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Why I'm Deeply Skeptical of HBO's Super-Hyped Show 'Girls'

Why 'Girls' may not be the feminist godsend we're being told it is.
 
 
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When early reviews of “Girls,” the HBO show by 25-year-old filmmaker-writer Lena Dunham, began coming out, it was like an artistic Christchild had been born. New York Magazine’s Emily Nussbaum gushed in the first person (after disclaiming she was about to do so), and called herself a "goner" and a “convert." The LA Times called Dunham “the uncomfortably true voice of millennial women.” Meanwhile, the New Yorker, perhaps a bit less cowed by “Girls,” as it follows the foibles of four young, straight, white twenty-somethings in New York City, called Dunham a “radical careerist,” saying:

And this, above all, is the provocative element of “Girls”: the show really is about making it; its underlying subject is its very existence, the notion that a young woman who has recently graduated from a liberal-arts college and spends time making self-revealing and self-deprecating videos that she posts on YouTube can, within a few years, make a noteworthy feature film and have an HBO series with a startling amount of creative control — and that it’s OK to want this, and even better to acknowledge that it’s OK.

I’m technically within the target demographic of “Girls”: Though I’m older than its characters presumably are, I’m a pop culturally cognizant feminist navigating the landscape of 2012 New York City. I live in North Brooklyn. I have a wide variety of friends, and I go out to shows and for drinks, and I also spend an inordinate amount of time on the Internet and have long bouts with awkwardness.

But I’m also a Wyoming-born, single-mom-raised, first-generation Latina who did not have any particular class advantage (nor did I have a class advantage at all), nor did I attend a fancy college (nor did I attend college at all). I look at every day I spend living in New York City as a miracle borne of will. And coming from this perspective, I’m not looking as forward to “Girls” when it debuts on HBO on Saturday as my fellow critics and feminists seem to think I should.

I appreciate the fact that when a TV show like “Girls” or movie like Bridesmaids is released, it can feel like a revelation. We’re so used to seeing ourselves portrayed in basic, often degrading ways, that when a developed, woman-written female character emerges, it feels like we’re able to come up for air. Lena Dunham is certainly admirable for her willingness to exhibit her non-model-esque body on film, a very welcome counterpoint to the unrelenting deluge of unrealistic body standards we are expected to aspire to. But it also seems like we might be so desperate for images of ourselves that are even mildly realistic, we give certain films and shows a pass in other arenas. As my colleague Sarah Seltzer puts it; "The sense of hunger for “Girls” coming from female critics makes me think of what I call the “Junoeffect": We women viewers are so deprived for characters onscreen to whom we can actually relate that we may have a hard time being critical. Case in point: I was so viscerally moved by Juno’s girl-centric narrative that it took me a while to gird myself to critique its questionable abortion politics."

I often worry if some depictions aren’t just replacing the Mary-Eve dichotomy with an “Overachiever”- “Slacker” one. Bridesmaids was a good example of this: Hailed as a counterpoint to the man-saturated Apatow buddy oeuvre, it pitted a seemingly picture-perfect antagonist against an emotionally stunted hot mess of a protagonist and wrapped it up neatly at the end. Based on the trailers and preview clips for “Girls,” Dunham’s character reprises the concept of the hot-mess protagonist. It just seems like we deserve more than this.

I also realize that, from a credible critical standpoint, it is not a good look to predetermine how one feels about a work of art without having experienced it first. But I can determine what I’m afraid “Girls” will be.

Most of all, I’m afraid that “Girls” will be a “Sex and the City” redux, racially speaking: that its portrayal of New York City, the most ethnically diverse metropolis in the nation, will reduce its vast swathes of residents of color to background noise, to bit parts, to token roles in the lives of its privileged white main characters. The trailers depict as much, but for a token voice of wisdom in the form of a gynecologist, and I fear that this show will be another in a string that minimizes its own whiteness by touting its "liberalness." In her New York Magazine rave, Emily Nussbaum calls “Girls” “FUBU: for us by us,” and yet I’m worried that a lot of “us” aren’t going to recognize ourselves in this so-hailed feminist milestone of a show.

I’m afraid it will depict a single top strata of economic concerns — those of extreme privilege. One main conceit seems to be that Dunham’s character is roiling, lost in a downward spiral after her parents cut her off economically. As @TaylerSometimes, an awesome teenaged black feminist I follow on Twitter, put it to me, “I wish I had the opportunity to be cut off.” I deeply appreciate that today's college students face a maelstrom of issues, from lack of available jobs to crushing student loans, but I am afraid that these humanizing concerns won't be incorporated. Meanwhile, the actresses portraying the main characters include the daughter of a famous feminist artist (Dunham’s mother is Laurie Simmons), the daughter of famous rock drummer (Jemima Kirke’s father played in Bad Company), the daughter of famous playwright (Zosia Mamet is the daughter of David Mamet), and the daughter of a famous primetime news anchor (Allison Williams' dad is Brian Williams). Even if “Girls” is a “scathing critique” of a generation, as Nussbaum put it, I wonder how much those of us without wealthy parents or white privilege will even be able to comprehend it as such.

And I’m afraid that "Girls" will fulfill all my fears, and that it also really will become “the voice of a generation,” and that once again young women will be cornered into a concept that is only representative of one strata — a strata that, economically and racially, frankly isn’t all that different from “Sex and the City.”

"Girls" airs on HBO this Sunday, and I'll be watching and praying that all of the preemptive dread I fear is simply a side effect of seeing bad shows rise, and good shows (like my beloved "Ugly Betty," which really did speak to me) get cancelled. I hope that I am wrong, and that Lena Dunham truly did deliver a wonderful show that lives up to its critical hype, because women deserve to see ourselves on television in a developed and dimensional way. And I hope that it shows a variety of women of varying racial and economic backgrounds and of varying sexual orientations in a multidimensional capacity, because that's the New York I live in, and that's the New York I love. 

 

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is an associate editor at AlterNet and a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor. Formerly the executive editor of The FADER, her work has appeared in VIBE, SPIN, New York Times and various other magazines and websites.
 
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