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Single White Females Illustration by Anna Minzhulina.

Single White Females

Is Girls solving a problem of representation or spoon-feeding its target audience?

WHEN GIRLS PREMIERED ON HBO, John Semley wrote that the show was “like the origin story of a new breed of Cathy.” A week later, Carly Lewis wrote that much of the backlash against the program was sexist. As the show enters its fourth season, we asked the two of them to resume the debate. 

CARLY LEWIS: I first became aware of you when, for Maisonneuve, you wrote that Girls “feels less like a portrait of a generation than a napkin doodle of bougie urbane privilege.” You seemed very outraged over the show’s cajoled relatability tactics. 

JOHN SEMLEY: I was vaguely aware of all the trumped up promise that came with Girls, as if it would prove to be some corrective intervention to the whole landscape of television. But given the totalizing sway the twenty-aughts in its target audience exert over culture, I guess I’m just not sure how necessary or corrective or interesting it was. As “auteured” (in the lazy, incorrect sense of the word) as the show pretended to be, it felt, to me, painstakingly focus-grouped to appeal to a swath of people who hardly needed more appealing to. 

CL: Girls is full of entitlement problems. Lena Dunham’s attempt to handle issues of money and race are clueless at best. Still, there are moments within that make my heart surge. All of those moments have to do with the way I’ve had to lifelong-litigate my own resignation to gender norms: the thighs in Girls, the assailable presentation of food, the unsatisfying sex scenes, the scenes in which the sex is forced, the aunts who fight in the hospital hallway, the selfishness, the failure. 

JS: I guess when I watch TV or movies or read books, I try to acquire some insight about something outside of my own experience, instead of muddily digging through shallow rain puddles of personal (or even generational) insight. To the people who hyped it up like it was the moon launch, Girls was a show that seemed to arrive gift-wrapped in all its flattery, narcissism and voguish self-loathing (really just its own kind of inversely configured flattery, like it’s daring you to feel bad about yourself—as if there’s any other reasonable way to feel).

It was like that Simpsons episode where Mr. Burns loses his fortune and has to feebly find his way around the world. While ambling down the cereal aisle of a grocery store, he naively asks, “Could you tell me where I might find the Burns Os?” as if every citizen has their own tailor-made breakfast cereal. This is what Girls is to me: Millennial Burns Os. It’s ostensible high-fibre content, lubing the bowels of the blogosphere with countless think-piece plops, that is ultimately just gormless, zero-cal entertainment. 

CL: To a viewer for whom self-loathing, as you refer to it, is not en vogue but something like dysmorphia or depression, or just a general state of feeling like shit in a patriarchal trash reality, those “one of us tactics” aren’t just hipster bread crumbs or HBO propaganda. I wish we didn’t live in a society where moderate skin folds on women are radical. But we do.

Anyway, I think what’s happening with Girls is more like Oat Boats. Do you remember the Full House episode where DJ and Stephanie compete for the part in that cereal commercial? There’s one coveted lead role and two women—sisters—want the part. But there can only be one, of course, and they are made to fight for it. And Girls got majorly Oat Boated by Broad City. That might be because Broad City is hysterically funny, and also has a similar target audience. It has the same setting, thematic infrastructure, demographics, even a celebrity producer. But no one calls Broad City disingenuous. 

JS: But did Broad City Oat Boat Girls? In my experience, it seems to appeal more directly to the People Who Do Not Like Girls demographic, or just the People Who Like Funny Television demographic. I think it’s worth talking about Broad City because it’s a great show; it does a lot of things Girls pretended to do without making such an overblown pageant of it. The Wall Street Journal referred to the show’s handling of female twenty-aught friendship as “sneak-attack feminism,” and I think it sticks.

I think the reason nobody calls Broad City disingenuous is because it isn’t. Amy Poehler producing a show feels like more a gesture of goodwill than Judd Apatow, whose MO is basically rubber-stamping any aspect of American comedy with his imprimatur. Broad City’s stars, Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, also emerged from New York improv school Upright Citizens Brigade, a recognized incubator of comic talent. With Girls, it feels like the cast was given the keys to a show by their fawning daddies following graduation. Still, despite ostensible similarities, comparing them like this only helps to validate the existence of both, as if these are “the shows about women.” 

You’re right to say that the depiction of food and bodies in Girls feels like a long-overdue corrective. But what I find more annoying—in a classic case of “hate the fans, not the band”—is all the fallout around it, which ties into my own general annoyance (outrage, even) at how boringly discussion-based TV has become. There’s a line about the depiction and debate around torture in that recent Slajov Žižek book, Event: A Philosophical Journey Through A Concept, which comes to mind (and yes I’m aware that referring to Žižek on water-boarding to make a point about a TV show is a grating kind of reverse-Žižekian gesture): “a sign of ethical progress is the fact that torture is ‘dogmatically’ rejected as repulsive, without any need for further discussion.” Basically, seeing people argue Girls becomes boring because there should be no need to argue it. 

CL: If Žižek were to join us in this huddle, I think he would applaud Dunham’s uppity liberalism for giving Broad City a space in which it is comparatively radical. Pop culture is always a measurement of what’s up in the world. Audience commentary and reaction are barometric registries of what’s occurring outside. I don’t think Broad City is disingenuous, but I don’t think Girls is, either. Both shows are crafted by writers and producers who genuinely think that they are portraying life in an accurate way.

Girls would be less problematic if television made room for other kinds of women. Instead we have Dunham atrociously failing to represent anyone who isn’t her. (Dunham says that she wrote two Jewish characters and two WASP characters because as a half-Jew-half-WASP, that’s what she understands.) Everyone else is left writing think pieces in protest and arguing in the comment sections. It’s classic Oat Boat—handful of cereal, ocean of milk.

I’m tired of talking about Girls, too. A critic who offers no alternative is just kicking dirt at an impasse. But when it comes to pop culture (and politics), there are so few chosen ones who can mobilize something better. Any Girls-ish show that follows would have been examined as a potential solution to it. Broad City would have been righteously comedic on its own. Beside Girls, it’s viewed as a relief, as in “finally some light realness out here.” But there are heavy moments in Girls that many people find moving—there’s death and mental illness and a scene that is arguably rape. Broad City never takes it there. 

I watched the first episode of Girls in a hotel bed in New York with soggy takeout fries and the worst hangover of my life after days of fruitless work meetings, and it made me really emotional. But I was looking for that. The episode didn’t create my need to feel empathized with, it confirmed it, and then pounced on the prevalence of flailing. I wonder how many Girls fans watch the show on Sunday nights or Monday mornings while nursing cataclysmic comedowns, making them vulnerable to poignancy? It’s all market research. I’m skeptical of any communication that intends to repackage real life and resell it. 

JS: This sounds like my dad, who rejects the whole concept of art because one time in high school a poet told him that he wrote poetry because he got paid to do so. Art or TV doesn’t depict reality. It represents reality. I just feel like the kind of 1:1 identification offered by a show like Girls is boring. When I’m talking about empathy and The Sopranos, I’m not talking about, like, “I get why he whacked that cuckoo bird!” I’m talking about the process of becoming attuned to a frequency that’s well outside your own, of feeling outside yourself and connected to the whole sprawling matrix of human endeavour. 

It makes me shudder when I hear Dunham referred to as an “auteur.” This whole framework of authorship is about how a personality edges in from the periphery of something, not about being parachuted into the middle of it. (By that definition for Hitchcock to be an auteur every one of his movies would just be him fucking a corpse for ninety minutes.) This deeper process of identification takes shape—slowly, and sometimes without deliberation—along with the piece of art. It’s not the thing itself.

I can understand why it might feel healthy and validating to see someone like you on TV. Of course representation is a problem. But when that process of representation gets so shallow, what’s being revealed? Girls hails the demographic of “girls who like Girls,” and then rewards them for liking it.

I’m sure it was revelatory to see the show when you were living in a vignette culled from a Girls script. If you need to see yourself in something who am I to say that’s wrong or bad or stupid? To cop a line from Bruce McCulloch, a plate of soggy takeout fries bears no reflection.

Ugh, whatever. I’m being such a Hannah right now. 

CL: You’re more of a Shoshanna.    

Follow Carly Lewis and John Semley on Twitter.