Monday, February 11, 2013

Lena Dunham Doesn't Speak for Me, But I'm Glad She Speaks For Someone, I Guess

Hey! Not enough people have said things about Girls, so I'm going to say some things, too!

I am a white, college educated, twenty-seven-year-old woman who is a writer with a double-digit dress size. If I'm not in Girls target demographic, I don't know who is. 

I watched all of Season 1, which means I have no foothold for the most recent Girls debate over the inclusion of a potential token black character. Chances are I'll probably never have anything to say about that because I'm unlikely to watch Season 2. 

A friend of mine posted a Facebook status about Girls last week that said she was unable to find any sympathy for the characters because of their hypocritical class privilege. She said she was only a few episodes in, and--to be sure--those first few episodes made me really, really dislike the protagonist as she whined and hemmed and hawed through the horror of her parents deciding they were no longer going to support her aimless drifting through New York City in the name of existential discovery. My friend went on to talk about how working through crappy jobs in our twenties is how we build character for the work that we'll do later in our lives and that this show just fell flat for her. 

Some of the comments I've seen about Girls lament that "this generation" just doesn't get the value of hard work. 

I am one year older than Lena Dunham, so we're squarely situated in the same generation, but she definitely does not speak for me. I tried to figure out why I failed to find connection, and the comments about work really summed it up. 

I am twenty-seven years old and I have worked well over twenty jobs. I have bussed tables, worked drive-throughs, changed diapers (of children and adults), cleaned houses, listened to customers complain, and scrubbed toilets. I have worked double shifts, overtime, and gone weeks on end without a day off. I have worked while going to school full time, while parenting, and while sick. Sometimes, I have complained, but always I have done it. 

I am not the only one. 

The characters on Girls are no more representatives of my generation than the characters on Sex and the City are representatives for the previous one. They are escapist fantasies predicated on a class privilege that has to be elusive and elitist. That's the point of the escapism. 

That Girls bills itself and has been touted as a "real" Sex and the City is the part that bothers me. "Real" for who? 

This is why I can't completely write off the show even though I didn't really connect with it personally. It's clear from the conversations the show has generated that it's real for someone, and it's real for people who didn't feel that they had representation before. 

When Dunham won the Golden Globe for Best Actress for her show, she said that "This award is for every woman who felt that there wasn't a space for her. This show's made a space for me."

Later, when she also won Best Comedy, she said that "Making this show and the response to it has been the most validating thing that I have ever felt. It's made me feel so much less alone."

Many people took issue with these comments because, as has been very well documented (also here, and here), Lena Dunham's fictional world (which she says she based on her real-life one) is awash not only in class privilege but in all kinds of racial privilege. They said that Dunham had done nothing to make a spot for them and that while she might feel much less alone, her success had only further highlighted how unrepresented many, many people across America truly are in our pop culture. 

Without a doubt, the fact that this particular story got funding when there are so many other stories that do not get such major network support is a problem that is firmly rooted in our prejudicial society. (That Lena Dunham is already being picked up to write for a second HBO show highlights that further). There is a finite amount of time and resources for the major national networks, and when all of that time and resources goes to one kind of story--usually rich and white--that's a problem. 

Still, as frustrated as I am with the privileges I see seeping out of Girls and as much as I don't see myself anywhere in these characters, I can't fault Lena Dunham for telling her story, and I can't hate on her for the success she's getting. 

I also can't ignore that her story is sparking some important conversations. Even the conversations pointing out the lack of racial diversity are putting the underrepresentation of authentic interracial interactions into mainstream discussions. 

On top of that, Girls has sparked many excellent conversations about body image. Dunham's character Hannah laments that being "11 pounds overweight" has made her life miserable, and we're supposed to think that's a ridiculous thing to say. However, when her real-life counterpart is being harassed over her body on a daily basis, how ridiculous is it, really? And if being 11 pounds overweight is enough to bring on the type of cruel bullying that would send most people reeling from the limelight, don't we have to say that standing firm in the face of that cruelty is at least doing something for our culture? 

All of that to say that even though Dunham doesn't speak for me, I'm glad she's speaking for someone. I hope that the criticism of the show continues because I think its weaknesses are weaknesses in our culture as a whole, and they need to be examined. I also hope the praise continues because what the show is doing right points to weaknesses of our own as well, and no one person's story is going to address it all. 

Are there any TV shows that you think are "real" for you? What have you most seen as a true representation of your life? Is "realness" a requirement for a good show?


  1. I tried to get into Girls, but I couldn't for similar reasons. In my early 20s, I was a mother, had my first real job at a research organization, and was in graduate school. While the feelings of being uncertain with oneself resonate with me, much of the rest of the show does not. I tried. However, many of the web series really speak my language. As a black woman, the web series "The Unwritten Rules" has my name all over it. I love it.

  2. I haven't read much on the controversy around Girls, so I don't have a lot of context for it, but I think you present a balanced perspective.

  3. That's really interesting. I haven't seen too much of the competitive commentary on it, though I see where it could come from. I do think the show is really well-written, and I definitely see why people who can relate do like it.