The Horror of HBO's "Girls"
The tidal wave of reviewer praise for the foul new HBO show Girls has washed up against a wall of resistance recently. But as far as I can tell, nobody, whether praising or blaming, has actually conveyed what this miserable crap-colored show is like to watch.
First scene: our homely heroine Hannah, played by writer-director-producer-monster Lena Dunham, is trying to persuade her parents to continue supporting her while she lives and perpetually interns in New York City, where everything looks drably brown. These are immediate tip-offs: we’re in mumblecore territory here. Mumblecore’s an indie film genre about contemporary affluent young white people who don’t know what to do with their lives and are generally dreary and despicable. And indeed, Lena Dunham is a mumblecore film director, who did Tiny Furniture in 2010.
So get yourself a bullet to bite, here comes the pain.
Next we have a scene featuring Hannah passively enduring rotten sex with a vile jerk named Adam (Adam Driver). Adam insists that Hannah pretend to be an 11-year-old girl he’s raping after abducting her on her way home from school, and she goes along: fine, whatever. Critic Dave Wiegand, in his rave review of the show, describes this as one of Adam’s “hysterically inappropriate fantasy scenes when he’s having sex.” Yeah, I guess Dave laughed and laughed at those.
Lena Dunham is getting hosannas from critics for exposing her nude doughy depressing body in humiliating ways throughout the show—makes it all so “real,” somehow. They’re all calling Dunham “the voice of her generation,” and maybe she’s the body of her generation too. She must’ve known she could count on critics to dutifully take dictation when she had her character Hannah ironically describe herself as “the voice of my generation…or of a generation.” You can picture them all noting it down carefully, muttering, “’Voice of generation’…oh, yeah, that is GOLD.”
There’s been no irony in the way show-creator Dunham augments her generational-voice status by making the PR rounds, talking about how she was inspired to create Girls because she never saw herself or her friends represented on TV shows. So she set out to remedy this by showcasing her particular demographic, the creepy white female.
The half-hour show drags on as you meet Hannah’s horrible friends, all of whom hold forth with bizarre self-importance on the topics of sex and abortion and AIDS and media and female identity, even the one who’s a cruel caricature of a provincial inexperienced girl (Zosia Mamet). There’s also the mean, square-jawed, gimlet-eyed “best friend” (Allison Williams), and the nasty Brit bitch (Jemima Kirke). All have hard poker faces and flat affectless voices. It’s impossible to imagine them laughing out loud, or relaxing, or having a nice meal or non-grim sex. Maybe they do those things in later episodes, but like I said, it’s tough to imagine.
The backlash against the show has been mainly about the all-whiteness of the cast, the way there are no people in color in Lena Dunham’s NYC except bit-part, background workers here and there. Personally I think people of color have dodged a bullet, and should celebrate their own non-representation in this TV-mumblecore hellscape. While this show slimes along, I like to imagine the whole rest of mixed-race NYC having a terrific time everywhere that Lena Dunham and her friends are not, letting Dunhamites move around in a permanent bubble of privileged-white-girl malevolence, shunned by all decent people.
In response to the criticism about the show’s blinding whiteness, one of the Girls writers, Lesley Arfin, tweeted sarcastically: “What really bothered me most about [the movie] Precious was that there was no representation of ME.”
Later she tried to erase it, but Max Read at Gawker did a fine job tracing Arfin’s history of vicious racist rhetoric. Unfortunately he followed it up by tying himself in knots trying to be “reasonable” about Arfin and Dunham and race and Girls:
Even if Arfin’s dabblings in race jokes and shock slurs are repellent, and beneath her, they’re appropriate; if Girls is the voice of this generation, it needs to give voice to this generation’s discomfort with race, one important manifestation of which is “hipster racism.” (See not just Vice but the “Kill Whitey” parties, “Blackface Jesus,” and so on.)
Dunham, for her part, is not a “hipster racist.” When asked about her show’s lack of diversity, she’s been contrite and open to criticism. But her answers are still awkward, and reveal the other way that the kind of people depicted in Girls — should we say upper-middle-class urban millenials? — deal with race: by rendering the nonwhite members of their community — their “generation” — invisible…
Girls is the white people problems show; Precious is the black people problems movie; look, everyone’s been represented. Dunham is self-deprecating, Arfin self-aggrandizing, but the result is the same: there’s no room for people of color in the self-representation the two have created on HBO.
None of which makes Girls‘ portrayal of urban millennial life unrealistic. I’ve been to plenty of dinner parties where everyone was white, including myself. In fact, I’d argue that the show, taken as a whole, is even more accurate for these shortcomings. It really is the voice of a generation: a generation of white people who suck at talking about race.
It’s tough to know where to start grappling with the over-mildness of Read’s argument and the way it sails steadily off course, away from the most important point: the show as a whole is an evil lie. The racial stuff is just bitter top-dressing. Even if you can meet real Dunhamites at certain all-white dinner parties in NYC, why condemn a whole generation of unoffending females by claiming Dunham represents them? I know droves of twentysomething women, a lot of them nicer than I ever was at their age—and I was nice as hell. And they’re rushing around trying to be accomplished and succeeding to a degree that’s downright weird. There’s no reason to accept Girls as an ex cathedra pronouncement from “the voice of a generation” in the first place, much less hope people of color can get in on the horror of it all.
Dunham is already trying to shore up her voice-of-a-generation status by threatening to diversify the cast of Girls in subsequent seasons. Don’t cooperate, people of color! If she tries to cast you, punch her right in the face! Just watch the awful final scene in the first episode of Girls and you’ll see why you want nothing to do with this freak show!
The final scene features Hannah at a clinic where she’s getting tested for AIDS, a personal obsession of hers. There’s a woman of color as the gynecologist who’s forced to play the role as the wise-subaltern, feeding straight lines to Lena Dunham while squatting between her legs, so Dunham can toss off more of her dubious wit and wisdom about the harsh realities faced by snotty white mumblecore females today. I’ll let Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly, who loves the show, tell it:
“You could not pay me enough to be 24 again,” says Hannah’s OB/GYN. “Well, they’re not paying me at all” [Hannah] shoots back, feet in stirrups, gazing at the ceiling.
I don’t even get why that dialogue’s any good, but Tucker just can’t get over the genius of it.
Dunham…has created a character, Hannah, who’s vividly funny but also poignantly vulnerable and bristlingly smart. I’ve been reading that she’s a new voice for her generation, but I’m hear [sic] to tell ya: I ain’t in Dunham’s generation, and I think this show is superb….
Unemployed twenty-somethings and older: Start saving up for that HBO subscription….
Here Tucker illustrates the real menace of the show. It’s not enough that it’s regarded by many fatheads as practically unvarnished reportage, documenting the reality of young female life in contemporary America. On top of that, young women are urged to watch it in those terms. Y’see “girls,” it’s YOU. A barbarous insult! Them should be considered fightin’ words. But instead, gushing reviews, high-praise blogging and tweeting, all that voice-of-a-generation stuff, egging on gullible people to accept this heinous propaganda as authentic female experience.
One final note of gloom: it was only a few weeks ago that I started ranting about the dangers of mumblecore, but already this makes it official. The mumblecore cancer has metastasized. It’s spread from DIY indie films rarely seen outside film festivals to Judd Apatow-produced comedies playing in the smallest theaters in the multiplex and now to Judd Apatow-produced cable-TV shows in homes everywhere. It’s hopeless merely trying to cut out the tumorous growths. Time to crank up the radical radiation therapy, but we have to face facts: the prognosis is pretty damn negative.