April 23, 2012

Girls and the Anti-Heroine

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If you surfed the Internet at all over the past month, you could not avoid the downpour of hype over HBO’s new half-hour comedy, Girls. Journalists and bloggers could not stop talking about Lena Dunham, the 25-year-old indie-filmmaker who scored a deal under Judd Apatow and HBO to direct, write and star in her creative vision: the story of spoiled Hannah and her New York City tribulations when her parents cut off her finances. 

First labeled as the younger, modern, more realistic Sex and the City, the show has evolved into an indie-blogger’s darling. Virtually every single critic was raving about the first few episodes up to a month before it premiered (see its 87 score on the often-strict Metacritic.com), and 1.1 million eyes were glued to the television on April 15 at 10:30 p.m.. 

But then something strange happened.

The comments sections of popular television sites exploded with criticism for HBO, Dunham and Girls. “Why should I care about this selfish person?” the Twittersphere asked. Forum users bashed Dunham for projecting her privileged upbringing as a relatable life for all young New Yorkers. Some comments even mocked Dunham’s physical appearance during the pilot’s explicit sex-scene. Suddenly the critical hit of the year became the most divisive show in HBO’s history.

After seeing the first two episodes, I can declare that Girls is a fantastic show. Honest, clever and brave, it is unafraid to give its protagonists real, human flaws. It is masterfully directed and wonderfully acted by Dunham. So why has it gained so much heat from the public?

Most of the criticism is downright sexist. The comments made about Dunham’s non-model body stem from a society that expects every woman to look like Megan Fox. People seem to take issue with imperfect female protagonists in comedies. These commenters should understand that Dunham is writing Hannah as an anti-hero and not as someone who should be admired — rather, as someone who should be understood. The best protagonists on TV in the past decade are people with weaknesses and imperfections (Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Walter White). We are supposed to dislike some stuff Hannah does. Her shortcomings are there to help us see our own. However, people do not like to see a flawed, female anti-hero in a comedy — look at the heat that quality, female-led comedies such as Enlightened, The Big C and Nurse Jackie receive. There is definitely a gender issue at hand.

As for the argument that the show fails to act as a mirror of the realistic struggles of 23-year-old in America, I do not think that the show is aiming to represent every girl, nor does it need to. While it is vital that television aim for diversity among its characters, it is a little baffling that Girls is suddenly being singled out as the biggest perpetrator in this media crime. Plenty of shows reveal the small, privileged, white echelon of society (Mad Men, 30 Rock, Friends, How I Met Your Mother) and these are rarely criticized for their narrow portrayal of urban, American life. The hype that has been attached to Girls has somehow led many people to believe that Dunham is trying to be the voice of her generation (a phrase that is even used to mock Hannah in the pilot), when she is actually not trying to do that at all. The upper-middle class struggles that the educated Hannah faces are nowhere near as bad as most Americans have it, and in spite of this, the show does an excellent job at treating her as a selfish, immature and foolish girl. Is Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm any different?

It is just TV. But it is good TV, at that. That it shows a small sect of society is nothing new and should not be criticized. Instead, viewers should appreciate Dunham’s clever writing and honest portrayal of feminine struggle. Let Girls pave the way for flawed female characters.

Original Author: Jason Goldberg