COUNTERPOINT: We Shouldn't Be Giving Lena Dunham a Break

It’s a dangerous position to qualify solidarity. Those with whom you stand will feel as though your inability or lack of desire to come over completely to their side indicates a weakness of character, or that it calls into question your stated loyalties altogether. Those to whom you find yourself opposed are likely to feel the same way, although they might add insult to injury by insinuating that you are perhaps too stupid to realize what your position is, and that you were really with them in the first place. Either way, contrary to adages sewn on throw pillows everywhere, the spirit of compromise seldom wins one any friends.

I had originally written this article for my own personal blog, but once I saw Rob Hart’s In Defense of Lena Dunham on the February slate, I pitched Dennis on running my counterpoint as a companion piece. At the time of the pitch, I had only viewed the first season of Girls, and like the truly snotty critic I am, saw no reason to subject myself to five more episodes. Oddly, this didn't fly with el jefe, so I spent most of today watching the season two episodes back to back. Much like Hannah’s gay roommate, I’m now more sure than ever that it’s not for me.

Girls is really about nothing more than the petty grievances of four characters who are quite pathetic, undergo no growth whatsoever in almost two seasons worth of episodes, and who have no narrative arc.

Though Girls ultimately fails as a piece of narrative art for a variety of reasons, it succeeds as some sort of found art for reasons that may or may not be beyond Dunham’s control and intent. Not a single character on the show is likeable, but that’s not necessarily a problem in and of itself. Quality television is full to the brim with unlikeable characters these days (Don Draper, Walter White, and Jimmy McNulty are probably the three most critically celebrated miscreants to grace our screens in recent years). However, the reason an asshole like Jimmy McNulty doesn’t sink a show like The Wire (besides the fact that it’s not really a character-based show) is that the sum total of the show’s conflict doesn’t hinge upon the inner turmoil of a character that an audience is given no reason to like. The Wire is really about everything being connected, and the parallels between seemingly disparate institutions. Breaking Bad is about what happens when ordinary people realize that they are made better in every way by choosing to be bad, and Mad Men is about the nature of deception and being left behind in changing times. Girls is really about nothing more than the petty grievances of four characters who are quite pathetic, undergo no growth whatsoever in almost two seasons worth of episodes, and who have no narrative arc. It’s OK for a show to be concerned mostly with—in this case—Woman Vs Self Conflicts, but if the woman in question is little more than a confused and spoiled twenty-something who takes an active role in dismantling her own happiness, why should we care?

I can already hear the outraged cries roiling up from the comments section, accusing me of giving Draper and White and McNulty a pass because they are men, and men are expected to sort of be jerks while women should be seen and not heard. I’ll bypass that by arguing that the reason critics like characters like Draper and White and McNulty is that they grow and learn and progress. If their stories don’t impart great life lessons they at least prompt audiences to wonder about their actions, decisions, and the fallout of both. Their worlds change, their experiences inform and make us think about and question our own. No such movement exists in Girls, and it certainly hasn’t been improved from the first to the second season.

The counter argument comes down to the show being “relatable”, which is just about the saddest excuse for liking something that exists, especially in the context of a show so full of whiny do-nothings. Yes, my generation is full of directionless yet talented people like this. Yes, life after college is a confusing time (I’m only 27, but I’d like to point out that from what I understand, life at any point is a pretty confusing time). Yes, people are self-destructive and make mistakes and act like entitled brats because we are vain and emotional creatures. I make no excuses for myself, nor claims of superiority over the wandering navel-gazers presented on Girls. On some level, I can vouch for the “authenticity” that champions of Girls often bray about: my generation’s pretty awful, and I don’t excuse myself from it. However, do we need to celebrate our awfulness, and is our awfulness compelling?

These are the underlying problems that run through every episode of Girls, or at least, they are the most egregious ones. Dunham’s not a great writer in the most technical sense of the word: she either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care that an episodic narrative needs to have arc and growth that keep us involved in the lives and movements of the characters rather than expecting us to stay pressed to the glass of our televisions like hillbillies at the zoo, watching each random spurt of conflict and drama slush around in the cage like some sort of (even more) scripted version of a reality show. How different, actually, are Dunham’s characters from the despicable wastes of space and airtime that populate shows like Mob Wives and Jersey Shore? All are appallingly selfish, irrational and emotional as children, and convinced that the world is against them. More importantly, is our takeaway from Girls, much like our takeaway from the aforementioned swill-dumps, little more than "Wow, I'm glad I don't know any of these people?" The show is also screamingly unfunny, made even worse by Dunham’s own winking acknowledgment of her supposedly blazing wit. In nearly two seasons' worth of viewings, I can count on one finger the amount of times I laughed out loud, usually at a comment made by a character I can only assume we're meant to despise.

If Dunham is truly the voice of our generation, as so many adherents claim, then this says more about the self-obsessed frivolity our generation is mired in rather than speaking to the talent of Dunham herself.

The runaway popularity of Girls forces me to acknowledge that it is “important”, but not in the way that an artist would traditionally like their work to be described. If Dunham is truly the voice of our generation, as so many adherents claim, then this says more about the self-obsessed frivolity our generation is mired in rather than speaking to the talent of Dunham herself. Digging deeper still, we realize that a show about “us”, made with suspect materials, is somehow presented as more successful or artistically noteworthy than a show about “escapism” (see again the tri-pinnacle of modern TV’s critical mountain, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Wire). What people who gush over Girls' supposed accuracy and relevance fail to realize is that most of the best shows end up being about “us” and “now” even when they are superficially concerned with an advertising executive, a chemistry teacher turned meth dealer, or the decline of the institution of America. A show like Girls that is superficially about “us” ends up actually being about nothing. The same was said about that juggernaut of 90s television, Seinfeld, but that show had the benefit of being funny and self-deprecating, which can hardly be said of Dunham’s hyper-distracted Chihuahua of a series that rockets between snottily cynical and painfully maudlin with dizzying speed.

The caveat comes when I find myself disagreeing with others who are dismissive and/or critical of Girls, because I selfishly feel that they are right, but for the wrong reasons. The most popular assertion amongst critics who dismiss Girls is that the show is racist because it is comprised of mostly white characters. I don’t know Dunham personally and can’t speak to her worldview, but even before I had seen an episode of Girls, I thought she handled this allegation beautifully. Her response was something akin to “Well, I write what I know and how I see things, and the fact is that I grew up white and privileged and most of my friends were white and privileged, so I’m not going to shoehorn in a black character just to make the show more politically correct because I think that’s even more disrespectful.” Of course, Dunham then bowed to the pressure and shoehorned a Republican Donald Glover character (you can tell he’s a Republican because he has a copy of The Fountainhead) into the first episode of the second season, but don’t worry, he didn’t stick around long enough for the audience to learn anything about him beyond his blackness.

The second allegation, which seems tied in with the first, is that Girls is boring because it is about privileged white characters, which is utter balderdash and speaks very ill of those who put this sort of thinking forward as critical analysis. Girls is boring because it is written poorly and the lives of the characters are uninteresting. As The Great Gatsby, American Psycho, Mad Men and really any number of narratives, new and old prove, the lives of people who are not like “us” are interesting if they are portrayed in a compelling way. Being rich and privileged, especially in the context of fiction, does not make a person boring (or at least, correlation is not causation). A more troubling issue underscores this entire supposition: more and more people seem to be suggesting that it’s not OK if a work of art is not all things to all people. Writer/Director Kevin Smith once said that in his mind, a filmmaker’s message to the world was “this is the way I see some things, do you agree or not agree?” By that token it stands to reason that the worlds of many artists will be necessarily narrow, particularly if that runs true to their life and upbringing. At the risk of sounding like an apologist for the “reverse racism” camp, I’ll gently suggest that narratives and pieces of art are not necessarily made better by being stuffed with as many demographics as possible, and are quite often made worse.

The sad truth is this: all the political correctness and supposedly realistic portrayals of American youths and their post-collegiate lives won’t make Girls any more transcendent, mainly because Girls isn’t about anything compelling, mainly because the pathetic problems of people even more dull than ourselves don’t necessarily make for good art. Dunham may very well be the voice of a generation, but that says more about the generation than it does about the voice. Describing one of protagonist Hannah's essays, Glover's character reluctantly admits that it "wasn't for [him]" because "nothing was really happening." It seems likely that this dialogue is meant to be self-aware. Nothing really appears to happen in Girls, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but Dunham's own apparent lack of a point-of-view in regards to anything that is happening to her characters makes for a narrative as dull and uninteresting as an 8th grader's diary.

[Image from Nerve.com]

To leave a comment Login with Facebook or create a free account.

Comments

jgabbard42's picture
jgabbard42 from Indiana is reading Secret Worlds of Colin Fletcher February 18, 2013 - 2:35pm

I'm an old midwestern dude.  Not exactly the demographic for this show.  I've seen a couple of episodes and my overriding thought was, "Guess you don't have to be hot to get a sex scene on HBO."  That sounds really bad, but is true.

Erin's picture
Erin from Omaha is reading manuscripts... February 18, 2013 - 2:40pm

Thank you, John. I couldn't agree more. 

Nick's picture
Nick from Toronto is reading A Million Little Fibers by Steven McTowelie February 18, 2013 - 2:55pm

First off, people who make fun of her looks are just picking low-hanging fruit. So the girl's not a Playboy bunny--she doesn't need to be. She is successful at writing/directing/acting without being the average male's masturbation fodder. Props to her for not requiring a casting couch phase.

The only two relevant discussion points I can think of are: Is her work any good; and, would she be anywhere without nepotism?

I think, without a doubt, the answers are yes; and no.

Is her show good? I kind of hate myself for enjoying it. It's not what I call great television, but it's got enough going for it (beyond popularity and controversy) for us to call it a success. Believable characters on a show written for 18-35 year olds = Outstanding concept.

So Ms. Dunham is quite smart and talented. Would she be successful at twenty-something if she was born to a working class family in Sticksville, OH (or ON)? No. Almost nobody would.

So Lena Haters have to stop hating as long as Lena Lovers admit she's had opportunities beyond those of the vast majority of young people (or just bloody well read Outliers).

Dennis's picture
Admin
Dennis from Hollywood is reading My Best Friend's Exorcism by Grady Hendrix February 18, 2013 - 3:46pm

Mr. Jarzemsky!! You leave my darling Lena alone!!

Pretty Spry for a Dead Guy's picture
Pretty Spry for... from I'd prefer it if you didn't know. So would you, only you don't know it. is reading whatever he makes time for this week February 18, 2013 - 4:03pm

Excellent article. I agree with many of your points.

One thing I disagree with is the assertion that Walter White is not likeable. I like him. I really, really do*. To me, recognizing that a character does bad things does not exclude them from being a compelling, enjoyable character.

I like the Joker, for example. He's a psychopath. Terrible person. Joy to watch. I hate everything he does. Batman should kill him. But if he did, his stories would lose their most entertaining component.

The Last Circus. Clerks. House of Sand and Fog. There are a ton of stories filled with characters who are likeable despite their tremendous moral shortcomings or bad decisions.

I contend that a character has to be neither flawless nor even "good" to be likeable.

So it says a lot that the girls on Girls aren't. I'll give Dunham the benefit of the doubt and assume this is on purpose. I'll give her credit and say it's artistically daring.

It just doesn't make for good television.

*Heck, I'm even on his side most of the time.
You cook that meth, Walter.
You cook it good.
 

Jason Van Horn's picture
Jason Van Horn from North Carolina is reading A Feast For Crows February 18, 2013 - 5:15pm

Well thankfully there's still the original piece that gave birth to this joke of an opinion...

Rhondazel's picture
Rhondazel from I live in Seattle, WA February 18, 2013 - 7:30pm

With all due respect, I think you're missing the point.  Perhaps you should watch reruns of Seinfeld.  The show was about nothing.  The characters never grew and were in some cases deliberately unlikeable--which made us like them all the more.  Women relate to Lena's characters and writing because sometimes, in the deepest part of our being, we are that shallow, that insecure and in spite of the fact that our life is in shambles, what  we really want is a cupcake. It's not meant to be a documentary.  It's a comedy.  As for the guys (and girls) who continue to comment on the fact that Lena is not Playboy worthy in her sex scenes--again--you're missing the point. 

Deets999's picture
Deets999 from Connecticut is reading Gravitys Rainbow February 18, 2013 - 7:32pm

Couldn't agree more, John, nice article! The show gets killed, but for the wrong reasons. Not the worst thing on TV, but not even remotely the best thing out there!

But how does 2.5 hours of content qualify as the majority of your day? That must be some hipster math!!!! 

John Jarzemsky's picture
John Jarzemsky February 18, 2013 - 11:19pm

@Rhondazel:

"A show like Girls that is superficially about “us” ends up actually being about nothing. The same was said about that juggernaut of 90s television, Seinfeld, but that show had the benefit of being funny and self-deprecating, which can hardly be said of Dunham’s hyper-distracted Chihuahua of a series that rockets between snottily cynical and painfully maudlin with dizzying speed."

John Jarzemsky's picture
John Jarzemsky February 18, 2013 - 11:21pm

@Deets999 majority of the day watching it and then rewriting/updating the piece.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like February 18, 2013 - 11:58pm

I contend that a character has to be neither flawless nor even "good" to be likeable.

So it says a lot that the girls on Girls aren't. I'll give Dunham the benefit of the doubt and assume this is on purpose. I'll give her credit and say it's artistically daring.

That's about as daring as putting on a pair of socks.

sometimes, in the deepest part of our being, we are that shallow,

holy shit

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated February 19, 2013 - 12:12am

John, I think you are being unfair to 8th graders and their diaries.

Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts February 19, 2013 - 12:25am

So Ms. Dunham is quite smart and talented. Would she be successful at twenty-something if she was born to a working class family in Sticksville, OH (or ON)? No. Almost nobody would.

Why not? Most successful young people aren't in fact born and raised in New York City. If you work in TV or film that's just one of the entertainment hubs where you go to get work. Lots of successful young people not originally from New York, also lots of unsuccessful young people in New York.

 

I agree pretty well with this article, other than that I actually do like GIRLS.

I find it funny, and at times relatable, if not regrettably so. I think it's a valid extension of the indie comedy and NYC sitcoms genres. I can proclaim my own depth in personality but also can be superficial, and superficiality, to me, still has artistic merit. That's why all of situation comedies have the ability to be interesting. And sitcoms--by definition--barely have any grand character arcs, if at all. Comparing this show to THE WIRE or MAD MEN doesn't make sense. SEINFELD, HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER, those type of shows it does make sense to compare to GIRLS. And I think it stands pretty well among them. The writing isn't particularly great on a technical scale, sometimes it can be dull, but so what? Is that different from any other TV?

John's picture
John from Brooklyn, NY is reading The Big Short by Michael Lewis February 19, 2013 - 12:41am

I'll say this once in the comments section here and just refer everyone to it...I didn't compare Girls to the Wire or Mad Men...I compared how both shows deal with having unlikeable protagonist and how one works and one doesn't. I also compared the show (briefly) to Seinfeld and explained why Seinfeld works and Girls doesn't.

 

Honestly, I know GIRLS is billed as a comedy but it really doesn't read as a comedy most of the time. It reads like a melodrama that has moments that are supposed to be funny. I think it's more absurd to compare a show like GIRLS to a laugh-track sitcom like HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER.

@Renfield: it's a lot worse than many other shows, if not most of them.

Viayron-Viayton's picture
Viayron-Viayton from Louisiana is reading America's Best Short Stories February 19, 2013 - 2:06pm

I'm going to write a series called "Boys" about fat, unattractive guys who sit around and play LoL all day and don't have sex. It will be relatable. I'll be the voice of my generation.

Chris Roberts's picture
Chris Roberts February 19, 2013 - 6:42pm

Lena Dunham, Collected

Alexander the Great, the Voice of His Generation, Conquered the World in His Twenties. Lena Dunham Has a TV Show.

“Rolling Stone” = Music. Lena Dunham Can’t hold a Note, an Erudite Conversation Or Erica Jong’s Purse.

Have Your Vote and Waste It Too Or How Lena Dunham Brought Women Back to the Stone Age

Or How Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Came to Realize That Watching Lena Dunham’s “Girls” is Like Committing Intellectual Suicide

On Lena Dunham’s Book Proposal Or How You Would Get a Better Read if You Farted in a Bag & Wrapped It in a Dust Jacket

A feral Lena Dunham, naked on a toilet seat devouring cake, is a scene I’ve watched in a hundred David Lynch movies.

Lena Dunham is actually the Anti-Christ (with bad tattoos), less the style and verve. Upside down triple nines.

Or How “Girls” Ushered In the End of Western Intellectualism, All Is a Smoldering Wasteland Now

Lena Dunham Dishes on Self-Sucking Her Tits, Using Her Vagina as a Trampoline and Other Such Sorry Bullshit

Another White “Girl” Thinks She Can Preach to a Grown Black Woman Or How Lena Dunham Thinks the Hood is a Show About Car Parts

“Girls” Will Never Be as Deep, Revealing & Honest as “My So-Called Life.” Claire Danes Was More 26 as a Teenager, She Burns Lena Dunham up.

Semi-Sober Serial Litterer Lena Dunham Evades Police and a Good Hair Stylist

Lena Dunham is the voice of a masturbatory, hyper-self & her pathological titty baring represents Generation Shit.

The ideas for most of Lena Dunham’s work come at vacuous, titty bumping parties in LA. She’s a glorified intern

Chris Roberts

bettegh's picture
bettegh from Tortola is reading Witches, Wife Beaters & Whores, common law and common folk in early America by Elaine Forman Crane February 20, 2013 - 5:03am

@Chris Roberts- Thank you for jumpstarting my day with a laugh.

Pretty Spry for a Dead Guy's picture
Pretty Spry for... from I'd prefer it if you didn't know. So would you, only you don't know it. is reading whatever he makes time for this week February 20, 2013 - 10:37am

That's about as daring as putting on a pair of socks.

Maybe I'm just exposed to different things, but I cannot think of one other anything wherein all the characters were intentionally and wholly unlikeable. Of course, there are two sides to that coin: 1) the artist had to intend her characters to be unlikeable and 2) the audience (me) had to find them unlikeable. So maybe my finding it daring has more to do with the fact that I'm the kind of person who likes the Joker. In other words, I may have rather liked every character you've ever found unlikeable because of personal differences.

And, regardless of how many times it has been done (I'm inferring your socks comment to refer to originality, ie most all who own socks put them on daily or at least often), I find antagonizing your audience in such a way to be daring because you presumably care more about your "message" (whatever that may be*) than whether your audience sticks around to hear it.

At any rate, I don't like Girls, and if I were to agree with you, I could hardly like it less.

Now let's all laugh at the statement "I don't like Girls" like we're kindergardeners who've never heard of homophobia and get on with our lives.

*After all, Nabokov's supposed lack of message was a message itself: aesthetic bliss and all that.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like February 20, 2013 - 1:44pm

@BG --- Right: "intentional" unlikeability won't work the same on everybody; neither would "intentional" likeability, so it's not a big deal. It'd be more daring to try and make a compelling story wherein literally every character was without any flaw. Who could conceive of such a thing? How could it even be attempted? Even if it were well-done, so many people would write it off as bunk simply because of their notions of what must go into a story in order to make it compelling to the audience.

Pretty Spry for a Dead Guy's picture
Pretty Spry for... from I'd prefer it if you didn't know. So would you, only you don't know it. is reading whatever he makes time for this week February 20, 2013 - 3:03pm

Right: "intentional" unlikeability won't work the same on everybody; neither would "intentional" likeability, so it's not a big deal. It'd be more daring to try and make a compelling story wherein literally every character was without any flaw. Who could conceive of such a thing? How could it even be attempted? Even if it were well-done, so many people would write it off as bunk simply because of their notions of what must go into a story in order to make it compelling to the audience.

That's a bit of a pointless example, though, in that I'm fairly certain that, since people can't even agree on what is right or wrong, that creating a single character without flaw would be impossible.

And even if it isn't, I doubt anyone will prove me wrong any time soon, so it's not a big deal.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated February 20, 2013 - 3:11pm

@Bret - It might be possible, if the character didn't have much page time.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like February 20, 2013 - 4:52pm

@BG --- Right; and your argument against my statement applies to your own. So no one needs to "prove you wrong" because you basically admit you might as well be wrong already.

Turn it ninety degrees and see the hollow of the log.

Andrew Riley's picture
Andrew Riley from Haverhill, MA is reading A Clash of Kings, The Goddess vs. The Alphabet, God is not One, Plato's Secret February 25, 2013 - 12:48pm

Just because you're the Voice of a generation, doesn't mean that anyone wants to hear you. Oh, you're the voice of our generation--shut up!

lspieller's picture
lspieller from Los Angeles is reading LEVIATHAN February 28, 2013 - 9:13pm

I'd like to see a tie breaker written by a woman.

iambrendabren's picture
iambrendabren from Southern California is reading The Stand by Stephen King August 18, 2014 - 7:44pm

How did I miss this article? So on point! I'm a woman and I despise this show. Good for Lena Dunham on her success, that's cool. But all of these characters, I care NOTHING for. Hannah, the rest of the broads, and the guys...meh.

Dash Donovan's picture
Dash Donovan December 10, 2014 - 4:52pm

not sure what's a bigger POS this over-rated/overweight "talent" (and I use the term advisedly) or her douche bag show.  The only thing that is hard to BELIEVE in all of this is that ANY man would WANT to have sex with this skank...that was a sure give away right from the gitgo.