Jun 14, 2012

A Non-Sexist Critique of 'Girls'

Girls isn’t a great show. And, strangely, that has nothing to do with the attractiveness of Lena Dunham, the parents of any of the main actresses, nor the fact that its showrunner is a 25-year-old woman. It has to do with, hear me out, somewhat weak performances, an inability to juggle multiple storylines, and awkward tonal shifts. Is it possible to critique Girls without coming across as sexist? Let’s find out.

First, to assure you all that I have no immediate ill will towards the show: I am also a young adult living in the city, supported by my parents. Until recently, I too did not have a job. In addition, I think the insinuation that Lena Dunham is somehow unattractive says a lot more about our warped standards of beauty than anything else. A large number of the trolls attacking her looks every week would be flustered upon actually having to speak with a woman of her looks. In addition, the idea that any of these women are riding the tailcoats of their parents is absurd. Do we really think anybody in the world gives a shit who the daughter of the drummer of Bad Company is? As Dunham pointed out earlier this week, can those who throw around the word “nepotism” actually explain what her mother does?

The idea that the show should be insulted for any of these reasons is inherently ridiculous and (most) mainstream critics ignore them. However, the idea that the show is bad simply because it follows upper-middle class women, some of who are bratty, or shallow is equally insane. The subject matter of a program is never a barometer of its quality. Its what the show does with its subject that matters.

And here we run into some problems. Let’s begin with the main characters. Lena Dunham’s Hannah is a conceited, messed-up and semi-annoying lead. And this is fine, and is kind of the point, really. Obviously some weeks this works better than others. It took until “The Return”, the episode where Hannah visits her hometown, for me to really connect with her, but she is definitely a defined character with obvious motivations and depth. The most recent episode of Girls took itself to task for not developing Alison Williams’ Marnie or Jemima Kirke’s Jesse. Each of these characters were basically told that they have no motivation, which is true, but using this deficit for a monologue hardly forgives the issue. Marnie spent most of the season being defined by Charlie, her now-ex. Do we know what her job is? Do we know what she wants in life? We understand her to be a little bit of a control freak, but that trope has been played to death, and without much more, her character often falls flat. It doesn’t help that Williams is the least talented of the main three girls. If you don’t agree, rewatch the end of last week’s episode that concluded with a big fight between Marnie and Hannah. Williams fails to sell this scene at all, never giving us a context for her supposed frustrations.

Jemima Kirke is the show’s best actress, which makes it infuriating that she is so often underutilized. When she is given good material (for example, her discussion this week with her old boss) she knocks it out of the park. However, we know so little about her that it’s difficult to give her much to do each week. What would a character arc for Jesse look like?

Finally, we have Shoshanna. I’m going to spend as much time on her as the show does.

There are plenty of other issues within the show. Every minor and guest character lacks any definition whatsoever. The show often loses its sense of self in a struggle between nuanced reality and broad comedy (the show best pulled off this mixture when Hannah found out her ex was gay). And the show has yet, besides “All Adventurous Girls Do” (and maybe “The Return”) to pull off multiple great plots in a single episode. Almost every episode contains one great plot, coupled with a weak, underdeveloped section that forces the episode to drag.

Perhaps there are plenty of critics out there that think Girls is a mostly perfect show. However, it seems that many critics who praise it ignore its faults. This may be to make up for the numerous sexist and dumb critiques of the show, but its not really solving the problem. If we agree that its great that a 25-year-old female is running a show entirely about the female perspective (and we should agree, because that fact is great), then we must also agree to tell the show what it is doing wrong. It’s not enough that the show is on air; we should hope that it’s the greatest show on air. Failing to properly criticize its flaws, or hold it to the same standard as male shows is just as sexist as anything else. Girls may be taking a great step for gender politics on TV, but it could be so much more. It could also be a great TV show.

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