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: Continue reading