Lena Dunham’s Girls is sure to create a stir when it debuts on HBO on April 15. The early buzz suggests that the show will be a right-on depiction of 21st century womanhood.
Hurrah! Finally, a TV show that gets me!
Words like “honest”, “frank”, “unflinching”, “blunt” and “realistic” are cropping up repeatedly in articles about the show.
This makes me kind of nervous. Over a month before its premiere, Girls is already on a perilously high pedestal. A pedestal that critics will no doubt relish in sending crashing to the floor.
Writing about the lives of women is a minefield. There are demands for “realistic” representation, yet what constitutes realistic is ephemeral, shifting from woman to woman. What is relatable for one woman is completely alien for another.
Take New Girl. That show put me right off my Friday night pizza. I caught up with some friends on the issue and they couldn’t stop gushing about how sweet and funny it was. Other reviews of the show were brutal, many picking up on the one-dimensional nature of Zooey Deschanel’s character, Jess. Yet I know countless women who unashamedly tune in every Friday to get their weekly kook-fest fix.
Then there was Bridesmaids. Written by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, fans of the film were quick to praise its hilarious, unsentimental and dark portrayal of female friendship. Others weren’t convinced, citing the neuroses and insecurities of the central character, Annie, as a major strike against positive representation of women.
Writing on Feministing, Silpa Kovvali questioned Bridesmaids’ status as a “feminist victory”:
“I will grant that it challenged the dominant Hollywood narrative that movies made by women about women couldn’t find an audience with men. But I will not grant that it challenged the dominant Hollywood portrayal of women on screen.”
Kovvali went on to defend her stance, describing Bridesmaids and Annie as “no more relatable than the perfectly-coiffed rom com heroine”. Such a critique raises big questions regarding women on screen.
In order to pass as a “positive representation”, do all female characters have to be 100% free of neuroses and secure about every aspect of themselves and their lives? Can negative female stereotypes be used in the name of comedy without reinforcing the negative stereotype? And those questions are just the tip of the iceberg...
The Miss Representation movement has done some fabulous work to highlight the crappy ways in which women are treated in mainstream media. Things need to change and, slowly but surely, I think that change is happening.
Sure, critics keep calling Girls the “new Sex and the City”, because you know it’s a show about women having sex in New York and that is the only thing it could be remotely like, right?
Dunham and her co-stars aren’t so sure. Jemima Kirke, who plays Jessa on the show recently told the NYT Magazine that Girls shows sex in a very different light:
“No, it’s not Sex and the City,” where it is a total lie. That’s four gay men sitting around talking.”
Instead, Girls shows twenty-something sexual shenanigans as awkward and, in the main, bad. Honest, unflinching, bold and blunt this may be, but will it live up to the ever elusive pinnacle of “realistic”?
Realism means embracing every manifestation of being a woman, positive and negative, regardless of how it fits into our own personal ideals of womanhood. As Lena Dunham herself has stated, women are a bundle of contradictions.
Fair enough, let’s ditch all the shit that has us writhing around in bikinis because that gets us nowhere. But let’s embrace the complexities of being a woman. Let’s not stifle creativity by insisting on a new stock female character who meets every criteria in the pursuit of positive and realistic representation. She’d be as dull as dishwater.
Jen Evans is a journalist specialising in culture. Much like Lena Dunham's character in Girls, she thinks that she is the voice of her generation or, at least, a voice of a generation. You can find more of her writing on her blog, Bookish Brunette.