When Lena Dunham’s much-anticipated show “Girls” first premiered in April 2012, I was just as excited as everyone else. Finally, smart television specifically crafted by and aimed at smart women! As a then-26-year-old, I was excited to watch a show that was actually meant to reflect who I was, at least in part.
After the premiere, and in the weeks immediately following, it seemed like all anyone in the pop culture world could talk about was “Girls.” In my office, both men and women came in on Mondays saying things like, “OMG, last night’s episode of ‘Girls.’ Did you see it? I can’t even.” I was left wondering what exactly it was about the show I didn’t get, because I seemed like the only one who didn’t love it.
Not only did I dislike it, I found myself wanting to actively rebel against it in the face of the overwhelming pervasive “Yasssss, ‘Girls!'” mentality around the show. It may sound earnest, but I truly longed for a show that would speak to me, that would give myself (and other members of the millennial generation) something to aspire to—rather than just showing the worst of the worst when it comes to millennial stereotypes.
Everyone from The New York Times to Time magazine has tackled the subject of millennials, that generation of kids who reached young adulthood around the year 2000, mainly focusing their coverage and opinions on how lazy, aimless, and entitled we are. Sure, a TV show isn’t necessarily obligated to serve as a vehicle to break down such stereotypes and offer more productive role models (or life lessons), but “Girls” seemed perfectly positioned to at least rise to the occasion—and then it didn’t.
I started to get deeply contemplative about why I felt so much anger toward the show. I came to realize that it had everything to do with how the main characters entered into relationships with the other people in their lives—family, friends, and, yes, men—and how these relationships actually represent the worst possible ways women can relate with other people and each other.Embed from Getty Images
1. The girls don’t respect their families.
From the moment Hannah (Lena Dunham’s character) shows up high on opiates at her parents’ hotel room in the show’s pilot episode—dropping to her knees, writhing, and uttering the words, “I’m the voice of the generation, or at least the voice of a generation” (a thinly veiled demand that her parents reinstate their financial support of her New York lifestyle)—I felt alienated from the show. Beyond feeling alienated, I started to harbor a real detest for that kind of entitled mentality, especially when it comes to family.
The stereotype around millennials is that we’re entitled, and “Girls” does nothing to combat this idea, instead feeding into it—along with other stereotypes—for the sake of shock value and plot, often using parental figures as little more than abused plot points to drive home a kind of millennial caricature.
Our first introduction to Hannah is a young woman who, when she finds out her parents are cutting her off, chooses to get high on drugs and demand money from them while she’s high. As a fellow millennial, I can truthfully say (Scout’s honor) that I have never groveled before my parents for money, never demanded that they support my writing because, duh, don’t you guys know I’m the voice of my generation, and I have always been responsible with any money they were generous enough to lend me.
Where’s the show about responsible millennial girls like me, HBO? (They won’t make it because it wouldn’t be nearly as entertaining. Independent women fully supporting themselves in their 20s?! Snooze.)
2. The friendships are not supportive.
After the initial distaste I experienced from watching the pilot and much of Season One, I tried to continue on with Season Two. I drew the line and eventually chose to stop watching when, in the third episode, Hannah was doing cocaine, topless, off a toilet in a grimy Meatpacking District club alongside her alleged gay best friend, who tells her (while also high), “Usually I hate when you wear your nipples out in public like that, but you look beautiful.”
There are so many things wrong with this kind of gay-man-straight-woman friendship, as it’s presented in this particular scene. It perpetuates the stereotype that gay men, just because they’re gay, have a right to comment on women’s bodies in any way, shape, or form. (This is a less-offensive but still-wrong version of gay men who grope and touch women’s bodies without permission, because hey, they’re gay and don’t like that stuff anyway!)
The friendships between women on the show—namely, the ones between the main four characters, Hannah, Jessa, Shoshanna, and Marnie—are also disappointingly antagonistic. In a Season One episode appropriately dubbed “Vagina Panic,” Jessa learns she is pregnant and decides to have an abortion. What follows, in typical Dunham-humor style, is a smattering of “jokes” about the procedure that are borderline offensive—including Hannah’s telling Marnie she did a great job at “throwing Jessa an abortion.” While all the girls show up to the clinic to support Jessa during the difficult time, Jessa herself cops out. Then, the writers totally cop out too and Jessa gets her period, thus skirting any abortion decisions altogether.
What was the point of constructing an entire episode around an abortion that never really happens? It might be useful if the women in the show actually showed some semblance of true understanding of how serious and hard that situation can be, and from there displayed a true bond as women supporting another woman through a really difficult moment in her life.
Instead, the show tried (and failed, in my opinion) to twist it into a comedic situation, portraying a situation I doubt many women would ever want to be in. Would you want a friend to make fun of your decision to have an abortion, when we all live in a country that still fights against our right to have one to this day?
What’s worse: all the girls on the show simply accept these friendships as part of their reality, and they display no desire to seek out friendships that could potentially be more rewarding, uplifting, and supportive. Based on how these four ladies interact with each other, no one seems to be thinking, “I’d love to have a meaningful friendship!” They genuinely appear to think this kind of friendship is meaningful, a thought process I would consider to be problematic.
3. The romantic relationships are disturbing, unsettling, and downright abusive.
More than anything else, my biggest gripe with the show is that it is in no way a narrative that empowers women in their relationships with men. This assertion is perhaps best exemplified by a number of relatively brutal and disturbing sex scenes that blur the lines between consensual sexual relationships and ones that are most definitely not consensual, like when Adam rapes Natalia, a girl he’s been seeing for a short time.
One could argue, perhaps rightfully, that at least Dunham’s show is bringing up these issues to be discussed in the first place, but I would counter that a show that constructs a scene in which a woman is date-raped by a man (and, without a doubt, in the scene in question, Natalia was raped by Adam), particularly in a way that makes it deliberately “unclear” about whether it was “truly” rape, is not at all progressive, nor is it a way to start a conversation about sexual assault. The last thing we need is someone in pop culture (a group of women, no less!) blurring the lines even more for young girls when it comes to knowing when you have consented and when you have not—when the guy is “just being aggressive” and when he is not.
To make matters all the more complex, Adam is largely presented as a sympathetic character and (more importantly) he’s developed as a romantic lead. By the end of season two, we’re led to believe that he’s “rescued” Hannah in a sense—what is our takeaway meant to be there?
Arguably, the only truly decent character on the show was Charlie (played by Christopher Abbott), and he got the boot after only 12 episodes, because he was “so respectful” of girlfriend Marnie (her actual words) that he “couldn’t see what she truly wanted and needed from him.” (Apparently, what she really wanted was for him to be an asshole.)
On “Sex and the City,” the show “Girls” is most often compared to, when the ladies engaged in less-than-savory sexual acts, at least there was an understanding that they were doing so because they wanted and agreed to. On “Girls,” no such autonomy seems to exist. By and large, I see the girls on the show as just that—young girls who have no self-respect or understanding of how to be in a relationship with a man who truly respects them.