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The ridiculous double-standards of Girls haters

- May 31st, 2012

Girls, Lena Dunham’s HBO comedy about young women in New York City, has generated almost as much hate as it has hype. But the four most common criticisms of the series are things that people tolerate, if not outright celebrate, about other shows.

1. The characters aren’t good people

So many critical darlings and fan favourites centre around characters who do morally reprehensible things. Shows like Breaking Bad, Entourage, Sons of Anarchy, The Sopranos, The Wire and Mad Men, just to name a few, feature central characters sexually harassing, boozing, drug-dealing, gun-running, raping, murdering or just generally behaving like douchebags.

Some of the most beloved characters in TV history are terrible people. Think Homer from The Simpsons, Michael Scott from The Office, or the entire cast of Seinfeld. And yet the women of Girls are too unlikeable for TV audiences? Mad Men’s Don Draper can drink and philander until the cows come home and people will still love him, but Girls is deemed unwatchable because aspiring writer Hannah is kind of spoiled,  free-spirited globetrotter Jessa is kind of pretentious and best friend Marnie is kind of mean to her boyfriend?

Despite the “voice of my generation” line repeated in the trailer for the series, Girls isn’t about the best Gen-X has to offer. It’s about a few flawed people and the stuff they go through. It’s their imperfection that makes them relatable. In reviewing the pilot, Huffington Post’s Maureen Ryan writes:

But that’s actually the genius of “Girls”: When a gifted person examines their life with real honesty and clarity, and demonstrates a willingness to find their own weaknesses both funny and worthy of compassion, the story can transcend the individual. I’ve never wanted to be a standup comic or a golf pro or a young woman trying to make it in New York, but through the characters on those shows, I see my own frailty, stupidity and courage reflected back at me. You don’t have to be living in a cheap apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn to get “Girls”; you just have to have felt like a frustrated loser (or a flailing would-be genius) at some point in your life.

2. Girls only exists because Lena Dunham’s dad is semi-famous

Rather than address the material for what it is, some critics dismiss it offhand because many of the people involved are the daughters of somewhat famous people. Gawker, in its always condescending and often misogynistic weekly recaps of the show, refers to the actresses exclusively via their parentage.

It is, of course, very silly to assume that good art only comes from people who bootstrap their way into the business, but it’s also a criticism that seems reserved solely for young women. Lots of people in the entertainment industry have famous parents. Lots. Joss Whedon, who created four cult-classic shows before writing and directing The Avengers, comes from two generations of television writers, and yet nobody holds it against him. Nobody says, “Sure, Buffy was OK, but it probably only got made because Joss Whedon’s dad worked on The Golden Girls.” Because that would be ridiculous.

3. Lena Dunham isn’t hot enough to star in her own show

You won’t find any legitimate TV critics making this argument, but it rears its ugly head again and again in the comment sections of Girls reviews. Despite the recent surge of women in television comedy, there is still this antiquated idea that women can only be funny on TV if they have beautiful bangs and batting eyelashes, or don their skivvies in sexy photoshoots.

It doesn’t matter that Dunham is, in fact, quite pretty, because TV viewers have a history of labelling conventionally attractive women who don’t meet their personal standards of physical perfection as ugly. But even if she was the most hideous of butterfaces, it’s irrelevant. As Todd Vanderwerff notes in his stunning takedown of a juvenile commenter on the AV Club, “you’d never say Louie isn’t good because Louis C.K. isn’t conventionally attractive.”

4. It’s too white

This is a valid criticism. A show set in Brooklyn ought to have visible minorities, if not in the main cast, then at least as recurring characters, guest stars or non-homeless extras. This coupled with one of the writer’s racist remarks online, is a definite problem.

But Girls is just the latest in a long line of unrealistically white sitcoms that take place in New York. Friends, Seinfeld, Mad About You, Will & Grace and How I Met Your Mother all whitewash one of the most diverse cities in the world, but garner only a fraction of the backlash Girls has faced. And yet, as far as I know, Dunham is the only show-runner of the bunch to openly acknowledge this problem and promise to address it.

When I get a tweet from a girl who’s like, ‘I’d love to watch the show, but I wish there were more women of color.’ You know what? I do, too, and if we have the opportunity to do a second season, I’ll address that.

When’s the last time you heard Larry David say anything nearly as progressive?

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4 comments

  1. Sarah | May 31, 2012 at 12:56 pm

    One of the things I find interesting about Girls is the whole they’re unlikeable argument. As you pointed out, Sheena, television is full of unlikeable characters audiences and critics love. The difference? Most of them are men.

    Also, I think people have written off Girls because they think it’s meant to speak for them — and it doesn’t. Not everyone can relate and that’s fine. However, I’d argue Girls is far more realistic — and closer to my life — than Sex and the City was. The difference is SATC was glamour, these girls are real life.

    I like seeing girls who look and dress like me on my television. I was getting sick of seeing the over-made up, over-dressed women everywhere. It doesn’t represent me and I refuse to make that who I am.

    I hope the naysayers give Girls a chance because they may find a gem in there that they’re too pigheaded to notice right now.

  2. Sheena Goodyear | May 31, 2012 at 1:03 pm

    I agree, Sarah! I love seeing a woman on TV whose body resembles my own. Girls is one of the only shows that doesn’t make me roll my eyes during topless scenes.

  3. John Newman | June 17, 2012 at 2:33 pm

    It’s too white?
    Much as I fear to tread into a minefield that, I fear, is rigged right from the outset, let me start by saying that is it so inconceivable that four young women seeking roommates would gravitate toward women who look like themselves and come from the same background? When I was in school that was certainly the case. Were we closet racists wrapped in the bigoted mists of yesteryear? I doubt it. I went to a racially diverse University in a very racially diverse city in a racially diverse country. In my second year I rented a room in a house with four guys from Iran – we got along ok but, truth be told, it was more a case of not stepping on each others toes than of building a new and close friendship. After school I worked in diverse workplaces and formed friendships with people from many different cultures. One of the things I learned is that our differences are important too. I have friends who are Muslim who I love hanging out with, but if I were looking for roommates I would stick to people from my own background. In a politically correct discussion that probably makes me racist by default. The way I see it, it makes me a realist. How about people find out how many multiracial roommate situations there really are in Brooklyn Heights before screaming racism?

  4. Sheena Goodyear | June 18, 2012 at 11:34 am

    I essentially agree, John. But the issue is less with the main cast and more with the portrayal of Brooklyn with the guest actors and extras.

    When they’re in the street, in bars or at “the best party ever” where “all of Brooklyn and three quarters of Manhattan” are supposedly in attendance, the background is populated with white actors.

    I’ve only been to Brooklyn once, but it sure didn’t look like that. I think people from Brooklyn and watching and saying, “What is this fictional all-white city?”

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