Feminism and “Girls”


Since the airing of its first season in April 2012, Girls has received a great deal of praise. But the HBO series has also encountered a lot of criticism. My goal for this month’s post is to begin exploring the feminist content (or lack thereof) in Lena Dunham’s Girls. (Click the link to see a trailer for the first season).

The series launched as a response by HBO to criticism that many of their shows are male oriented and is– refreshingly– directed by a female. It follows the lives of Hannah (played by the show’s director, Lena Dunham) and her close friends Marnie, Shoshanna, and Jessa. These female leads are all approximately twenty years old, cisgender, straight, white, educated, and middle to upper class.

Bridesmaids producer Judd Apatow said that Girls would provide men with an insight into “realistic females” (Goldberg). And indeed, the show is honest in its portrayal of imperfect females. Hannah/Lena Dunham, who appears to be the show’s leading character, is not model-thin or conventionally beautiful and is coming to terms with being overweight. The characters are not always perfectly groomed, either. They are shown in pajamas, without makeup, and without a consistently flawless wardrobe, unlike many shows. The girls are very open about their sexuality, and sex scenes are often awkward and more characteristic of real life than other shows which do not exhibit awkwardness in sex scenes. And, despite their cissexuality, different sexualities are portrayed between the girls. Hannah is very experimental and sometimes takes part in what may be considered BDSM, Shoshanna is a virgin for much of the first season, Jessa is headstrong and is not afraid to seek out sexual partners, and Marnie represents “vanilla” sex (or conventional sex).

When we analyze a show based on intersectionality, we must take the many intersections of people’s identity into account, including: race-ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, education, class, and abilities. So, despite the many positive aspects of this show, Girls has been criticized for appealing to a limited audience. For example, there are certainly no central characters who represent other races. In fact, even though the girls live in New York City, it is rare to see even an extra character of another race. There are no characters with disabilities, and the main characters do not associate with characters of a lower class.

Girls writer Lesley Arfin responded to complaints regarding the lack of black characters on the show with a tweet saying, “What really bothered me most about Precious was that there was no representation of ME.”

In a way, I understand Arfin’s frustration with the show’s critics. But I can’t help thinking back to a course reading from earlier this term: Peggy McIntosh’s White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. In this essay, McIntosh compiles a list of privileges often taken for granted by white people. Most relevant to this post is number six on her list:

“6. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.”

Unfortunately it seems that popular culture is still lacking in its representation of non-white races and characters that do not pertain to what we so often refer to as the “cultural hegemony.” Girls provides a perfect example of this shortcoming. But can it still be considered a step in the right direction?

A perfect television series would allow for representation of numerous aspects of identity: different race-ethnicities, different sexualities, different genders, and so on. Girls is focused on the positionality of white, educated, cisgender females. This is Lena Dunham’s area of expertise as she identifies with those categories. Imagine if she chose to represent other aspects of identity through her lead characters – would she be criticized for her representation of those characters? People will always criticize popular culture for one reason or another. Personally, I feel that Girls has made progress through its honest portrayal of women and because it is a female centred show– directed by a female– in an industry that tends to be male-dominated. Outside of this series, we need to continue expanding the realm of representation in the media. What do you think?


Works Cited:

Goldberg, Lesley. “TCA: Lena Dunham Says HBO’s ‘Girls’ Isn’t ‘Sex and the Cit’y.” The Hollywood Reporter. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 Mar 2013. <http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/live-feed/tca-hbo-girls-lena-dunham-judd-apatow-281483&gt;.

McIntosh, Peggy. “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Web. 31 Mar 2013.


Girls on bench: Goldberg, Lesley. “TCA: Lena Dunham Says HBO’s ‘Girls’ Isn’t ‘Sex and the Cit’y.” The Hollywood Reporter. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 Mar 2013. <http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/live-feed/tca-hbo-girls-lena-dunham-judd-apatow-281483&gt;.

Girls promo photo: Red Carpet Crash. 24 Feb 2013. Web. 31 Mar 2013. <http://www.redcarpetcrash.com/tv-video-girls-promo-for-next-episode-its-back/&gt;.

9 thoughts on “Feminism and “Girls”

  1. I usually keep complaints to a minimum about shows that I like. “Girls” seems likable, and not because I was waiting for that one show to appeal to women and stuff- because I don’t really like shows that try to appeal to women. It’s funny and just has some real stuff. But I’m not too into drama… and this seems like a lot of… that…

    Still, I noticed four white female characters in the picture and instantly judged it, thinking, “I doubt there’s anything new here.”

    I mean, damn, it’s getting really tiresome! Hahahahaha

    • The movies that attract female viewers, usually have white female ladies as main characters and they go through so many dramas. At the end, they realize that all they need is the friendship between their best friends. As a woman, I like those movies, however, I am kinda getting sick of it. Why can’t women be the main characters of action movies. Most of the time, guys have to save us from the bad guys.

      • Drama blubber is what I call that, haha. I’ve been sick of it for a looooong time…Lady action heroes are so much sexier, too. Granted, so are the men XD

      • With regards to a lack of women being a main character in actions movies, a recent representation would be Scarlett Johansson as the black widow in Iron Man 2 and she kicks quite a lot of asses even saving male characters multiple times. Also the T.V show, The Walking Dead has a main character Michonne, a black female who is more physically capable than average guys and uses a katana (Japanese samurai sword, traditionally only used by men). Lets hope its a start of a new trend.
        However, I often find that when there is a stereotype breaking character (like Scarlett Johansson as black widow for example) there are often continuous criticisms to be found. For example, although the black widow is the few times you see a female as a main character in an action movie she is hypersexualized even through her ‘abilities’ as she often uses her looks to seduce males, and is always seen in skin tight leather suit with her cleavage just coincidentally totally visible. With regards to Michonne, althogh she is given a strong character and often makes decisions over other male characters decisions, she reinforces traditional stereotype of black females being violent. Furthermore, by only showing her being a strong female, whether accidentally or not, the producers have only allowed her to be angry or ‘poker-faced’, incapable of being happy.

  2. I do agree with your comment about the lead female roles. I think that it is great the Girls is female driven for the most part. However, I have noticed the lack of equal representation amongst races etc. Especially given the fact that it is set in New York City, which is probably one of the most diverse cities out there. Another point that I thought was interesting was the question of would she be criticized for introducing other races or classes etc. I had not really thought about that before reading this blog. I believe that that would be very unfortunate if she is scared of losing her audience if she incorporates other races, and therefore doesn’t to please the dominant white middle class audience that is watching the show and that is represented in the show.

    • So you’ve been watching as well? How many episodes have you watched? (I want to ask you about something in a later episode but I don’t want to give away any spoilers haha)
      About the idea of her trying to represent other race-ethnicities, I suppose it would be better for directors to at least include non-white characters, even if they don’t have a complex understanding of how that aspect of a person’s identity might affect their character. I want to give Lena Dunham the benefit of the doubt because she’s just so witty and wonderful…

      • I guess, speaking critically, I would say that it perpetuates white hegemony. The idea that “white” culture will always be at the top of the media world. Do you think there are any circumstances in which a producer/writer could justify having an all white cast?

      • In circumstances where the story is based on white ethnic groups such as the T.V show vikings or The Game of Thrones, one could justify having an all white cast to be historically correct. However in movies like The Last Samurai or Cloud Atlas, where the circumstances were stories based on asian ethnic groups, the asian main characters were ether cast a white actor playing with “asian” make up on or the story was rewritten to allow for a white main character.

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