Is The Criticism Shrouding ‘Girls’ Legitimate?
By Rachel Bennett
Television Editor & Columnist
Guys, we need to talk about Girls.
Ever since the HBO comedy premiered April 15, 2012, there’s been controversy following in its footsteps — and I’m a little sick of it.
Yes, the series is loved by most critics. The first season won rave reviews and nabbed Girls two Golden Globes, including Best Television Series – Musical or Comedy, just a week ago.
But thanks to the Internet, viewers and some critics have nitpicked — at times reasonably, but mostly not — at several issues surrounding Girls.
The most minor quibble I’ve heard is that the New York-based characters, led by Hannah Horvath (creator, writer, director and producer Lena Dunham), are unlikable. As Pajiba’s Dustin Rowles notes, “If you dip into the comments section of Girls reviews on any given site, one refrain echoes throughout: The characters are entitled and unlikable. Why should I watch a bunch of people I don’t like?”
Another popular complaint is that the comedy is nepotistic, in that the show’s four leads only got their parts because of their famous parents. Dunham is the daughter of artist Laurie Simmons, whereas Allison Williams is the child of NBC Nightly News’ Brian Williams. Meanwhile, Zosia Mamet is the daughter of playwright David Mamet, and Jemima Kirke is the daughter of Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke.
Perhaps my “favorite” criticism is that Girls features too much nudity. It’s gotten to the point that even the cast jokes about it, with Dunham appearing naked in the 2012 Emmys intro and referencing it in one of her Golden Globes speeches.
However, sometimes the criticism gets too out of hand. Earlier this month, radio host Howard Stern said of Girls and Dunham, “It’s a little fat girl who kind of looks like Jonah Hill, and she keeps taking her clothes off and it kind of feels like a rape. She seems — it’s like — I don’t want to see that.”
Stern somewhat apologized to Dunham this week, explaining, “I felt bad because I really do love the show Girls, and enjoy it, and I admire the girl who writes it. It makes me feel bad, and I think she is getting the impression that I somehow think she’s just a talentless little fat chick.”
Of the first criticism, in which the characters of Girls are unlikable, I agree that they are (except for my beloved Shoshanna) — but that’s the point.
Although the show is meant to be funny, it’s also meant to look at the 20-something American generation today. It’s largely selfish and entitled, yet it rejects the same wealthy lifestyle on which it depends. It’s annoying but realistic, and viewers are too unforgiving of it.
If you’re thinking the Girls characters are too unlikable for a comedy, I have to disagree with you there. There are plenty of comedies, especially today, that feature off-putting people. Just take a look at FX’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and HBO’s Eastbound & Down — these are great series, but I wouldn’t want to hang out with the protagonists any time soon.
As for the nepotism, I don’t think it applies to Girls, but even if it did, so what? A lot of people — onscreen and offscreen — get jobs through their parents. That’s just the way the world works, folks.
“The whole nepotism storyline … I get it more with Allison [Williams] and Zosia [Mamet] who have dads who are kind of active in the entertainment industry,” says Dunham. “But I really did want to challenge all the people crying nepotism to actually tell me who either of my parents were, because it’s the contemporary art world!”
The bottom line is that the Girls cast is talented, without one weak link. If nepotism applies to the show, it doesn’t show or hurt it. Plus, as Lisa de Moraes of The Washington Post points out, if we’re calling out Girls for nepotism, then we also need to criticize Michael Douglas, Drew Barrymore, Angelina Jolie, Kate Hudson, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jaden Smith, Colin Hanks and more.
Back to my “favorite” nitpick: There’s too much nudity throughout the show. It’s funny how I hear this about Girls, but I rarely see it discussed about HBO’s Game of Thrones or HBO’s Boardwalk Empire.
The real issue here is, as Stern so expertly showcased, not the nudity, but instead who’s getting nude and how. We’re so accustomed to seeing conventionally attractive people, particularly women, getting undressed on TV, that when someone with a little cellulite does, we all have to make a big deal about it.
What’s even more is that Dunham isn’t shy or “ashamed” about it (as she shouldn’t be) — instead, she delights in it and exhibits control over her body (as the creator, I imagine she can write or take out as many nude scenes as she pleases). In a culture that body shames people so badly, that’s shocking: We’re stepping away from the “male gaze,” and it’s changing cable and how we watch TV as we know it. Dunham should be commended, but instead, people put her down and complain.
It all boils down to sexism and jealousy. Not only is Dunham a successful woman, which is rare (but growing!) in behind-the-scenes TV, but she’s also only 26 years old. That makes her an easy target, one that HBO tries to downplay by including executive producer Judd Apatow in the conversation every time it can.
All of this is not to say that Girls is untouchable or perfect. It’s not, which leads me to the final, and I believe valid, complaint about the show: There needs to be more diversity.
After the pilot aired, viewers made note that the only characters of color were an Asian woman who was good at Photoshop and an African-American homeless man.
Firstly, these stereotypes are unacceptable unless being criticized, which Girls didn’t appear to be doing. Secondly, as Girls takes place in such a culturally enriched place as New York City, there should be more minority characters.
Jenna Wortham of The Hairpin puts it best by saying, “The problem with Girls is that while the show reaches — and succeeds, in many ways — to show female characters that are not caricatures, it feels alienating, a party of four engineered to appeal to a very specific subset of the television viewing audience, when the show has the potential to be so much bigger than that.”
She adds, “Girls is good for girls. But which girls? If this show succeeds, what other shows will get made because of it? Probably a half dozen just like it. Who wins, then? And who loses? Girls was supposed to be for the people, by the people. It is for people like me — weaned on Sex and the City [HBO], amused by the simple charms of Gossip Girl [The CW], and weary of the bromance comedies that rolled through theaters the last two summers like a never-ending heatwave — who were hungry for something relatable, something real … I just wish I saw a little more of myself on screen, right alongside them.”
Being a white woman, I have to admit I didn’t see the race problem at first. But that’s a privilege I now recognize — I don’t have a problem seeing myself on the screen, especially in a time when women rule primetime, but people of color (not to mention those of a lower class, sexuality minority, gender minority, religious minority, etc.) certainly do.
However, it’s not fair just to point a finger at Girls. This is on every channel across the board, with ABC’s Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy being notable exceptions.
In the Golden TV Age, when we have so many channels, that’s pretty sad.
I should note that Girls is taking steps to correct itself. This season, Donald Glover is playing Hannah’s new boyfriend, but as much as I love this casting (for several reasons, mostly because he’s awesome), I hope Girls isn’t subscribing to tokenism.
Dunham doesn’t see it that way. “Donald was an actor we always wanted to work with,” she says. “On HBO, you have 10 episodes. You start with 10 episodes. And it takes you a while to set up your world, to set up your main characters … While I understand the criticism, I felt like we had had only 10 episodes to dig in.”
Whether or not Glover sticks around for a while, I hope Dunham sticks to her word for the rest of the season. Speaking of which, there are nine episodes to go — giving viewers plenty of time to find something else to critique.
Tags: Allison Williams, Angelina Jolie, Bad Company, Boardwalk Empire, Brian Williams, Bryce Dallas Howard, Colin Hanks, David Mamet, Donald Glover, Drew Barrymore, Dustin Rowles, Eastbound & Down, Game of Thrones, Girls, Gossip Girl, Grey's Anatomy, HBO, Howard Stern, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Jaden Smith, Jemima Kirke, Jenna Wortham, Jonah Hill, Judd Apatow, Kate Hudson, Lena Dunham, Lisa de Moraes, Michael Douglas, NBC Nightly News, Scandal, Sex and the City, Simon Kirke, The Washington Post, Zosia Mamet