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Who is HBO’s Girls For?

Watching HBO’s Girls felt like standing around at a party with a bunch of people trading insider jokes I don’t get; at the same time that I was being welcomed as part of the club, it was obvious that I was not one of them. Girls is definitely for someone, but I didn’t get the impression that this someone was me. The question is: who is Girls for?

Some people adore the show, while others are a little more hesitant about who it is depicting and whether those depictions are relateable for viewers

. I fall into the middle camp; I can appreciate Girls on an aesthetic level, I think some parts read as biting satire about hipster 20-something girls living in New York City and trying to make it in a ferocious economy, but I’m not quite sold on the show, and I think that’s because I’m fundamentally not the target audience.

Tremendous buzz has built up around Lena Dunham’s project, which is being hailed as revolutionary—as well as a sendup of Sex and the City updated for the modern era—and remarkable for television. What makes it remarkable is the fact that it revolves around the lives of four women, focusing on their experiences in the city and examining the interconnected and intimate nature of their friendship. It’s not about were-anythings, men, hospitals, or crime, which makes it stand out from the rest of the television lineup.

But it’s also an overwhelmingly white, middle class, spoiled, hipster kind of show, much like its creator; the concerns that these characters have are not my concerns or the concerns of most of the people I know. The setup from the very start is that Hannah has been ‘marooned’ by her parents, who decide to stop supporting her now that she’s been out of college for two years. She’s trapped in a shitty unpaid internship and when she asks for pay, her boss shows her the door.

Part of me aches for Hannah; she’s trapped in the new media landscape, where unpaid interns provide tremendous amounts of labour and are continuously devalued. Her boss snidely informs her that he gets 50 intern applications a day and routes them straight to his spam folder, underscoring the fact that she is utterly disposable. She is one among a sea of young women trying to make it big in New York. As she herself admits in an intoxicated confession to her parents, she wants to be the voice of a generation, but she may just be a voice.

The other part of me is just baffled by her, because her experience is so far beyond my ken. And it seems to me that Girls is trying to examine and probe the lives of spoiled 20-somethings living off their families, but something about it rings slightly sour to me. The air of entitlement from the characters as they explain how they deserve these things is reflected in the show itself; Hannah’s parents are hopeless tragic squares depriving her of fun, for example. The rest of New York City is an atmospheric blur in the background, not a real place with real people in it. Characters on Girls act out sheltered childhood fantasies in a dreamland.

Some parts of the show left me tingling with familiarity; the awkward trying to be a grownup dinner party, sitting in the tub with a friend, falling asleep while watching something and spooning with your best friend. Others just left me blank as a viewer, because this is not my world, and Girls is very much an insider show. There’s a reason much of the United States feels alienated from the coasts, and why people outside of New York City often experience a New York-specific sense of alienation.

What intrigues me about the show is how much fascinating, germane, and intelligent commentary it is provoking. I may not be entirely pleased with Girls and where it went in the pilot, but the critical commentary is well worth it and I suspect there will be much, much more of it in the months to come.

Alyssa Rosenberg points out that Girls challenges viewers with a female anti-heroine “whose anti-heroicness is defined by an overabundance of negatively-coded feminine traits.” She wonders if viewers are ready for this, and so do I; is Hannah going to become a critique of anti-femininity and gendered assumptions, or is she going to fall into the Juno trap of cutesy, awkward, hipster, and corroded at the core?

At Salon, Rebecca Traister took a look at the role of female friendship on the show, arguing that what Girls depicts is hardly novel to humanity, but it’s certainly novel to media. The emotionally and physically intimate friendships between the girls on the show are not uncommon in the real world, and there’s something very real and genuine about seeing them on screen. She says that “it sells female friendship very short to regard it as some kind of training ground for later, committed heterosexual (or homosexual) partnership.” And she’s right. What makes Girls exciting is that these women have fully actualised intimate friendships with each other that are independent of their romantic lives.

This is a show about women and their lives, which sets it apart from a lot of other media; and unfortunately this means that people are going to say it’s a ‘chick series’ because women’s lives aren’t deemed of general interest. Girls has some interesting potential. Despite the fact that it’s about the lives of privileged women, the fact that television is airing anything about the lives of women is exciting—although that doesn’t mean it gets a free pass on its narrow depiction of life.

Also exciting is the critique engaging with the show, much of which directly addresses the fact that Girls is about privileged lives in a privileged world and asks when we will see the lives of women on the margins depicted with the same authenticity, complexity, and emotional depth. Someday perhaps television will be for them, too.


Front page photo: New York skyline by DebashiM, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


s.e. smith

s.e. smith is the Editor in Chief at Global Comment, with publication credits including Rolling Stone, The Guardian, Bitch Magazine, The Sydney Morning Herald, and Rewire.

4 thoughts on “Who is HBO’s Girls For?

  1. GIRLS is fairly well a facsimile of what my life was like in my 20s (although with me there were a lot shadier friends, a lot more drugs, and a lot more bad decisions). It is overwhelmingly relatable to me.

    Having come from a privileged background with parental support (albeit only enough to keep me hovering just below the poverty line in Vancouver, a city more expensive than New York), and having gone to art school with a bunch of “hipsters”, some of them incredibly beautiful and some of them incredibly wealthy (Oh, how I LOATHE that word. Can we stop using it as a perjorative sometime soon please?).

    I do not believe for a second that being supported by my upper-middle class family for a few years beyond school while I worked shitty, underpaying job after shitty, abusive job means that I am spoiled, and yet I am a lot like the character that you’re dismissing as such.

    It’s unfortunate that everyone is not supported by their family until they’re capable of taking care of themselves (in my case it actually had a lot to do with a learning disability that prevented me from working the type of job I was actually qualified to do – something that I still struggle with), but it does not mean that those of us who are supported are useless, entitled and stupid.

    I get that it doesn’t have a token member of each and every minority represented fairly and I can see that as “problematic”, but can we give Lena Dunham a break for fuck’s sake?

    I think it’s brilliant.

  2. Leah,

    I actually follow you on twitter and enjoy your blog, and saw your tweets re: Girls before I finally watched it last night. Then I see this article and here you are again! Seems like a good enough place to engage on the topic— my 140 characters would already be spent elsewhere.

    I’m sure there are various levels of vitriol out there about this show, and for various reasons. Haters will hate, and so forth. I myself was fairly irritated while watching, and I’m trying to be thoughtful about it because I respect Dunham’s efforts even while I’ve found them a bit maddening.

    I am not from a “wealthy” family (pejorative or otherwise). I didn’t get help with money after college (or VERY much during) outside of a few hundred begged-for dollars during what amounted to a complete breakdown about a year later, after losing the shitty job I had which was outside my field but got the immediate bills paid while I “put together my portfolio” in my exhausted off hours. I don’t lay that out to make myself look virtuous OR pitiful, but mostly to illustrate my experience. Hell, a year of paid bills would’ve been super amazing. And I’m still leaving out all the people of our generation who could afford college at all, or only community college, or who worked 3 jobs and got only parental glares along the way.

    I’m meandering to my point which is: it’s frustrating to watch people who have what looks like SO MUCH LUXURY to me, portrayed with such humanity as they struggle through obstacles I would have gladly traded with my own, and be told how REFRESHING it all is. Yes, people like this exist and are real human beings (and real anti-heroes?), and “write what you know” and all that, but I just don’t feel as refreshed as I am seemingly supposed to. Thereisaidit.

    And all that said, I think challenging Dunham’s work on these points isn’t tantamount to pissing in her Cheerios, (or to demanding a Glee approach to casting).

  3. It amazes me how few commentators seem to get that this show is a satire. It’s a joke people! It’s a film school rendition of “Stuff White People Like” which neatly explains it’s “lack of diversity”. If you’re not laughing, you should be crying…

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