Wednesday, June 13, 2012

HBO's "Girls" - Likeability, Diversity, and Feminist Issues

Before I even knew anything about HBO's series Girls - the premise, the actors, the creator - there was one thing I was fundamentally aware of: it was (and still is) the subject of both hot debate and damning criticism.  Naturally, this piqued my interest.  A show very brazenly titled "Girls" getting a landslide of public censure?  This is like a playground for anyone inclined to examine the common cultural interaction with women's issues!  (In other words, me.)  But, as I have now watched the show and taken a turn on the monkey bars of its public reception, I've discovered: this playground is actually a minefield.

There are a slew of critiques lambasting Girls.  They are not entirely invalid.  However, in examining the criticism alongside the show's intention, it's not hard to become increasingly exasperated with dissenters that are missing a few key points - especially when the sum of complaints suggests a somewhat insidious notion about what society thinks about "girls" themselves, independently of the association with an HBO television show of the same name.  The following piece is intended to be my own exploration of the critical aura surrounding the show, dealing with the issues and source material as objectively as possible. 

The most common criticism I've read about Girls is that the show's characters aren't likeable.  They are self-absorbed, entitled, 25-year-old brats who come from wealthy families that support their dumbass dreamers' existences in New York City.  This assessment is not entirely untrue.  The premise of the show is to give a glimpse into the generation-specific issues of young women growing up in a world having to negotiate their own expectations with the expectations that society has raised them with.  Hannah Horvath, like many others her age, was probably raised on Sesame Street, and Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, and countless other children's programs extolling the value of every kid's special talents.  This trend in child-rearing is still in effect - every little kid with access to a TV is promised that they have a special place in the world where their unique individuality will be a blessing to their endeavors.  It is a singularly Western, monied existence that is, of course, not without its flaws.  And these flaws do stem from the fact that it's Western, and monied - the conditions of which are more predominantly featured in the media than any other existence.

The problem, thus, is not necessarily with Girls, but with the negative space around it - it's not about what Girls is proffering, but rather what Girls is not.  And to be frank, this is not an issue singular to this one show on HBO.  The vacuum of "other" in popular media is still standard, and perpetuates with nearly every new offering.  Even worse, it is casually accepted as the norm.  There are countless shows on television that are astonishingly white and monied, and the issue remains unvoiced.  How I Met Your Mother exists in a similar vein as Girls - young adults in New York City navigating the issues of life and love - and there is barely a shade of difference between the skintones of the main five characters, let alone any actual variation in ethnicity or race.  This is not an issue specific to GirlsGirls is absolutely not exempt from the charge by any means, but then again, neither are How I Met Your Mother, Two and a Half Men, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Desperate Housewives, Cougar Town or Gossip Girl - among others.  And where is the definitive line for representation?  Does The Good Wife get off the hook simply for the existence of Kalinda Sharma?  Does Happy Endings receive a free pass for Brad Williams?  Is that "enough?"  Isn't the fact that we're using the word "enough" a nasty reveal about the topic of diversity on popular television?

There's no right answer.  This is a messy, messy issue that can really only benefit from open discussion, admission of the problems, and support for a wider variety of representation in television and movies.  With Girls, it is being talked about.  Creator Lena Dunham gets asked about the issue in nearly every interview, and I find it interesting that suddenly mainstream audiences care enough to ask about the trend of all-white casting that plagues almost every television show.  Is it because Girls purposefully removes the high-gloss sheen of previous NYC-based TV incarnations, and thereby implies a promise to represent the city as realistically diverse?  Is it because Girls is on HBO and seems kind of pretentious and so we want to hold it more accountable than something on Fox?  Is it because Lena Dunham is a 25-years-young woman with an HBO deal writing a show called Girls?  I can only guess.

Anyways, it's all kind of moot, because at the end of the day, the issue merits being talked about.  So we'll talk about it with Girls, because it applies.  Lena Dunham, in an interview on NPR's Fresh Air, responds to the critique:

I take that criticism very seriously. [...] This show isn't supposed to feel exclusionary. It's supposed to feel honest, and it's supposed to feel true to many aspects of my experience. But for me to ignore that criticism and not to take it in would really go against my beliefs and my education in so many things. And I think the liberal-arts student in me really wants to engage in a dialogue about it, but as I learn about engaging with the media, I realize it's not the same as sitting in a seminar talking things through at Oberlin. Every quote is sort of used and misused and placed and misplaced, and I really wanted to make sure I spoke sensitively to this issue.  [...]

I wrote the first season primarily by myself, and I co-wrote a few episodes. But I am a half-Jew, half-WASP, and I wrote two Jews and two WASPs. Something I wanted to avoid was tokenism in casting. If I had one of the four girls, if, for example, she was African-American, I feel like — not that the experience of an African-American girl and a white girl are drastically different, but there has to be specificity to that experience [that] I wasn't able to speak to. 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. As much as I can say it was an accident, it was only later as the criticism came out, I thought, "I hear this and I want to respond to it." And this is a hard issue to speak to because all I want to do is sound sensitive and not say anything that will horrify anyone or make them feel more isolated, but I did write something that was super-specific to my experience, and I always want to avoid rendering an experience I can't speak to accurately.

Mileage varies on individual reaction to a showrunner's response to some sort of criticism - especially when that criticism is founded in a complaint about representation and the kyriarchy.  Some showrunners are clearly full of shit and care not one single iota, and others scramble so quickly to defend themselves that they haul out a series of empty arguments while simultaneously trying to cover their asses.  For me, I appreciate that Lena Dunham's above response doesn't quite shuffle into either category.  Although I find it a bit unlikely and/or eyeroll-worthy that she "only later" realized that her show was about four white girls, I also think that Dunham raises a valid point in highlighting her inability to specifically authenticate a non-white experience in the context of her show.  Representation is more than just "tossing in" a POC in a supporting role and giving them the storylines, characterization, and narrative function that an audience has come to expect from these types of parts.  This is how stereotypes form and perpetuate.  But stereotypes and tokenism will evaporate when the "other" gets the same treatment as the "norm."  Of course, it is also vitally important to avoid erasing or devaluing what is culturally distinct and specifically honest to the contextual experience of the "other."  "Other" becomes the "norm" when "other" is as visible as "norm," not when it is dressed with the trappings of "normalcy."

Clearly, Lena Dunham does not have the voice to communicate an authentic WOC experience in New York City, in keeping with her show's intention to demonstrate "real life" experiences.  (Though it's just as limiting to say that Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, or Shoshanna wouldn't realistically have WOC friends in the same kind of situations as them.  Is that really so easily assumed?  The suggestion is souring.)  Regardless, the obvious answer here is to hire a WOC writer who can provide a voice.  I'm not sure this has happened for Season 2.  Instead, Donald Glover is being brought on as a guest star.  And while I doubt that this is a bad thing necessarily, I'm not sure it's the best decision for the scenario.  The main complaint about the lack of diversity doesn't necessarily mean that Girls needs to simply refocus their universe and de-stereotype their background POC.  (Although that would certainly help.)  Instead, I interpret it to be a problem within the realm of feminism: if you're going to have a show called Girls, then it would be prudent to include all girls.  Or at least some semblance of diversity in representing "girls."  I daresay that Girls does not need Donald Glover, but in fact, a non-white woman to become a part of the ensemble.  With that one simple adjustment, the issue diminishes greatly.  (Of course, a non-white woman writer would also help, as would the right balance of visibility, authenticity, and equality in the portrayal.  But first things first.)

Perhaps it is this notion that illuminates why exactly Girls has received heavy criticism specifically about the lack of diversity, where other shows go "under the radar."  Girls does represent, to a degree, an "other."  The portrayal of the four main female characters is intended to subvert the stereotypes and expectations that audiences have for young women characters.  The pilot episode of Girls goes out of its way to introduce a suggested comparison to Sex and the City - Shoshanna rambles about which character she identifies with, which is not uncommon amongst women.  Just ask the pink "I'm a Charlotte" t-shirts at the HBO store.  The notion that women seek a female character to identify with is not unexpected; however, I find it somewhat perplexing that we do so in a manner that categorizes us.  "I'm a Samantha" is emblazoned across plenty of t-shirts - but there is no t-shirt that says "I'm a Bruce Banner" or "I'm a Han Solo."  (Let's not even talk about how many female characters can be specifically identified by first name only - hell, Penny from The Big Bang Theory doesn't even have a last name.)  Girls specifically introduces the idea that women are prone to try and categorize themselves - "what type of woman are you?" - and suggests, through the subsequent stories told, that there's no real answer to that question.  In fact, each character reveals subtleties and nuances that defy their "label," and that encourage the audience to allow them these gradations. 

Now, when you consider that Girls is purposefully expressing an example of "other" and including only white and (implicitly?) Jewish women, it is definitely problematic - and even somewhat hypocritical.  It's especially troubling to consider that Girls is attempting to expand and subvert the norm, while clearly ignoring women of color - the few that pass through are relegated to brief roles as nannies, and co-workers.  No commentary, stereotype, or subversion of the modern woman is made when dealing with these characters.  It's unfortunate, because feminism is an umbrella over all women, not just upper-middle-class white women, and Girls blatantly misses this principle and becomes exclusionary as a result.  In that the show's expression of "other" extends only so far as white women, it thus can be interpreted in some part as simply an expression of privilege.  Which just boomerangs everything back to the original complaint of the show: that these women are obnoxious, entitled, and bratty.  But in fact, the issue actually stems from neglecting to acknowledge the diversity that should be implicit under the umbrella of feminism and the modern woman.

Outside the walls of feminism, I take issue with the larger complaint that the characters on Girls are unlikeable simply because they are entitled and bratty.  There are a few things that perturb me with this claim.  First, I think it's necessary to the premise of the show to demonstrate, at the start, where these women are beginning.  They wholly believe in their own "awesomeness," and the whole point of the show is to witness them negotiating that self-obsession when forced to interact with the real world where no one cares.  Hell, the whole show kicks off with Hannah's parents denying her financial support, and we realize that her existence from here on out will be a reality check.  Without understanding where Hannah is coming from, we can't fully appreciate where she is headed.  This is how storytelling works!  Every character is poised for change - Hannah learning the real meaning of independence and not just its idealized appeal, Jessa reevaluating the implications of her bohemian lifestyle, and Marnie reassessing her priorities and self-perception - both the latter two coming to terms with the fact that everything they thought they wanted may not actually be what they want now.  I am willing to suffer through the early glimpses of delusional self-congratulation by these characters on the promise that they are in fact, going to change, as all well-written characters do.  And as we are nearing the end of Girls' first season, it's clear that that promise is being kept.

Second, I fail to see how flawed characters are a bad thing.  All good characters have strengths, and flaws, and not only is it incredibly rewarding to watch them manifest in different scenarios, it's also incredibly human.  And it's here where I tend to sniff something nasty lurking behind the criticism of Girls' characters.  This is a show where the four leads are women who are purposefully portrayed as having real flaws that sometimes lead to poor decisions and bad mistakes - and apparently this is also a show where unlikeable characters are just too insufferable to sit through.

I don't understand it.  We live in a world where television shows center around a chemistry teacher making crystal meth or a man moonlighting as a murderer and everyone loves it.  While it's true that certain storytelling elements have to be carefully in place in order to sell the likeability of morally ambiguous characters, I find it questionable that Girls comes under fire for its gray-area females.  (If you'd like to bring up Weeds' Nancy Botwin in argument, I would counter that perhaps she is more acceptable in that she is constructed on a paradigm of motherhood, something which is easily bought, sold, and relied on in women's character-building.)  And yet, discussion of Mad Men Season 5 incites talk of missing the "old Don Draper," who cheated on his wife, and drags Megan, his new wife who apparently "did this to him" (but with whom he appears to be in love) through the insult mill.  (If I read another offensive remark about Jessica ParĂ©'s teeth I'm going to go She-Hulk.)

Even on Girls, I find that many critics laud the construction and development of Hannah's boyfriend Adam, whose character has moved from mysterious bad boyfriend to sensitive misunderstood weirdo.  Adam is talked about like the highlight of every episode, and yet I fail to see how his shift in characterization is any different from Hannah's, Marnie's, or Jessa's.  Each of them were established at some level of moral reprehensibility, and have since been slowly moving towards a more sympathetic and relatable mix of characteristics.  But it seems that Adam's shades of gray are more easily accepted in both their complexity as well as with the assumption that he is basically good.  By contrast, the nuances in Hannah, Marnie, and Jessa cause viewers confusion: is she this type of girl, or that type of girl?  The difficulty for the audience to easily shuffle the female characters into the standard categories we're accustomed to seeing for female characters is frustrating.  We want to reject any intricacy of character, and stick them in their "I'm a Carrie" t-shirts.  And when the intricacies of character sometimes reveal less-than-ideal flaws?  Forget it.  Not only are they boxed away into whatever available stereotype is closest, the box is sealed with "Caution: Bitch" tape and never to be opened again.

What's ironic is that this is reflected in the show itself.  All four leads are written as having a character crisis of sorts, that manifests easily when asking the question: "what kind of girl am I?"  Hannah's entire existence seems to be a series of excursions in "experience," as though she's frantically searching for some kind of exploit to entangle herself with, branding it with what she thinks makes her special: insight, snark, and gumption.  Hannah Horvath has been told she is exceptional, and she lives her life trying to make that come to fruition at every turn.  Marnie is the epitome of put-together: she is the capable one, with a good job and a good boyfriend and a good life.  She assumed, perhaps through what she perceived society expected of her, that this is what would make her happy.  Season 1 has thus far demonstrated that she is "not that kind of girl," and now Marnie must figure it out herself.  The same sentiment is echoed with Jessa, who lived most of her developing years as the bohemian, carefree girl - but does she actually want to be that person?  Jessa as well as Marnie is now poised for reassessing her true identity in conjunction with what she thinks she wants, whether self-dictated or interpreted from societal expectations.

Basically, two of the four main character arcs are specifically written as women realizing that they are boxed into a category of existence and might want to reevaluate that definition.  Not only that, but these two characters are constructed as foils - foils that we see often in female characters.  Marnie is the "uptight girl," and Jessa is the "carefree girl."  We are well-familiar with these character incarnations in onscreen females.  But rarely are they allowed to be more than just "uptight" and "carefree."  So often in media, a female character gets the label of "uptight" or "carefree" and she is either completely reinforced in that notion, or completely derided.  If she's uptight, she's told to be more carefree.  If she's carefree, she's told to be more uptight.  So not only are these female characters boxed into their category, they're also informed that their manner of existence is incorrect.  And how often does this pattern show up in the romantic comedy genre, specifically directed towards women themselves?

This is one thing that Girls does remarkably well when dealing with their characters.  They construct them on a paradigm we recognize - uptight girl, carefree girl - and create a path for them that subverts and adds nuance to what we've been trained to expect from popular storytelling.  Thus far Jessa and Marnie have interacted with each other on their arc, embodying the idea that perhaps their character redefinition will involve them subtly moving towards one another, moving more towards the middle of the Uptight-Carefree Spectrum.  And this was not manifested in any sort of argument over which way of life is "better," or a portrait of two women actively at ideological odds.  Rather, "Weirdos Need Girlfriends Too" showed two women shifting their perspectives in nuanced ways, with mutual respect, through their everyday interactions.  Even better, no one told them to be one thing versus another.  Katherine's speech to Jessa in the next episode specifically addresses the idea that perhaps this identity is simply a front, distracting from an identity that will be more genuine, and happy.  Added up, these characters are therefore allowed (and encouraged) to get out of their boxes, without being yelled at, shamed, or having to be transferred immediately into another one.  There's no "I'm a Charlotte" t-shirt for Marnie, or "I'm a Samantha" for Jessa, or a swap between them.  They are allowed to be something beyond their category, in little steps and shades, and as a viewer, I'm fascinated by the idea of watching them figure it out. 

In this way, Girls provides a self-awareness of the expectations placed on young women about their identity, using the mold to create a starting point, and making commentary on the limitations of that mold by moving the characters away from an easy and unhappy absolute, towards a more complex and, hopefully happier, reality.  I find it ironic, therefore, that these characters are frequently derided, misunderstood, and disliked.  In some ways, to dislike Hannah, or Jessa, or Marnie, on principle, is to deny them their opportunity to figure themselves out.  To cast off their Sex and the City labels, and reimagine the boundaries - or lack thereof - to their identities.  Considering how important this is to the issue of portraying female characters realistically in the media, I can't find it in me to write off Girls completely.  With every nasty critique that fails to support its argument against the show believably, I can't help but wonder if there's simply an internalized lack of respect for a young woman trying to shuffle out her own identity on her own terms with her own mistakes, when it would be so much more convenient for society if we could just put her in a box.

So, Girls has both virtue, and vice.  Its treatment of female characters is noteworthy in that the writing specifically subverts and reimagines what we've been trained to expect about young women's identities, communicating the idea that they must be self-generated for the purpose of her own happiness.  It presents the young women honestly, with strengths and flaws, and deliberately shows them to be both self-importantly boisterous and yet emotionally vulnerable.  From a storytelling perspective, the character work is unique, interesting, and holds potential.

Of course, the main vice here is the lack of diversity expressed through the core premise of the show.  In limiting her group of "Girls" to expressions of white and/or Jewish only, Lena Dunham seriously deflates much of what makes her show unique.  Subverting gendered expectations in favor of demonstrating the reality of an "other" only goes so far when the only WOC on the show are fringe characters, shown to be nannies and low-totem office workers.

In the end, for me, it's perhaps the ultimate irony that an exploration of Girls leaves me wondering if I should wrap it all up in a pretty bow and declare that I like it, or dismiss it completely for its faults.  Why does it have to be one or the other?  If I'm praising this show for allowing its characters to exist beyond the finite walls of definition, then it seems pretty hypocritical to try and force it into a "bad" or "good" description altogether.  In truth, there has been both good and bad presented in this first season.  Ultimately, Girls is not perfect.  We keep wanting it to be.  And that's kind of the point.

(Please note: this conclusion could very easily be interpreted as washing away the points previously made about Girls' lack of diversity.   That is not the intent.  I still would like to see the show hire a WOC writer and include at least one WOC character in their core ensemble.)
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