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.
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.
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]
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