I wonder if (and sometimes fear that) she looks like the girls in Lena Dunham's controversial HBO series Girls. Subtract the moneyed upbringing (if there had been Blackberrys when I was in my 20s, my parents would not even pay for "half of it" as do the Marnie character's parents) and the NYC milieu, and maybe this is the current iteration of my world of the writerly, aspirational, intellectual 20-something.
The show has gotten a lot of ink, virtual and otherwise, for its portrayal of what appear to be decidedly "post-feminist" women. (While the girls in question don't seem exactly obsessed with men, they are largely drawn to mean, self-involved men or spurn nice, supportive men). Frank Bruni in the NYTimes bemoaned, "Gloria Steinem went to the barricades for this?") Admittedly, I watch each episode half aghast at the consistently terrible boy behavior that the women put up with, and go back for more of. But in reality, smart women putting up with emotionally damaging behavior from men is alas, nothing new. Girls has the feel of being well-observed, for better and worse, and for me that elicits attention and respect. So I wonder, what relationship does the show have to the lives of the women who produced it, and women like them? Does it situate this behavior critically? Is it meant to be pure (albeit black) comedy? Does it affect a disaffected posture as a stylistic gesture? That is, while Girls is widely hailed as "zeitgeist-y," what exactly is it zeitgeisty of? The answer to that question isn't immediately evident, and that's one of the engaging things about the show.
While Girls makes me uneasy, I am happy that it's out there, especially because it is written, directed, and co-produced by a woman. There's not a lot of that around in TV or film. Yet the show is repeatedly criticized, and held up as exemplary of just about every social ill. For example, Jon Caramanica recently made it the centerpiece of his critique of how "White" HBO's programming is. While Girls has some great moments of skewering white privilege--see Jessa's lecture to her fellow non-white nannies in the park about unionizing, while her own charges go missing--yes, it reflects a pretty white world. But Girls, one of the only woman-centered production in HBO's history, carries this rap? As for the critiques of the sexual behavior the girls on Girls engage in, where was the roar of outrage at, Entourage, with it's sexually rapacious, fuck 'em and leave 'em boy pack? Is this another instance of what one commentator has noted as the especially harsh criticism levelled at women in the pop culture milieu?
If we want true equality for women in the popular imagination, we have to allow for unflattering images of women too. When those images are presented by a woman like Lena Dunham, who is clearly trying to get at something about life for her generation, I'm willing to ponder them and defer to the creative vision. It does seem true that some of the most engaging pop cultural contemporary images of women that are created by women traffic in shame and humiliation: consider Tina Fey's Liz Lemon on 30 Rock who was, until recently, hopelessly single, and is a perpetual slob and junk food junkie. Or the range of humiliations-- scatological, sexual and otherwise--that Kristen Wiig endures as the lead character in Bridesmaids. But maybe the depiction of women as unglamourous, messy, and UNdesirable is a radical depiction in the context of the endless sexualized barbie doll images women are typically relegated to in TV and film. What's crucial here is that women get to be subjects: they are central to the plot, they direct the narrative, they have other women friends. To need female characters to be morally virtuous is just as essentialist, and limiting, as to need women to be the cliched mother/whore. What we see in Girls (and more pointedly in Bridesmaids) is some wince-inducing behavior that makes women complex and, in their ickier moments, worthy of our compassion.