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The Predictable (and Productive) Girls Backlash

This weekend I attempted to read every one of the 8 billion articles about Girls, the backlash to Girls, and the backlash to the backlash to Girls. What I learned is that some people like to think about difficult things, other people find the idea that they should have to think about difficult things offensive, and still other people confuse YELLING AT THE TOP OF THEIR INTERNET COMMENTING LUNGS with critical thinking about difficult subjects. The difficult subject in question is representation. Who gets to tell their stories onscreen? Why have some groups historically been pushed aside in favor of others? Why does this conversation so often turn into a shouting match? The answers are: mostly white guys, racism/sexism/ableism/homophobia, and because it’s hard to discuss problematic issues related to personal identity without getting passionate. Once feelings about the core issues around which your world is built get involved, it’s difficult to control them and the atmosphere of the Internet encourages people to express ideas without thinking them all the way through. This problem isn’t going away anytime soon. Belonging to one oppressed group doesn’t mean you understand what it’s like to be in another, while belonging to a historically dominant group doesn’t mean that you can’t understand and address the pressing need for a much wider range of fictional characters to be portrayed in film, TV, and literature.

This firestorm ignited around Girls, and was stoked by some unfortunate and ill-considered comments (as well as some very smart and interesting ones), but it’s hardly contained to that show, or even television. In literature, the debate over what makes a great book is tied right into what constitutes “special interest” and/or “chick-lit.” The Oscars are notoriously white-male-dominated, nepotistic, and resistant to anything beyond superficial change, yet every ceremony is chock-full of self-praise for Hollywood’s supposed liberalism. It’s an institutional problem that spans all professions and mediums, and Girls is just another reflection of it. The defensive reaction to the scorn heaped on Girls is not entirely out of nowhere. Nepotism is a major part of how the entertainment industry works and always has been, and nobody seemed to write blog posts about how Josh Brolin gets to host SNL because he’s James Brolin’s son. Laurie Simmons, mother of Girls writer/director/creator Lena Dunham, is not well-known outside of the New York art world, and being Laurie Simmons’s daughter is hardly the kind of key that opens doors in Hollywood. But the envy over a girl in her early 20s being able to raise the funds to shoot a movie herself makes sense. Not everyone gets to do that, just like not everyone can pursue their personally fulfilling artistic dreams when they are consumed with just making the fucking rent every month. Raised with an extreme awareness of fairness and the underlying belief that talent matters more than anything else, who wouldn’t be horrified to realize that after college the main currency of the real world is connections? And rich kids from big cities are born pre-connected. While connections can get you through a door that is extremely hard to knock down, once you’re onstage you still live or die by the material. Girls is hilarious, and that is why it’s so contentious. We deserve all kinds of funny women on TV, and it can’t be only Lena Dunham’s responsibility to see that this happens.

Girls intends to portray phenomenons that aren’t necessarily specific to its rarefied milieu: sexual narcissism and alienation, emotional cruelty, the humiliation of looking for a decent — let alone challenging and fulfilling — job in a horrible economy. But because the show is called Girls and not, say, Cupcakes, it sounds like it is going to be more universal than it actually is. From the three episodes I’ve seen, it seems to me that Girls is intended to play as satire — but the joke that horribly entitled people exist and see nothing wrong with it isn’t very funny to some. It seemed clear that we were meant to agree with main character Hannah Horvath’s mom’s assertion that her daughter is utterly spoiled, but we are also meant to invest in the Hannah character enough to want to see life kick the shit out of her so that she might emerge a better person by the end. Hannah and her friends are not meant to be aspirational, or even relatable. You’re supposed to hate Hannah for stealing the money from the hotel maid and telling a doctor she wants to get AIDS, but while she’s childish and clueless, she’s also at the very beginning of a process (one’s early 20s) that will hopefully cut her right down to size. It’s obviously a joke that a 24-year-old thinks she can write a memoir, just like it’s obviously a joke that the mom of one of the little girls Jessa babysits considers 10 pages of a kid’s scribbling “a novel.” Having scaled all the smaller mountains placed before her during her childhood and teenage years, which came with implicit guarantees of her worth and the illusion of an upward path that would never end, Hannah is horrified to find herself planted with nothing but cupcakes and college friends to cling to in the middle of a desert that seemingly leads to no eventual destination other than death.

That this conversation is being had at all, and in public, is only positive. It’s provoking a lot of productive discussion about things that are hard to get people to talk about. It sure feels like a reason Judd Apatow ended up producing Girls and Bridesmaids in the first place is because he got so much shit for the way female characters came across in his movies. After an initially defensive reaction, he obviously realized that he had amassed enough power in Hollywood to do something about it, and that demonstrating a capacity for growth was more productive than sulking or refusing to acknowledge public criticism. The best thing Apatow — or anyone else who gains clout — can do is use it to create change. Even good content is useless without the proper introductions and industry co-signs. For my own personal enjoyment, Apatow should help Issa Rae navigate her way out of development hell so that we can have her awesome Web series Awkward Black Girl on FX by 2013.

Bad fuck-buddies, texting anxiety, difficult work environments, and flighty but charismatic friends are hardly the sole provenance of upper-class white girls. Think Like a Man, a rom-com with a predominantly black cast that attracted audiences of all races, just knocked The Hunger Games, a movie with a strong female lead and fan base that also attracted a male audience from “across the aisle,” out of the top spot at the box office. Conventional wisdom about what audiences will and won’t do has increasingly been proven wrong. Being able to identify with someone who is not like you is the foundation of empathy, but asking audiences to identify with characters who make it as difficult as possible for you to like them is a very generous request. If people are too quick to identify with antiheroes like Tony Soprano and Don Draper, they are much less fast to claim a special kinship with Pete Campbell or Hannah Horvath. There are some people who expect or desire pure escapism from their entertainment. There’s always the equally problematic gender and racial relations of Game of Thrones, for those who prefer their blow jobs without a side of finger-pointing shame. A show that holds up a mirror to the less savory aspects of society will be polarizing. Girls makes us squirm, and that’s good. We all need to squirm.