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by Alison Willmore
April 20, 2012 5:42 PM
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What Are We Mad At Lena Dunham About Today?

Lena Dunham in 'Girls' Jojo Whilde/HBO
Lena Dunham's "Girls" returns Sunday for its second episode, which is hard to believe given the amount of media coverage and musings about realism, feminism, race and likability already generated by the show. Heading into that installment, which is sure to automatically infuriate plenty by delving into the topic of abortion, here's a rundown of some of the things already upsetting people about the season's most divisive series about four young women doing nothing that out of the ordinary.

The Show's Name:

Christopher Owens, the frontman of the indie rock band Girls, has taken to Twitter to express annoyance that the show shares the same name as his group (a word also commonly used to refer to a not insignificant portion of the female population). As Hitfix reports, Owens tweeted that "It's a bit sucky to be informed by a giant company like HBO that you don't matter enough culturally to not have your name taken away or used... Do you think that TV show even thought twice before using our bands name for their show? I'll bet they were just like 'fuck it, fuck them'," he continued, making any claims that the characters on the series are unrealistically self-involved pale in the harsh bluish light of the real-life internet.

Not Representing the Sisterhood:

Interviewed in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, Dunham was asked is she'd "ever read a book about girls or women" that made her "angry or disappointed or just extremely annoyed?" Her response was that she doesn't "have a taste for airport chick-lit, even in a guilty-pleasure way. Any book that is motored by the search for a husband and/or a good pair of heels makes me want to move to the outback." This displeased "In Her Shoes" author Jennifer Weiner, who took to Twitter to chastise Dunham for tearing down other women when she "could have not taken the bait. 'No comment' or 'I'd rather talk about books I love' is always classy." She later wrote that she found it better to "keep quiet about women-written books I don't love, knowing how hard it is to get pubbed and get noticed, and how slams can sting."

Depictions of Race:

"Girls" writer Leslie Arfin picked fights with a lot of people all at once when she published a since-deleted tweet announcing that "What really bothered me most about 'Precious' was that there was no representation of ME." While I assume that was meant to reference the many reviewers that fault the characters' place of privilege as not reflecting their own twentysomething experiences, Arfin's poorly chosen quip enraged people already upset about the show's lack of diversity. Pieces like Kendra James' in Racialicious and Jenna Wortham's in The Hairpin have outlined frustrations felt by women who turned to "Girls" with the expectations of something closer to their own lives, for the realism the marketing and early reviews have touted, only to feel isolated by the fact that the show's overwhelmingly white. At the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates has written a wonderful and more measured response in which he suggests, "It is not so wrong to craft an exclusively white world -- certainly a significant portion of America lives in one. What is wrong is for power-brokers to pretend that no other worlds exists."

Famous Parents:

A Photoshopped poster of the "Girls" campaign started making the rounds online a few days ago -- it retitled the show "Nepotism" and labeled the castmembers as "Bad Company's drummer's daughter," "NBC's Brian Williams' daughter," "artist Laurie Simmons' daughter" and "playwright David Mamet's daughter." All true, but an undeniable cheap shot -- to leave the last word with Twitter, the main battleground for many of these brawls, let's turn to Grantland's Andy Greenwald, who tweeted "I love the way people throw around 'Laurie Simmons's daughter' as a withering example of nepotism when no one knows who that is."

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  • DrMelanogaster | April 23, 2012 6:28 PMReply

    I thought that the storyline about abortion made up for any lacks in the characters' likeability, or socioeconomic status, or (even) race. That was a brave thing to talk about in these political times! that maybe abortion is (gulp) *not* that devastating to a woman! They're doing interesting things in GIRLS.

    Also -- about Hannah trying to "scam" a meal from her parents' hotel room. After 24 or so years of having (probably) overly invested boundariless "helicopter parents" (always hovering), now they want her to be an adult on her own? She wasn't scamming them. They're her parents. This same blurry line between parents and (middle-class, perpetually dependent) children was explored in Tiny Furniture too. It's complicated, and worth looking at further.

  • Kati | April 21, 2012 5:49 PMReply

    Huge props to BP for articulating a lot of the reasons I have hopes for the show and will continue to follow it, at least for a few more episodes. I think it sounds like a lot of the problem is that the expectations people usually have for entertainment, and granted (as BP says) for entertainment about and by women, weren't fulfilled. If we've beaten ourselves so into this formulaic view of television, it's time to step back and re-evaluate, I think. When did it become realistic for every group of people to be a balanced mix of gender, race, sexuality, and wit? Dunham's show has my attention for its stark honesty and I imagine Dunham has developed theories, analyses, and thematic arcs regarding her particular demographic's identity that will be revealed later in the show. Since when does a show HAVE to grab your attention and be likeable from the very first episode? I know this is a good idea marketing wise, obviously, but is this really the a priori, god-given way that things must be done? To me, it seems less honest, and so less respectful to all the groups that aren't represented on the show, to whitewash the characters as likeable or naive of their spoiledness (and so somehow not to blame, excusable, someone we can forgive and even feel protective of?) It's more respectful to be totally honest and confessional about how ridiculously spoiled yet not-put-together you are, and lay down the very real issues that you do struggle with in your life. "Spoiledness" and worthiness is VERY much a sliding scale, and it's probably sociologically harmful if the only female leads we ever see are bubbly teenage girls or struggling, thick-skinned, ever-virtuous women.

    I guess the only bit of BP's argument that I don't totally agree with is that from the Girls' characters' perspective, their own problems are just as dire as anyone else's. I think that's not quite right. I think while a grown, educated and intelligent person is having a breakdown, there's always an objective element that knows that things could be much much worse. I don't think the characters are blinded to that. It's just that it doesn't (and shouldn't have to, always) factor into their lives. Just because we have it better than someone else doesn't mean our issues aren't legitimate. But that formula there's only ONE person in the world (the absolute worse person off in the world) that ever gets to complain.

    I do think Dunham's getting tons of attention, lots of it critical, because she's a woman and so young, and now because of the whole "nepotism" thing. It's possible that the marketing hype was due to her connections, but I don't really care, that's how the world works. (Most of the jobs I've had were because of someone I knew - I just wish I knew people at studios, rather than people in clothing stores and restaurants :p don't we all?) That doesn't mean she doesn't have valid and new things to say.

    Other than that, I'm so glad Girls is on HBO where the 'novelistic' form has gained steam and the show will be granted some slack, e.g. not have to be cookie-cutter, white-washing, brain-dead formulaic for the sake of everyone's limiting expectations of entertainment. So she's not drawing us in gradually and easily - let her try something new. Watch or change the channel.

  • bp | April 21, 2012 1:57 AMReply

    The show is wonderfully unconcerned with creating characters that are sympathetic or likable at every moment. Yet, it is an empathetic and honest portrait of people of a very particular millieu. Dunham makes cinema dealing with the ennui of privileged, white New Yorkers. Woody Allen has practiced this brand of cinema for years and has largely avoided the kind of guile that is being heaped upon Dunham. This is to be expected in a culture that is so bereft of intelligent cinema created by and focusing on young women that whenever a piece comes along, it is overburden with impossible expectations. It cannot be all things to all people. It is a piece of art and therefore a personal expression. This kind of specificity is not elitist. Rather, it's a personal exploration (or explication) that seeks to reveal universal truths. It relies on the audience having empathy for people of different circumstances from their own. Yet, it seems empathy is sorely lacking in our culture. No one has to like the show, but instead of leveling banal, misguided claims of elitism, I sincerely wish these men and women who feel that "Girls" does not speak to their experience would endeavor to create a piece of art that more adequately expressed their own point of view. Or at least attempt to extend empathy and recognize that which is held in common amongst people of disparate circumstances.

  • BP | April 21, 2012 11:50 AM

    Thank you for your very articluate rebuttal. I answer by saying that I am far from an privileged white female and yet I have (thus far, being one episode deep and having also seen Tiny Furniture) related to and been entertained by Dunham's sense of humor concerning the awkwardness and messiness of coming of age. That feels very much like a universal truth to me. What makes "Girls" unique and interesting is it's courage to present that truth in an unflattering light. She, unlike her peer group of terrific female directors, does not present a more obviously likable lead which would make her work more readily digestable. While I'm reticient to lump all female directors together in a monolithic mass, I will say that Kimberely Peirce, Dee Rees and Granik take on more "serious" material with disadvantaged and strong-willed females as their protagonists. They present dignified leads that would be role models for young women seeking to find their identity. Their underprivileged leads face dire (often mortal) conflicts that would seem to dwarf upper class Dunham's ennui. Because Dunham's characters' mortality is not on the line in the manner of Brandon Teena and Rea Dolly or struggling with a more obvious identity crises like Alike, critics, such as yourself, are intolerant of their "frivolous" struggles. This is why I advocate empathy. If one were to extend empathy, one would see that the conflicts the characters in "Girls" face are just as dire as those in the more gritty films of Peirce, Rees and Granik FROM THEIR PERSPECTIVE. You are more than free to find her characters annoying or myopic, but they are a truthful representation of people of a certain age, gender and class. This honesty is to be commended. And good on you for spotting my misuse of "guile", I was grasping for the word "ire". As in, I don't understand why you dismess my comparison between Allen and Dunham with such giggle-inducing ire. Both focus on a similar millieu in a incredibly similar tone. I'm do not compare their talent or cultural impact. Thank you for an interesting discussion.

  • F.P. | April 21, 2012 10:43 AM

    The desire to see men and women 'more adequately express their own POV' has less to do with said people not doing so, and more to do with *you* *seeing* it, figuratively and literally. Films like SIN NOMBRE, PARIAH, WEEKEND, GABI ON THE ROOF IN JULY, etc etc etc all speak to specific milieus, lifestyles, and perspectives and I don't need to be a Latin emigre, black lesbian, gay Englishman, or Brooklyn artist to understand and empathize with those stories and characters. People sought out and praised those projects because they speak well to what those largely unfamiliar experiences are. But apparently, I have to be a young overprivileged American female to understand or like GIRLS, meaning there are no universal truths to be found in it. That's why there is rancor towards the inane coverage of it and its similarly framed creator, who masochistically seems wonderfully unconcerned with creating characters that are sympathetic or likable at ANY moment. I would sooner called TWO BROKE GIRLS a better representation of white girl struggle, and slapping a 'from Judd Apatow' sticker on a project shouldn't be reason enough to promote it more widely than any of the above projects, much less praise it when it's undeserving of it. Argue your point about burdens upon female-driven project with talented directors like Megan Griffiths or Jamie Babbitt or Debra Granik or Mary Harron or Julie Delpy, and let's see how you fare. PS - let's assume you meant to write 'guilt' vs. 'guile' in your (giggle) comparison of Lena Dunham to Woody Allen.

  • bigwhat? | April 20, 2012 10:31 PMReply

    Really Girls is not groundbreaking revolutionary, or entertaining. The characters are all overprivileged unsympathetic narcissists which is not a problem except the writers don't make them interesting or funny or give them witty dialogue. The Lana Del Rey comparison is apt. Could we please put some attention on artists who are actually doing something interesting or at the very least compelling?

  • F.P. | April 20, 2012 9:58 PMReply

    The show lost me when her character had the audacity to scam onto her parents' hotel bill for a free meal. And if I ruined the end of (yawn) Episode 1 for anyone by not saying SPOILER first, you're welcome. IW, stop wagging the dog on this person. She's the literary equivalent of Lana Del Rey, and are we still talking about her? Just move on.