Girl Talk

The ‘Girls' Backlash Addresses Nothing New to Hollywood, But It Sure Was Quick to Hate on Women

I’m not sure what crawled under everyone’s skin so hard after HBO’s ‘Girls’ premiered on Sunday, but I am not pleased. I am not pleased at all, Internet. Do you hear me? That’s the sound of my head swishing to and fro in saddened disappointment. The basic complaints are about how the cast of the show is nepotism central and that racial diversity is thin on the ground. While both points are valid, they also hold true for everything that comes out of Hollywood, but I guess such a female driven show gets special treatment.

If it weren’t for nepotism (and let’s expand that a smidge to include folks who may not be directly related to, but are friends with, someone), nothing would ever get made in Hollywood. I’m not condoning the system as it does favor privilege, but I also know that I wouldn’t recommend anyone for a job worth the amount of time, work, and money TV and films entail who I didn’t trust to not make me look like an idiot by proxy, and the people I trust tend to be ones I know.

I guess we’re at a point where having a cast of women who have all individually proven their talents in previous roles can be reduced to who their parents are, and while I don’t intend to make a sweeping generalization, I would like to mention that the majority of the people who shared the photoshopped “nepotism” poster on my personal Facebook feed were men. I am also curious as to where this outrage was over the past ten years when Judd Apatow (the producer of ‘Girls’) cast the same handful of white dudes in every TV show and film he made, but I guess it’s only an issue when women do it? Surely Hollywood has no double standards! Ultimately, anyone who is financing a TV show has too much at stake to hire talent they are not reasonably confident in – they wouldn’t risk ratings and the investments thereof just to do their buddy a favor. Both Apatow’s casts and that of ‘Girls’ are filled with great actors, regardless of who knows who.

As for the issue of the show being mono-racial, representation is a serious issue on screens both big and small. It is absolutely valid and necessary to criticize the lack of diversity on TV, it’s just interesting to me that while women of color have been criticizing this for ages, white female and male bloggers have decided to join the fray all of the sudden (surprise, it was over a female dominated show!). Most shows barely have any diversity, and if they do it’s often manifested in a token secondary character or a fleeting one. I don’t think it was intentional, but the lack of diversity in the main cast also speaks to the overlap in racism and classism that exists in the social strata being represented – I don’t mean to say that there is no diversity in higher tax brackets, but it is definitely harder to find the further up you go, and that’s not only a serious issue in general, but there is a sad truth alluded to in the casting of ‘Girls.’ They had an opportunity to challenge that norm, but then, so did every other show that has failed to do so and didn’t get an endless tirade of appropriate backlash.

One review of ‘Girls’ was disappointed because there wasn’t a black woman in the main cast, which is a great point, but  just one tip of a massive iceberg. Sure, Hollywood only cares about African American stories when they represent black struggle (frustratingly often solved by oh-so-kind white folk), and I guess Latinas don’t really need to be cast in anything. Asians – what? LGBTQ women can’t be classified by race so that’s just too hard, and Native Americans already got their fifteen minutes this year when America’s Next Top Model featured one of their own just long enough to shove her into a Pocahontas costume before sending her home. But ‘Girls’ is clearly at the heart of the problem and deserves to be tarred and feathered for imposing whiteness on the otherwise overwhelming diversity of the small screen.

As for the pilot episode itself, we’re introduced to Lena Dunham’s character as she is stuffing her face fervently in a parentally financed meal at an expensive restaurant. She comes off as greedy and entitled, not without reason – she is writing her memoirs at the age of 24 and throws down quite the privileged tantrum when her parents decide to cut her off financially. Anyone who assumes that we are supposed to like or respect this character needs to spend some time with their thoughts and maybe note that this was the pilot and there is a whole season of character arch to go, with growth possibly foreshadowed by the painful vulnerability we glimpse in her later in the episode.

Dunham’s character has also spent the last two years working as an unpaid intern, something many offices have taken advantage of via the anxieties spurred by the recession and parents’ ability to support their children post-college. It may be a product of privilege, but is nonetheless exploitation. What I found interesting was the parallel of the entitled 24-year-old who takes her parents support for granted, and her employer who takes her work for granted – both have entitled expectations that take advantage of someone they rely on.

None of the characters are really likeable so far, and yet the show is wonderful to watch, an achievement unto itself. The conversation between Dunham and her skeevy non-boyfriend is viscerally relatable, as are several other great moments, and I can’t help seriously raising an eyebrow at how such a well-made show has gotten such a strong backlash. Maybe because the middle class, parentally-supported, self-involved characters hit a little too close to home for the show’s target audience?

As for scoffing at such outlandish moments as eating a cupcake in the shower, I can’t even muster the energy to roll my eyes. First off, she was eating away from the water stream, no cupcakes were harmed. Second, am I the only one who’s eaten in the shower? Because everyone is missing out. I didn’t even notice the cupcake, I was too busy being excited seeing girls on TV hanging out in the bathroom. I regularly hang out while my best friend showers and vice versa, and if someone happens to be on the toilet, whatever. We have stuff to talk about, we can’t waste precious time worrying about nudity and bodily functions! The other nerve pincher seemed to be Dunham’s character calling herself “the voice of a generation,” which, come on, it was intentionally ridiculous and the character was high on opium when she said it.

The show ends with the appearance of the first person of color, a homeless looking black man. There is indeed something unsettling about that fact. And yet, all I could think of was how much I know that experience. I lived in New York for half a decade, and every time I walked down the street miserably contemplating my life, a black gentleman with whom I was unacquainted would tell me to smile, like that would fix the fact that I had a massive ear infection but no health insurance and wasn’t sure how I’d be able to afford to eat whatsoever after the 24th of the month unless I made a burrito last for at least 4 meals. That moment wasn’t about degrading black people (though I see how it unintentionally sent the wrong message), it was about a specific part of the experience of a young white woman in New York. The issue is not that the only person of color was homeless, but that there were no diverse characters preceding his.

The amount of backlash ‘Girls’ has garnered from men and white women, most of whom have yet to notice that their criticisms not only extend to the rest of the media, but have a history of being voiced by women of color, is frankly stunning. Is anyone serious in implying that Lena Dunham’s privilege, as well as her cast’s, is the only reason this show exists? The fact that she got a blind script deal from HBO based on the award winning film ‘Tiny Furniture’ that she wrote, directed and starred in herself at the age of 24, or that she wrote it while working in retail and writing on a rigid schedule from 8pm-2am is clearly not worth mentioning because her mother is a well known photographer. Now that the show she also wrote and directed has proven to have the same shortcomings that the rest of television does has also oddly overshadowed the reaction to her showing off her non-standard-for-Hollywood body, which has gotten little support from women and much hate-commenting from men, a bold move with an appalling reaction that deserves more mention.

How does it makes sense to hold people in a socially disadvantaged position, in this case, women, to a higher standard than the rest of an industry dominated by men? As far as I can see, the backlash over ‘Girls’ is putting the weight of the racism and classism of TV on the shoulders of women, who are already marginalized in the entertainment industry. The fact that a 25 year old woman could write, direct and star in this show with a mostly female cast is a hard enough achievment on its own, yet overlooked in favor of quick and harsh criticism on such a female dominated project, more so than male dominated ones. Personally, I would like to watch the rest of the season before evaluating it fully.

A follow-up to this post can be found HERE

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