The View From London

03.31.14

Why ‘Girls’ Is Bad for Women

What happens when a British writer finally gives into the hype and watches her very first episode of Lena Dunham’s hipster extravaganza? An experience about as uncomfortable and unforgettable as Adam and Hannah’s Season 1 sex scene.

They say good news travels fast. Perhaps this explains why it’s taken me two years to get around to watching Girls. I’d never seen a single episode of the hit HBO series until last week. And frankly, I’m still recovering.

Can someone please enlighten me: is Girls supposed to be serious? Bittersweet or knowing or ironic? Are we supposed to believe that young women actually live like this? Is the lead character Hannah, played by Lena Dunham, intended to be likeable or odious? Are we supposed to sympathize when she complains about her lack of career prospects, her vile boyfriend, her life? Why on earth has Girls been nominated for Golden Globes and Emmys? What are the millions of viewers seeing that I’m not getting?

The premise of the first season was simple enough: aspiring writer Hannah receives a visit from her parents who announce that, after two years of supporting her financially, she’s on her own. Suddenly she is cast adrift without the bank of mum and dad. Living in Brooklyn with a group of improbably glamorous, kooky, creative friends, they navigate their twenties ‘one mistake at a time’. This is a world in which adult-children complain that “my parents pay for only half of my Blackberry”; a world in which it’s apparently acceptable to sit on the phone at work analyzing your sexual encounters in minute detail. This is the culture of entitlement writ large: not so much Generation Y, as Generation why-doesn’t-anyone-recognise-my-genius.

A few specific points of confusion: on what planet do women sit in the bath together, one shaving her legs, the other eating a cupcake? Since when do they talk on the toilet, their boyfriends drifting in and out of the bathroom? Am I supposed to laugh when Hannah hands her parents a few scrawled pages and announces “so here’s my book”… How can she demand that they bankroll her self-indulgent freelance lifestyle? Why are ‘the girls’ unable to enunciate their words clearly: they veer between barely comprehensible rapid-fire monotone delivery (Shoshanna) and barely comprehensible mumblecore (Hannah). And why does the cool ‘English’ friend Jessa speak with an American accent?

Most of all, how could anyone film—or inflict upon viewers—such gratuitous, relentlessly grubby sexual content? It’s not romantic, it’s not erotic, it’s not even entertaining. I can’t imagine how you’d watch this show with anyone else: I watched alone, and even so my was face burning. Yes, we all know sex can be awkward, fumbly, whatever. If you want to watch strangers copulating, I imagine professional pornography would be more satisfying.

Why does the cool ‘English’ friend Jessa speak with an American accent?

If you’re fortunate enough, as I was, to have missed Girls, here is a précis of episode 2 from the first season, entitled ‘Vagina Panic’. It opens with Hannah and her reclusive boyfriend Adam having sex, in a scene so disturbing that it felt close to abuse. After sex, the ‘noted psychopath’ boyfriend grabs hold of her belly fat, jiggles it around, and asks if she has ever tried to lose weight. Girls—and especially Hannah/Dunham’s character—excels in this kind of nasty humiliation: I’m not sure what the point of it is.

The rest of the episode is devoted to what Dunham calls “the stuff that gets up around the sides of condoms.” Interminable conversations take place between ‘the girls’ in an STI clinic, where they have accompanied a friend for an abortion. The episode ends with Dunham having a gynaecological examination, legs in stirrups, musing on whether it would be a good thing to get AIDS.

I’d estimate she is clothed for less than half the episode. And because Dunham is not a size zero or ‘conventionally’ beautiful, Girls has been hailed as brave and feminist.

Is this what we call feminism these days? A group of sloppy, self-obsessed young women having dysfunctional relationships and semi-abusive sex? What is empowering about this? What is feminist about staying with a man who has nothing to say for himself, but orders you to take your jeans off, turn over, and keep your mouth shut? Or refusing to take on menial work, such as working in a café for example, and instead whining at your parents to pay your rent?

Girls is the brainchild of Lena Dunham herself: the credits list her as lead actress, writer, director, executive producer, all-round genius, etc. Certainly she finds her own life interesting, explaining: “I may be the voice of my generation” and that “each character was a piece of me or based on someone close to me.”

I try not to criticize other people’s work: if you have nothing nice to say, it’s better to say nothing at all. But I’m flabbergasted by the hype around this series (anyway, one lone voice in the cacophony of praise isn’t going to matter; I think Dunham can take it!)

Do I dislike Girls because I’m a cultural snob? No—I like low-brow and high-brow, from opera to country music, I watch Sex and the City, romcoms and arthouse movies, I read Tolstoy, Camus and the MailOnline. But there is a reason why great art, books and films endure: what will future generations think of us, looking back on shows like Girls? The latest series saw audience ratings drop by around 20 percent, but it has already been re-commissioned. If this is popular culture in the 21st century, we’re in trouble.

The woman who lent me the Girls Box Set is operating a waiting list among our female friends—I had to wait my turn, and I couldn’t borrow it for longer than a fortnight. She needn’t have worried: after making it through nearly two hours (two painful episodes) it’s going straight back to her.