This has been the year of people hating on Lena Dunham and Girls, amongst other things. From the moment it debuted back in April (feels like longer ago, right?), the show has been a lightning rod for angst about privilege as well as a critical and commercial hit. It has been a must-watch for the young, educated demographic and fodder for a seemingly endless series of think-pieces. So as 2012 comes to end, and as the second season approaches, let’s have a little look back at the highlights, shall we:
Girls Controversy Begins Before The Show Even Airs
After a sneak preview of the series at SXSW meets rave reviews about its portrayal of young women and sexuality, the buzz for the show picks up before it even airs, and the makings of a backlash begin to form.
New York magazine enthusiastically profiles Dunham, calling Girls “a bold defense (and a searing critique) of the so-called Millennial Generation by a person still in her twenties…a sex comedy from the female POV.” This is a provocation to those who already rolled their eyes at the idea of a show about twentysomethings from affluent families “finding their way” in New York.
Frank Bruni of The New York Times comments on the perceived bleakness of the sex scenes and the dubiousness of its claims to feminism, writing, “Gloria Steinem went to the barricades for this?”
Katie Roiphe questions the sex scenes further: “Critics are calling Dunham brave and revolutionary, but might it actually be braver, or more revolutionary, to portray sex as sometimes without dire consequence, or not totally absurd?” I honestly don’t understand what she’s saying here. Is she saying sex in Girls always has dire consequences? The sex in it is always absurd? I’m confused.
Mother Jones officially kicks off the backlash with a piece entitled “What the Hell was HBO Thinking?” In a nifty two-for-one, MJ bashes hipsters and Girls in tandem: “Hipsters are really going to like this show. Which is to say that it is as profoundly bland as it is unstoppably irritating.” Lol.
Girls Debuts, Gawker Profoundly Hates It, The Hairpin Attacks Lack Of Racial Diversity
After all this pre-premiere buzz and controversy, Girls finally debuted on HBO on April 15th. Gawker, ever the stalwart of nuanced opinion, panned the living hell out of the show the next day, even finding a way to give us a shout-out in the process: “Girls is a television program about the children of wealthy famous people and shitty music and Facebook and how hard it is to know who you are and Thought Catalog and sexually transmitted diseases and the exhaustion of ceaselessly dramatizing your own life while posing as someone who understands the fundamental emptiness and narcissism of that very self-dramatization.” I think he doesn’t like it.
Judd Apatow, producer of the show, was nonplussed by the criticism, saying, “hopefully people will fight about it every week.” That seems to be the case so far.
The Hairpin helped to launch a notable second wave-formation in the swelling Girls backlash tsunami: racial diversity, lack thereof. “My chief beef is not simply that the girls in Girls are white … The problem with Girls is that while the show reaches — and succeeds, in many ways — to show female characters that are not caricatures, it feels alienating, a party of four engineered to appeal to a very specific subset of the television viewing audience, when the show has the potential to be so much bigger than that,” Jenna Wortham writes.
It’s a nuanced take on the show, with appreciation for its portrayal of twentysomethings but a wish for it to add to its indie-fied update of Sex and the City a more inclusive cast of characters. I have encountered many less-nuanced echoes of its general sentiments in its wake, but the original has some real thought in it.
Lesley Arfin, story editor on the show, fanned the flames of the racial controversy by tweeting, “What really bothered me most about Precious was that there was no representation of ME.” Notably, Arfin used to work for Vice, which is a bastion of irreverence in a world of increasing political correctness and identity politics, especially on the internet. Arfin later apologized, but people were already very pissed.
Dunham Addresses Criticism
In an interview with NPR, Dunham said that she based all the main characters on her own experiences living in New York as “half-Jew, half-WASP,” and wanted to avoid tokenism with casting. There was a range of responses to the interview, from approving to not satisfied at all.
James Franco Weighs In
Never one to shy away from, well, doing just about anything and everything under the sun, James Franco commented on the continuing controversy at the Huffington Post. I’m not sure what I expected, but I appreciate his thoughtfulness and honesty on the topic. First off, he recommends that Hannah, Dunham’s character, get a job and some life experiences. Secondly, he basically concurs with the race-based criticisms of the show and does an admirable job of explaining why: “There’s no obligation to be kaleidoscopic, but there is a difference between writing a short story or essay about a bunch of white people that only a handful of people will read and creating another show about white people that millions of people will watch, especially when you’ve chosen to set that show in one of the most culturally mixed cities in the world.” Franco goes on to call the males on the show “the biggest bunch of losers I’ve ever seen.” Also includes the fun sentence “I watched Steel Magnolias incessantly when I was in junior high school, and I can get off on female bonding.”
Dunham Signs $3.5 Million Book Deal, People Are Jealous About That
The class privilege/racial non-diversity talking points continued through the summer, but the next big marker in the controversy was the news Dunham had inked a $3.5 million book deal. A Washington Post op-ed blares: “There is no god.” Slate published an article I really didn’t care for about the psychology of betting on potential rather than banking on accomplishments.
Goodbye 2012, Hello 2013
With the year almost over and Girls season two set to air, we may be in for another round, even another year of controversy over one TV show on premium cable. This has been a lesson in the power of controversial signifiers. If your show is about Young, White, Twentysomething Women In New York, and it’s on HBO, and some people like it, you are in for a furnace of scrutiny.
Honestly my favorite thing I read in compiling this look back was James Franco’s article. He is self-aware, honest, and frank with his opinions while remaining balanced and aware of other perspectives. He doesn’t make any bold claims, but he doesn’t shy away from making points. And he evaluates the qualities of the specific characters in the show, not just who they are as supposedly representative or relatable signifiers. There’s something to be said for focusing on what something or someone actually is, specifically, as opposed to the symbolic significance for you.
Girls is just a show someone made a specific way because she wanted to. You don’t have to like it. You don’t have to talk about it. You don’t even have to watch it.