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.
Instagram, the artsy-fartsy photo-sharing app owned by Facebook, skews young. If one were to build a composite of the average Jewish female Instagrammer snapping away with her iPhone, she’d probably be a 16-year-old Jersey girl who collects and distributes “likes” with her #besties (best friends) of #selfies (self portraits) taken posed in front of a bathroom mirror.
I’ve lost many hours mining Instagram’s search feature for hashtag keywords in an attempt to figure out just what types of photos and behaviors Jewish girls and women are offering up on this particular social network. The popular hashtag #jewishgirlproblems (and its variants, like #jewishgirlsprobs and #jewishgirlprobz) yields more than 1,000 photos. Add another thousand for #jewishgirls, and another 500 for the predictable #jewishamericanprincess. Most of the photos with these tags are taken by girls who are almost certainly younger than 18, so I won’t highlight them here, but the point is that girls are using Instagram hashtags to tie their faces and bodies to their self-identified Jewishness.
An election, a superstorm, and high-profile battles over women’s health marked 2012 — not to mention a whole lot of Lena Dunham.
In January and February, the birth control wars raged. The year began with a major kerfuffle: Planned Parenthood got dropped as a funding partner by the Susan G. Komen Foundation — an intra-nonprofit war which felt like the inevitable result of 2011’s long political campaign to [demonize Planned Parenthood’s services] (http://blogs.forward.com/sisterhood-blog/150685/how-planned-parenthood-became-a-liability/). But then something strange happened: the entire Internet revolted and Susan G. Komen had to bow and scrape its way back into the fold, but not before damaging its reputation perhaps irrecoverably.
Very soon thereafter, as if underscoring the point that standing up for women’s health shouldn’t be a political liability, the Obama administration took a bold but necessary stance: mandating no co-pay (not free!) birth control coverage under Obamacare. Needless to say, conservatives (looking at you, Catholic bishops!) were not pleased. The battle over this provision provided some memorable images: the testosterone-rife congressional panel, featuring stern-looking men in religious garb moralizing about women’s health, and the excluded activist Sandra Fluke, who was called a “slut” by Rush Limbaugh and was even attacked by some right-wingers for having a Jewish boyfriend.
“There’s a dividing line between girls who have had sex, and girls who haven’t,” said Angela Chase, star of the cult ‘90s teenage drama “My So Called Life.” As melodramatic and myopic as Claire Danes’ Angela sounds, 21st-century popular culture still attaches transformative powers to sexual experience and views virginity (or lack thereof) as indicative of deeper character traits.
Take Lena Dunham’s viral video endorsing Barack Obama, called “Your First Time”. She uses the clichés associated with one’s first time having sex to describe her first time voting. A wave of conservative criticism attacked the analogy as sick and perverse. Ben Shapiro at Breitbart.com, for example, railed against Dunham for having “mocked virgins.” However, he himself mocked Dunham for having “actually saved herself for Barack Obama (she’s 26).” So, according to Cohen, abstaining from sex at the old maid age of 26 is super lame.
This problem is evident in other “first times” in the press recently. Twenty-year-old Catarina Migliorini sold her virginity for $780,000 in an online auction organized by filmmaker Justin Sisely for his documentary “Virgins Wanted.” Far less troubling than Migliorini’s decision to sell her sexual initiation is that someone could get funding to make a movie documenting and comparing every last second up to and immediately after the act. But that’s what TLC’s “Virgin Diaries” is all about. The series exploits the awkwardness of the participants to confirm the popular belief that virgins over 20 years old are wholly immature and romantically inept, but will be completely socially rectified once they have sex.
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.
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