Last week I was marooned on my couch with a virus and finally watched the first season of “Girls,” Lena Dunham’s HBO drama about twentysomethings finding their way in New York City. Dunham is very serious about her enterprise, and even the show’s light-hearted moments — which are few and far between — are laden with meaning. At times, watching the series felt more like homework than entertainment.
But I had heard so much about Hannah Horvath, Dunham’s alter ego, that I needed to meet her myself. Like many women in middle age, I wasn’t resistant to looking back at my youth. I’m not like the doctor who examines Hannah for an STD, who swears she’d never want to go back to her 20s. If anything, I’m jealous of the limitless sky, the time that drains into more time of your 20s. Maybe that’s glossy hindsight, but it’s also the truth.
In families, we’re often called upon to play archetypal roles — the good one, the black sheep, the fun one, the responsible one. And nowhere are those “roles” more carefully scripted and ossified than in the Passover Haggadah, where we read about the Four Sons: the wise one, the wicked one, the simple one, and the one doesn’t even know how to ask.
Of course, very few of us can wear any one label comfortably— even if my family jokingly often asked me to read the Wicked Son’s portion due to my lapsed Orthodoxy. (Don’t worry, I wasn’t at all offended. I totally relished the appellation.)
As a youngster and teen, I was never bothered by the fact that I was asked to read the male role. I hadn’t really given much to thought to the lack of female voices in the Haggadah. And I never challenged my parents by asking, “Why sons and not daughters?” I was used to the idea of a male universal and was okay with it. More than once, I played a boy in school plays. (All-girls schools’ dramatic productions reverse the rules of kabuki and Elizabethan theater.) That I wasn’t fully represented by the gender options was perhaps due to the fact that I wasn’t really represented by the character options, either. I was not wholly wicked, nor was I completely wise or simple. And hearkening to the idea that sometimes you can ask a stupid question (despite my teacher’s insistence that you could not), I sometimes kept my mouth shut when I had something that I considered idiotic to ask.
Increasingly, over the past several weeks, I have found the follow question intruding into my thoughts: When, please, will someone make Lena Dunham go away?
It’s not that I have anything personal or professional against Dunham herself. I have never seen her breakout film “Tiny Furniture” or her angst-inducing HBO show “Girls.” (Okay, I have seen two clips from “Girls” on YouTube, and I found the acting wooden and the dialogue, though neither realistic nor dramatic, entirely predictable. But that’s fine; I am old. Despite Twitter insisting I follow her, I am not Dunham’s audience.) My complaint is not about Dunham, but rather the incessant coverage of her, her work, her privilege, her boyfriend, her weirdly-fitting dresses, her outrageous book deal, and her TV character’s every partially-clothed move.
I should point out that I do not, for the most part, follow pop culture on purpose. Non-stop dissection of all things Dunham is simply what I get from trying to be reasonably aware and informed about the world around me, especially when it comes to content by and about women and Jews.
The cacophony reached what felt like unprecedented loudness over the past few weeks with the airing of the second season of Girls and Dunham’s Purimspeil at the Jewish Museum in New York. (I did read the text, which was, I’m sorry to say, not particularly special.) Even last week it was as if the only famous people in the world were Dunham and the Pope. The Pope, however, went away.
The 50th anniversary of the publication Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” has inspired many to reconsider the book, warts and all. One of the abiding criticisms of Friedan’s book over the past few days is that it was limited to the worldview of an upper-middle class white woman.
Today, Lena Dunham, who very well might be the most high-profile feminist around, has received similar criticisms. On her HBO show “Girls,” she portrays the, eh, struggles, of four upper-middle class white women figuring out stuff (and by stuff, I mean mostly sex and sometimes work) in Brooklyn.
But critiquing Friedan, and now Dunham, for their specificity is a mostly a waste of our time.
When do you become a woman? As in, someone that your friend or colleague actually refers to as a “woman.” It is is certainly not after your Bat Mitzvah (will get back to that later), nor is it when you graduate from high school, or even college.
Today, the age of a woman who most of us feel comfortable calling a “woman” is being pushed further and further back; I personally hesitate or feel awkward using the term for anyone under 45. The issue is, many of us also feel the same about using “girl” for anyone over 25, and even that feels a little iffy. So basically for approximately 20 years there seems to be no appropriate term to describe people with vaginas.
Women long for an analog to “guy,” something that messages mature but not stuffy. “Gal” would technically fit the bill, but it hasn’t made much traction.
So it seems like if the much-hyped new HBO show “Girls” was really tapped into the zeitgeist it would be about a feisty foursome of best friends — made up of mothers and daughters. Yep, move over old college roommates and next-door neighbors, the growing bond between mothers and daughters is the latest and greatest in friendship trends among women.
In this week’s New York magazine, there is a piece by Paige Williams called “My Mom Is My BFF” all about chummy mummy-daughter combos And last week the Los Angeles Times had a piece about how older moms prefer the company of their daughters to that of their husbands.
Williams profiles mom Julie Blinkas and her daughter, Samantha. They sometimes don the same outfits and have been mistaken for lovers on their many trips abroad together. We also learn that Samantha’s teenage friends find Julie hot, but that it doesn’t seem to bother Samantha too much.
Julie is an operations executive, whose job involves a decent amount of travel. Julie’s husband prefers his couch and frozen pizza to exotic vacations, so Julie takes her daughter. Samantha is 19 and studying acting at NYU. Her parents rented an apartment in the village so that they can visit often.
Outside of the compelling profile of Julie and Samantha, Williams doesn’t provide a tremendous amount of evidence that their relationship is emblematic of a trend, rather than just an exception. As of now, this seems to be more a point of fascination for sociologists and reality TV producers, instead of an actual shift in parent-children relationships.
Williams sees in this kind of relationship parents who think that treating children as adults helps turn them into adults. If they succeed they get a wise, responsible kid — and a peer. She also suggests that in a youth-obsessed culture moms can shrink the age difference by looking and talking like their daughters. The old line “you’re sisters, right?” has never been so valuable or desired.
Sarah Seltzer has written extensively on The Sisterhood about television’s resistance to developing characters of color.
She has wondered why all of the titular girls of HBO’s “Girls,” are white girls, and has challenged the idea that a more diverse cast would make the show any less “real.” “We live in an era in which homogeneity isn’t mandatory for authenticity,” she wrote last week.
And as “Mad Men” returned to the air last month after a 17-month hiatus, Sarah made the case for the hit AMC series to take its portrayals of black characters beyond the symbolic:
While I acknowledge that [“Mad Men” creator] Weiner’s past omission of significant black characters is a direct (and accurate) commentary on the segregated, isolated world his show depicts, after several seasons I grew frustrated with a lack of interiority when he did introduce the rare character of color. This wouldn’t have been impossible to do right. His Jewish characters who came in and out of the picture, for instance, such as Season One fan favorite Rachel Menken, were peripheral to the Sterling Cooper world. But they were crucially allowed to have their own scenes — witness Rachel talking on the phone with her sister, who (rightly) declares that Don is a no-goodnik.
Why not allow the Drapers’ former nanny and housekeeper, Carla, a phone call with her sister? Why not allow one of the few black love interests — Paul Kinsey’s girlfriend, Sheila, and Lane Pryce’s “chocolate bunny,” Toni — their own asides with colleagues or friends, their own chances to reflect on the action?
So it’s not surprising that when The New York Times was looking to host on its website a lively debate about race in primetime, they’d ask Sarah to participate.
A few weeks ago, when I wrote about the hype surrounding Lena Dunham’s new HBO show, “Girls,” I noted that there might be a forthcoming critique of the show’s “overwhelming whiteness.”
Now that the premiere has aired, the looming quibble has blown up to a full-blown controversy — and understandably so. One of the show’s writers, Lesley Arfin, responded to a piece of commentary on the show’s whiteness with an offensive tweet: “What really bothered me most about ‘Precious’ was that there was no representation of ME.” She apparently apologized and then deleted the apology and the tweet. Some web sleuthing revealed that Arfin has written and said some even worse things in the past. Meanwhile, digging into the show’s casting calls include a panoply of tired stereotypes.
Serious damage has been done to the show’s brand. These pieces by Dodai Stewart and Kendra James address “Girls” and these flaws with clear eyes and explain why we shouldn’t give it a pass just because it’s well-done and about women. Indeed, we can’t give it a pass: The failings of “Girls” come after the unmet promise of “2 Broke Girls,” which directly addressed class issues in a friendship, but whose minor characters are blatantly racist caricatures. (Notice a pattern here?)
I wonder, sometimes, if the embedded hierarchy is so intense in our culture that films and shows about women can’t get made unless they somehow reinforce other dominant power structures. I hope that’s not the case.
If the new HBO series “Girls” lives up to its breathless early reviews, Lena Dunham’s Hannah and her tight-knit group of self-reflective friends seem bound to join the television canon alongside Lucy and Ethel, Laverne and Shirley, and Carrie and Co.
In advance tonight’s “Girls” premiere — see The Sisterhood preview here — I spoke with Lynn Spangler, a SUNY, New Paltz communications professor and the author “Television Women from Lucy to ‘Friends,’” and Elana Levine, who teaches television history at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, about the small screen’s most iconic girlfriends and the generations they defined.
Last week, the Brooklyn Academy of Music ran a series of “girlfriend” movies curated by upcoming HBO series “Girls” creator and lead actress Lena Dunham.
For the opening night of the series, which I had the pleasure to attend, Dunham chose “This is My Life,” Nora Ephron’s 1992 directorial debut and the best mother-daughter movie ever made. After the screening Ephron and Dunham stayed to discuss the movie in particular, women in film in general, and just how tired they are of that subject altogether.
“This is My Life,” tells the story of Dottie Engels, a Jewish single mother from Queens whose inheritance from an aunt allows her to move to Manhattan and take a stab at making it as a stand-up comedian. Dottie does well, earning herself gigs in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, a big shot agent, and, inevitably, tension with her daughters, Erica and Opal. As Dottie puts it, “You give kids a choice, your mother in the next room on the verge of suicide versus your mother in Hawaii in ecstasy — they’ll choose suicide in the next room, believe me.”
If you haven’t seen, I can’t recommend it enough. (Though, warning, it is only available on VHS. Such injustice!)
I’ve felt for a long time that the problem with the rise of bromance/male slacker comedy isn’t that it elevates immature dudes into leading men, but rather that it pairs them up with too tightly wound ladies. It’s what David Denby called the “slacker-striver” pairing, and it was popularized by Judd Apatow.
In short: putting women on a pedestal doesn’t help if the men are getting all the laughs. In the world of comedy, having a job and being responsible doesn’t confer privilege — getting the audience to crack up does. So let women be as flawed and wacked-out, as pot-smoking and dorky and physically goofy as the guys, let them garner the laughs as Kristen Wiig did in “Bridesmaids,” and then we’re closer to okay.
That’s why I and many others are so excited for “Girls,” the new HBO series that has received Apatow’s producing imprimatur but is almost entirely the work of “Tiny Furniture’s” Lena Dunham. The show follows a group of very young women struggling to make it in New York City, but early reviews assure us it’s nothing like “Sex and the City: The Carrie Diaries.” It’s apparently real and unglamorous and skeptical of its characters.
Soccer season is in full swing, which means that on weekends Girlchik is out on the field, passing and handling the ball with impressive facility while I cheer her on from the sidelines, chat with other parents and enjoy the cool fall breezes.
It’s an interesting thing, cheering on girls this age to get in there and be more aggressive with the ball. Some girls have a tendency to be a bit — how can I say this nicely — wussy on the playing field. Girlchik is a good soccer player but some of the girls on her team seem afraid of the ball. And I realize, with a start, that my daughter and her teammates are at a moment of intersecting, and often conflicting, cultural messages.
The girls, all 11- and 12-years-old, are at that moment when they are not yet stork-legged teenagers, but neither are they little kids.
One of the country’s foremost experts on the lives of American girls is Rachel Simmons, a 35-year-old alumna of Vassar College and Oxford University who also attended the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School through high school. Her mother is Israeli, and, she says, she was raised in a “Conservative-Israeli” kind of household. Graduate school investigation of aggression in teenage girls led her to write “Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls,” and later, to write “The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence,”, and establish the Girls Leadership Institute.
Last week Simmons hosted the PBS show “A Girl’s Life”, which looks at the complicated lives of four teenagers: basketball player Annaluz, who struggles with being plump even as she’s athletic and strong; an inner-city young mother named Carla, who gets involved in vicious, scarring physical fights with other young women; Sonia, the daughter of Mexican illegal immigrants whose mother gets her into the Young Women’s Leadership School in East Harlem, which leads to college; and Libby, a popular girl whose former best friend becomes her cyber-bully, with painful results.
Simmons, who calls Park Slope home, spoke with The Sisterhood from South Africa, where she was teaching and spending time with her partner.
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