Girls Girls Girls

By

A television show about my twenties would follow the life of a girl who is lost, literally and figuratively. There wouldn’t be a laugh track. The show would open deep in my lost year—the year I drop out of college and disappear. With no ability to cope, and no way to ask for help, the main character—my character, me—is completely crazy. She makes a spectacular mess.

A lot happens in the pilot. About ten days before the start of Junior year, my character gets on a plane and abandons everything. She runs away to Arizona by way of a trip to San Francisco with a much older man she has only corresponded with via the Internet. We’re talking about the old-fashioned Internet, in 1994—a 2400-baud modem or some such. It is a small miracle she isn’t killed. She cuts off all contact with her family, her friends, or anyone who thought they knew her. She has no money, no plan, a suitcase, and a complete lack of self-regard. It is real drama.

The rest of that first season is equally dramatic. Before long, she finds a seedy job doing about the only thing she’s qualified to do, working from midnight to eight in a nondescript office building. She sits in a little, windowless booth and talks to strangers on the phone. She drinks diet soda from a plastic cup, sometimes with vodka, and does crossword puzzles. It is so easy to talk to strangers. She loves the job until she doesn’t.

There is an interesting cast. Her coworkers are girls who are also messy. They are different races, from different places, but all lost together. They give themselves names like China and Bubbles and Misty and at the end of a long shift they hardly remember who belongs to which name. My character has many different names. She wakes up and says, “Tonight, I’m Delilah, Morgan, Becky.”  She wants to be anyone else.

This is late-night television. Cable. China does heroin in the bathroom at work. Sometimes, she leaves a burnt strip of tinfoil on the counter. The manager calls them all into her office and yells. The girls will never rat China out. Bubbles has baby daddy problems. Sometimes, her man drops her off at work and the girls smoking in the parking lot watch as Bubbles and her man yell at each other, terrible things. In another episode, the baby daddy drops Bubbles off and they practically fuck in the front seat. Misty has been on her own since she was sixteen. She is very skinny and has scabs all over her arms and never seems to wash her hair. After most shifts, the girls go to Jack in the Box and then lay out by the pool of the house where my character is staying. The girls tell my character how lucky she is to live in a house with air conditioning. They have swamp coolers and live in crappy apartments. My character stares up at the sun from the diving board where she loves to stretch out and think, bitterly, “Yes, I am so fucking lucky.” She is too young to realize that, compared to them, she is lucky. She ran away but still has something to run back to when she is ready. My character doesn’t come to this realization until the season finale.

Every woman has a series of episodes about her twenties, her girlhood, and how she came out of it. Rarely are those episodes so neatly encapsulated as an episode of, say, Friends or a romantic comedy about boy meeting girl.

Girls have been written and represented in popular culture in many different ways. Most of these representations have been largely unsatisfying because they never get girlhood quite right. It is not possible for girlhood to be represented wholly—girlhood is too vast and too individual an experience. We can only try to represent girlhood in ways that are varied and recognizable. All too often, however, this doesn’t happen.

We put a lot of responsibility on popular culture, particularly when some pop artifact somehow distinguishes itself as not terrible. In the months and weeks leading up to the release of Bridesmaids, for example, there was a great deal of breathless talk about the new ground the movie was breaking, how yes, indeed, women are funny. Can you believe it? There was a lot of pressure on that movie. Bridesmaids had to be good if any other women-driven comedies had any hope of being produced. This is the state of affairs for women in entertainment—everything hangs in the balance all the time.

Bridesmaids could not afford to fail, and didn’t. The movie received a positive critical reception (the New York Times referred to the movie as “unexpectedly funny”) and did well at the box office. Critics lauded the cast for their fresh performances. Some people even used the word “revolution” for the change the movie would bring for women in comedy.

A revolution is a sudden, radical, or complete change—a fundamental change in the way of thinking about or visualizing something. Could one movie really be responsible for a revolution? Bridesmaids was a good movie, one I really enjoyed—smart humor, good acting, a relatable plot, a somewhat realistic portrayal of women in a cinematic wasteland where representations of women are generally appalling. Bridesmaids wasn’t perfect, but given the unfair responsibility placed on the movie, the burden was shouldered well. At the same time, the movie did not bring about radical change, particularly when, as Michelle Dean noted in her review of the movie, many of the familiar tropes we see in comedies and in the portrayals of women were present in Bridesmaids. She notes that the portrayal of Melissa McCarthy’s character Megan, in particular, treads familiar ground. “Almost every joke was designed to rest on her presumed hideousness, and her ribald but unmistakably ‘butch’ sexuality was grounded primarily in her body type and an aversion to makeup.” Within this context, considering Bridesmaids revolutionary is a bit much.

Why do we put so much responsibility on movies like Bridesmaids? How do we get to a place where a movie, one movie, can be considered revolutionary for women?

There’s another woman-oriented pop artifact being asked to shoulder a great deal of responsibility these days—Lena Dunham’s Girls, a new television series on HBO. In the past several weeks, we’ve seen a lot of hype about this show. Critics have almost universally embraced Dunham’s vision and the way she chronicles the lives of four twenty-something girls navigating that interstitial time between graduating from college and growing up.

I am not the target audience for Girls. I was not particularly enthralled by the first three episodes but the show gave me a great deal to think about which counts for something. The writing is often smart and clever. I loved the moment when Hannah (Dunham) is in her parents’ hotel room, and they’re reading her memoir manuscript. Her father says, “You’re a very funny girl,” and she says, “Thank you, Papa.” I thought, “I see what you did, there, Dunham.” I laughed a few times during each episode and recognize the ways in which this show is breaking new ground.  I admire how Hannah Horvath doesn’t have the typical body we normally see on television. There is some solidity to her. We see her eat, enthusiastically. We see her fuck. We see her endure the petty humiliations so many young women have to endure. We see the life of one kind of real girl and that is important.

It’s awesome that a twenty-five year old woman gets to write, direct, and star in her own show for a network like HBO. It’s just as sad that this is so revolutionary it deserves mention.

At times, I find Girls and the overall premise to be forced. Amid all the cleverness, I want the show to have a stronger emotional tone. I want to feel something genuine and rarely has the show given me that opportunity. Too many of the characters seem like caricatures, where more nuance would better serve both the characters and their storylines. Hannah’s not-boyfriend, Adam, for example, is a depressing, disgusting composite of every asshole every woman in her twenties has ever dated. We would get the point if he were even half the asshole. The pedophile fantasy Adam shares at the beginning of the second episode is cringe worthy. The ironic rape joke Hannah makes during her job interview in that same episode is cringe worthy. It all feels very, “Look at me! I am edgy!” Maybe that’s the point. I cannot be sure. More often than not, the show is trying too hard to do too much but that’s okay. This show should not have to be perfect. Everything should not have to hang in the balance.

Girls reminds me of how terrible my twenties were—being lost and awkward, the terrible sex with terrible people, being perpetually broke. I am not nostalgic for that time. I ate a lot of ramen during my twenties. I had no money and no hope. Like the girls in Girls, I was never really on the verge of destitution but I lived a generally crappy life. There was nothing romantic about the experience. I understand why many young women find the show so relatable, but watching each episode makes me slightly nauseous and exceptionally grateful to be in my thirties.

Every girl or once-was-girl has a show that would be best for her. I’m more interested in a show called Grown Women about a group of friends who finally have great jobs and pay all their bills in a timely manner but don’t have any savings and still deal with messy love lives and hangovers on Monday morning at work. Until that show comes along or I decide to write it, we have to deal with what we have.

As you might expect, the discourse surrounding Girls has been remarkably extensive and vigorous—nepotism, privilege, race. Dunham has given us a veritable trifecta of reasons to dissect her show.

Lena Dunham is, indeed, the daughter of a well-known artist and the principal cast is comprised of the daughters of other well-known figures like Brian Williams and David Mamet. People resent nepotism because it reminds us that sometimes success really is who you know. This nepotism is mildly annoying but it is not new or remarkable. Many people in Hollywood make entire careers out of hiring their friends for every single project. Adam Sandler has done it for years. Judd Apatow does it with such regularity you don’t need to consult IMDB to know who he will cast in his projects. The cast’s parentage is largely beside the point.

Girls also represents a very privileged existence—one where young women’s New York lifestyles can be subsidized by their parents, where these young women can think about art and internships and finding themselves and writing memoirs at twenty-four. Many people are privileged and, again, it’s easy to resent that because the level of privilege expressed in the show reminds us that sometimes, success really starts with where you come from. Girls is a fine example of someone writing what they know and the painful limitations of doing so.

One of the most significant critiques of Girls is the relative absence of race. The New York where Girls takes place is much like the New York where Sex and the City took place—one completely void of the rich diversity of the city. The critique is legitimate and people across many publications have written deeply felt essays about why it is problematic for a show like Girls to completely negate certain experiences and realities.

I say again: Every girl or once-was-girl has a show that would be best for her.

In Girls we finally have a television show about girls who are awkward and say terribly inappropriate things, are ill-equipped to set boundaries for themselves and have no idea who they’re going to be in a few years. We have so many expectations for this show because Girls is a significant shift in what we normally see about girls and women. While critics, in their lavish attention, have said Dunham’s show is speaking to an entire generation of girls, there are many of us who would say the show is only speaking to a narrow demographic within an entire generation.

Maybe the narrowness of Girls is fine. Maybe it’s also fine that Dunham’s vision of coming of age is limited to the kinds of girls she knows. Maybe, though, Dunham is a product of the artistic culture that created her—one that is largely myopic and unwilling to think about diversity critically.

We all have ideas about the way the world should be and sometimes, we forget how the world is. The absence of race in Girls is an uncomfortable reminder of how many people lead lives segregated by race and class. The stark whiteness of the cast, their upper middle class milieu, and the New York where they live, forces us to interrogate our own lives and the diversity, or lack thereof, in our social, artistic, and professional circles.

Don’t get me wrong. The stark whiteness of Girls disturbs and disappoints me. I wonder why Hannah and her friends don’t have at least one blipster friend or why Hannah’s boss at the publishing house or one or more of the girls’ love interests couldn’t be an actor of color. The show is so damn literal. Still, Girls is not the first show to commit this transgression, and it certainly won’t be the last. It is unreasonable to expect that Lena Dunham would have somehow solved the race and representation problem on television while crafting her twenty-something witticisms and appalling us with sex scenes so uncomfortable they defy imagination.

In recent years, I have enjoyed looking at pictures from literary events, across the country, wondering if I will see a person of color. It’s a game I play and I generally win. Whether the event takes place in Los Angeles or New York or Austin or Portland, more often than not, the audiences at these events are completely white. Sometimes, there will be one or two black people, perhaps an Asian. At the events I attend, I am generally the only spot of color, even at a large writer’s conference like AWP. It’s not that people of color are deliberately excluded but that they are not included because most communities, literary or otherwise, are largely insular and populated by people who know the people they know. This is the uncomfortable truth of our community and it is disingenuous to be pointing the finger at Girls when the show is a pretty accurate reflection of many artistic communities. Do we have any right to critique Girls when there’s so little diversity in a community that should know better and claims to do better?

There’s more, though, to this intense focus on privilege and race and Girls. Why is this show being held to the higher standard when there are so many television shows that have long ignored race and class or have flagrantly transgressed in these areas?

A generation is a group of individuals born and living contemporaneously. In the pilot, Dunham’s character, Hannah Horvath, is explaining to her parents why she needs them to keep supporting her financially. She says, “I think I might be the voice of my generation. Or at least a voice. Of a generation.” We have so many expectations; we’re so thirsty for authentic representations of girls that we only hear the first half of that statement. We hear that Girls is supposed to speak for all of us.

There are so many terrible shows on television, representing women in sexist, stupid, silly ways. Movies are even worse. Movies take one or two anemic ideas about women, caricature them, and shove those caricatures down our throats. The moment we see a pop artifact offering even a sliver of something different, say, a woman who isn’t a size zero or who doesn’t treat a man as the center of the universe, we cling to it desperately because that representation is all we have. There are all kinds of television shows and movies about women, but how many of them make women recognizable?

There are few opportunities for people of color to recognize themselves in literature, in theater, on television, and in movies. It’s depressingly easy for women of color to feel entirely left out when watching a show like Girls. It is rare that we ever see ourselves as anything but the sassy black friend or the nanny or the secretary or the district attorney or the Magical Negro—roles relegated to the background and completely lacking in authenticity, depth or complexity.

One of the few equivalents to Girls we’ve ever had was Girlfriends, created by Mara Brock Akil. Girlfriends debuted in 2000, and ran for 172 episodes. It followed the lives and close friendships of four black women in Los Angeles—Joan (Tracy Ellis Ross), Maya (Golden Brooks), Lynn (Persia White), and Toni (Jill Marie Jones). I particularly admire how the show rarely made race its focal point. Joan, Maya, Lynn and Toni simply lived their lives. They were all professionals (a lawyer, a writer and secretary, a real estate agent, and an artist/actress/whimsy of the week), who dealt with job stresses, romantic troubles, romantic successes, new adventures, and tried to become better women. It took me years to appreciate Girlfriends and I’m not sure why, but once I fell in love with the show, I fell hard. Finally, I was able to recognize something about myself in popular culture. The writing was smart, funny, and the show did a good job of depicting the lives of women of color in their late twenties and thirties. The show wasn’t perfect but the women were human and they were portrayed humanely. Girlfriends is a show that never received the critical attention or audience it deserved but it lasted for eight seasons and still has a very dedicated fanbase of women who remain so relieved to see themselves in some small way.

What I understand about Girls is that there is a community of girls and women who are just as relieved to see themselves in some small way. Unfortunately, that community doesn’t include everyone who needs that relief. Realistically, it can’t but the fact remains that for many of us who watched Girls, who had high expectations, no matter how unfair those expectations were, it was disappointing to see yet another “smart” television show where our experiences were completely ignored.

Women of color come of age and have the same experiences Dunham depicts in her shows but we rarely see those stories because they don’t fit the popular imagination’s rendering of Other girlhood, which is generally nonexistent in popular culture. At least there have been a few shows for black women to recognize themselves—the aforementioned Girlfriends, Living Single, A Different World, The Cosby Show. What about other women of color? For Hispanic and Latina women, Indian women, Middle Eastern women, Asian women, their absence in popular culture is even more pronounced, their need for relief, just as palpable and desperate.

The incredible problem Girls faces is that all we want is everything from each movie or television show or book that promises to offer a new voice, a relatable voice, an important voice. We want, and rightly so, to believe our lives deserve to be new, relatable, and important. We want to see more complex, nuanced depictions of what it really means to be whoever we are or were or hope to be. We just want so much. We just need so much.

The desire for authentic representations of girlhood is like searching for water in a desert. It is a matter of survival, and also faith. We’ll die without water, but we know it’s there, even if we are surrounded by a billion grains of dry sand that all look the same. We know we’ll find a cactus plant or an oasis or that the skies will open with rain or that you can dig deep enough to find a small pool of water to quench an unbearable thirst. For some women, Girls is that pool of water in a dry desert of flawed representations of girlhood. For the rest of us, we’re still stumbling through the desert beneath the burning sun. We’re waiting. We don’t have much faith left.


Roxane Gay's writing appears or is forthcoming in Best American Short Stories 2012, New Stories From the Midwest 2011 and 2012, Best Sex Writing 2012, NOON, Salon, Indiana Review, Ninth Letter, Brevity, and many others. She is the co-editor of PANK, and an HTMLGIANT contributor. She is also the author of Ayiti. You can find her online at http://www.roxanegay.com. More from this author →