Film & TV | Review: Girls (HBO)
Film & TV, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Monday, May 21, 2012 0:00 - 0 Comments
By Casey Selwyn
“Girls may show us truths, but does it provide us with much more than disdain?” (Photo: HBO)
The first thought I had when I heard the premise for the new HBO television show Girls was, ‘That sounds real.’ And it is.
The show begins when Hannah (Lena Dunham) is cut off financially from her parents. Much to her dismay, they claim they will no longer support her: not her rent, not her insurance, not even her cell phone bill. When she tells the patronizing boss at her internship that she needs to be paid, he fires her; as consolation, she visits the apartment of a decidedly unappealing boy. (‘Boy’ seems to be the only applicable term: he is certainly not a boyfriend, certainly not a friend, and wouldn’t even qualify as ‘the guy she’s seeing’.)
As for the other characters, her best friend is disgusted by her doting boyfriend’s touch, and her wannabe-bohemian British friend is back in town after travelling to who knows where – one needs only to have spent one night in a European hostel to recognise the character. The British friend’s cousin is spoiled and chatty, favoring the infamous velour jumpsuits familiar to anyone who stopped by a liberal arts college after the year 2000.
It is difficult to form a solid opinion on Girls, and on what it is aiming to do. On the one hand, it is a noble effort to depict life in New York realistically, after troves of Sex and the City fans were undoubtedly disappointed once they moved there to find that they were not being invited to Dolce and Gabanna Fashion shows, not finding employment, and not sleeping with top-level executives who, while jerks, still had some shreds of human decency.
Girls demonstrates the ironies of being a young adult female in an age where equality is formally at a historical high, but has somehow not translated into the world I imagine the likes of Susan B. Anthony and Betty Friedan were envisaging.
In a way, it shows us females how degraded we have become in our quest for empowerment, painting a portrait which demonstrates that many girls are still very subordinate to men and boys and subject to their whims and degradations. The sex scene in the first episode is truly cringeworthy: Hannah stands up for herself only by meekly ensuring that the boy is wearing a condom and that he doesn’t have anal sex with her against her will. Surely there has got to be a better way?
But I don’t know that Girls is that better way. It is self-indulgent to the extreme, and the inability of the lead character to stand up for herself or take any charge of her own fate is disheartening. It may show us truths, but does it provide us with much more than disdain? Is there a larger project it is attempting to contribute to, or is it simply self-referential fun for a small subset of should-be-but-are-not successful young women?
The New York Review of Books seems to think the former is true. In this renowned outlet for cultural analysis, Elaine Blair writes a saccharine review of the show, giving it far more credit than is due and in many ways demonstrating what is wrong with it in the first place. Blair describes the sex scene in the second episode – in which the boy (Adam) makes Hannah pretend to be an eleven-year-old heroin addict and masturbates on her – as embodying ‘virtuosity and novelty.’
Blair claims that it is ‘safer, or perhaps just second nature, to criticize Adam’s insensitivity than to think of him as possessing a much clearer sense of what he wants in bed than Hannah.’ Well safer, yes, because no one wants to condone that kind of behavior, and second nature, yes, to anyone who doesn’t like seeing perverts walk all over women and get away with it.
By suggesting that Adam is the one we should be sensitive to, Blair misses the meek point that one hope would the audience would glean from the scene: Hannah should get the hell out of there, and her inability to do that is something that should be rebelled against. Perhaps this reviewer and others are somewhat comfortable with the scene because of the power dynamics inherent in it, which themselves seem second nature. Imagine the following scenario: Adam shows up in the dirty bedroom of an aloof and disrespectful Hannah, she shuts him up and masturbates to the thought of him as a young boy drug addict before kicking him out. Would the New York Review still laud the scene as virtuous and depict Hannah as a woman who knows what she wants in the bedroom?
Nearly every review points to the ‘plain’ nature of the leading character, with her unappealing looks and personality; this has, in a way, proved the point. I have sat through plenty of movies and shows where I find the lead male character to be fairly unappealing – sorry, Jonah Hill – but you still root for him to succeed and stay with his far more attractive and appealing girlfriend. And eventually, he succeeds and he gets the girl. You leave happy.
Will that be the case here? It seems unlikely. The only hope is that with Girls, life doesn’t continue to imitate art too closely.
Girls (HBO, 2012)
Created by: Lena Dunham.
Executive producers: Lena Dunham, Judd Apatow and Jenni Konner.
Co-executive producers: Bruce Eric Kaplan and Ilene S. Landress.