What makes the show important are the hard questions it asks both of itself and its viewers, while simultaneously challenging the very standards upon which conventional television rests. Girls is a girl thing because the characters are not interested in becoming women so much as they are interested in exploring what it means to be who they are at this particular moment in their lives. The show represents what most of us want to avoid: life, in all its messy, contradictory, and uncomfortable reality. And therein lies the importance of this girl thing.
Shauna Pomerantz, GEA International Representative