I feel a little silly writing about Girls, because it seems that every social commentator in America has weighed in on it by now. It’s sexist, it’s racist, it’s nepotistic, it’s too hard on women, it’s too hard on men . . . There’s probably a Women’s Studies grad student somewhere writing her dissertation on Girls criticism. So when my editor asked me to write about Lena Dunham, single-woman culture, and “What does it portend?” I wasn’t sure whether there was anything new to say. But the results of November 6 — and particularly the way the demographic represented in the show voted — point to a disturbing new angle.
For starters, as with any other contemporary work of art (and I use art in the loosest sense of the word), it’s impossible to tell whether Girls is reflecting or shaping culture. But given how popular the show is and how much scrutiny it has drawn, it’s worth speculating as to which is the case. And for the sake of Western civilization, let’s hope it’s the former. That’s because if Dunham’s vision is prophetic — if it’s helping to forward a larger cultural shift, rather than just depicting a self-contained subgroup — then I think it’s safe to say it’s all over for us.
But before getting into the “The end is nigh” stuff, let’s backtrack a bit. For those of you who are really good about not watching TV, Girls is a wildly popular HBO show about four young women living in Brooklyn and trying to “make it,” whatever that means these days. It’s produced by Judd Apatow (that’s important, and I’ll get into it in a bit) and created by and starring Lena Dunham. If you used the World Wide Web in the last month, you may know her as the tattooed brunette who made the “Voting for Obama is like losing your virginity” ad. Her show just got renewed for a third season, and she got a $3.7 million deal for her first book of essays, successfully lowering the self-esteem of 26-year-olds everywhere.
Dunham has been very forthcoming about the show’s influences. New York magazine reported that she gave her writers a syllabus of books and films that included My Summer of Love. The inclusion of that film is telling, and it helps make sense of Dunham’s project. And that, ultimately, can help us understand how that project just might be an indicator of the decline and fall of the American experiment. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
My Summer of Love is a gorgeously filmed, disarmingly scripted love story about two teenage girls living in a rural British town. The film is lovely and delicate until the last 30 minutes or so, when it kind of makes the case that romantic love is fundamentally homicidal. In a way, it’s about the ache of growing up — but it doesn’t really suggest that you cure the pain of adolescence by growing out of it. So that’s one thing to keep in mind when approaching Girls.
The next important reference point, at least for my reading of the show, is Judd Apatow’s corpus. He’s mostly famous for writing raunchy sex comedies, and Girls seems to fit into that tradition. But I think there’s a fundamental difference between Apatow’s work and Dunham’s. You can argue that, at its most basic level, the primary concern of Apatow’s work is coming of age. And he seems to see independence, restraint, and responsibility as fundamental components of successfully moving from adolescence to adulthood. His work suggests that those are good things .
In fact, the endings of Apatow’s most popular movies all feel a bit like Leave It to Beaver (spoilers ahead): The 40-Year-Old Virgin ends with Steve Carell’s character waiting to have sex until he’s married; Superbad ends with hormonally crazed high-school boys choosing relationships over drunken hook-ups; Knocked Up ends with the father of an accidental baby deciding to get his life together so he can help raise her. It’s almost cartoonishly moral. And that’s not even touching on Apatow’s best work, Freaks and Geeks, a sadly short-running TV show which is basically a panegyric to the Midwest, healthy family relationships, and getting good grades. Freaks and Geeks celebrates the developing ability of its protagonist, Lindsay Weir, to make good choices. It’s about growing up, and its take on coming of age is that it’s a pretty good thing to do.
Apatow and Dunham have a lot in common: Both avoid wisecracks, caricatures, slapstick, and wacky sidekicks. If you’re looking for zany adventures and rollicking good times, look elsewhere. Their work shows zits, greasy hair, dirty clothes, and rolls of fat. Girls is jarringly intimate, noted for the number of scenes featuring characters going to the bathroom. And Apatow’s characters all look like normal people — even Katherine Heigl (Katherine Heigl!) looks somewhat gross for most of Knocked Up. Their work is funny the way real life is funny. They’re subtle and observant and surprisingly tender.
But there’s an important difference between Apatow’s work and Dunham’s, and that is that Apatow tells and re-tells stories of growing up, while Dunham shows a group of women who stubbornly refuse to do so. Apatow shows characters learning the importance of responsibility and morality, while Dunham’s characters are largely devoid of the former and uninterested in the latter.
The show’s main character, played by Dunham herself, embodies all of this. In the first scene of the pilot, when her parents tell her they won’t be paying her bills any more, she loses it, and informs them that instead of pushing her out of the nest, they should be grateful she isn’t addicted to pills. Her friends are equally appalled by the prospect of a 24-year-old paying her own phone bills, and, for the most part, they’re equally reckless. For instance, in the second episode, one of them misses her abortion appointment because she’s busy having sex in a bar. And their romantic relationships — unsurprisingly — come in about every possible iteration of dysfunction.
At its core, Girls feels like a deliberate, dissective examination of a group of people who stubbornly refuse to grow up and are lucky enough to be able to pull it off. The main thing Dunham’s characters share is the idea that just because they exist, somebody else should give them stuff. In and of itself, depicting that isn’t at all a bad thing. Girls is an interesting project, it’s well executed, and it can be really, really funny. Look, I like Girls, and I’m excited about the second season.
But Dunham’s stupid little YouTube ad for the president might have ruined it all for me. That’s because she sounds like she’s channeling her character, Invasion of the Body Snatchers–style. They share the same baffling, naïvely egomaniacal understanding of justice — they both seem to think that because they exist, the universe needs to make sure that all the sex they choose to have is consequence-free.
You can almost argue that Lena Dunham sees President Obama as the perfect surrogate for everything missing in her characters’ lives: He’s their gentle lover, supportive parent, and empathetic friend. He’s special. He won’t let them down. He’s Prince Charming. And that kind of defeats the purpose of feminism.
You’d think the feminist elevation of agency would result in women who take pride in being responsible for their own bodies. You’d hope that telling women that they can do whatever they want would imply that they’re responsible for what they do. You’d think serious feminists would argue that true empowerment is something you lay claim to, not something the federal government dispenses in all its benevolence. But for Dunham, that doesn’t seem to be the case.
In fact, for all practical purposes, the patriarchy no longer decides whom American women can sleep with and when. That’s great. But if you don’t want men in Washington telling you how to use your sexuality, you shouldn’t expect them to subsidize it. But Dunham seems to actually believe they should. Dunham makes tons of money, and I’m quite confident she can afford to pay for her own birth control. But she doesn’t seem to take pride in that; it’s not what her characters aspire to, and given her foray into the delightful world of presidential-election ads, it doesn’t seem to be something she aspires to, either.
Second-wave feminists lionized the independent woman who paid her own rent and busted through glass ceilings and ran for Congress. Being totally self-sufficient was the goal. The idea was that women didn’t need men, whether those men were their fathers or husbands or boyfriends or presidents. By contrast, Dunham’s new vision of women as lady parts with ballots is infantilizing and regressive.
So Girls isn’t the eschaton, and neither is one vapid YouTube video. But if Dunham’s show were a metaphorical canary in a metaphorical coal mine, it would be struggling pretty hard right now. There’s a reason it’s called Girls, not Women.
— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.