‘Girls’ is not diverse, not feminist and not empowering

Lena Dunham's hit show has been applauded for representing real women - but where exactly is the feminism?

Share
Related Topics

I didn’t understand the fuss about the TV series Girls while I was living in the States, and now it’s come over to my home country I’m still kind of baffled.

(SPOILER ALERT: Episode 2)

The amount of attention that this programme gets seems only to demonstrate how tragically grateful women are still expected to be to see a TV show with four female leads. The very fact that it’s still seen as some kind of novelty, forty-plus years after women demanded that half the population be treated with the same respect as the other half, only shows how retrogressive our media culture remains.

Of course, it’s great that at such a young age, writing talent Lena Dunham has achieved such visibility and success. And yes, it’s great that she’s an ordinary looking, normally shaped young woman and isn’t afraid to use her looks as part of her art. It is about time we saw some sex scenes that contained normal female bodies rather than baby-oiled emaciated mockeries of femininity. But those are about all the feminist victories we can claim from Girls. Its lack of racial diversity has already been well discussed – what’s there to celebrate for feminism when black, Hispanic or Asian women are totally written out of a series that’s supposedly set in one of the most diverse cities on earth? But also, what’s there to celebrate for feminism when a show depicts four entirely self-interested young women and a lead character having the most depressing, disempowered sexual relationships imaginable?

I remember back in the heady days of the mid-90s – yes, I’m old enough to remember it clearly folks – when an exasperated journalist hit the nail on the head by describing what was most galling about the Spice Girls and their faux feminism, namely ‘their acceptance of partial identities, which only make up a whole woman when you put them together’. And media culture has continued to demand that women accept this caricaturing ever since.

When Sex and The City was at its height in the early 2000s, it was pop culture’s favourite game to ask women to pigeonhole themselves as either wild sexpot Samantha, dewy-eyed romantic Charlotte, fierce cynic Miranda or everywoman (with a budget to spend $500 a whack on a pair of shoes, natch) Carrie. So it's hardly surprising Girls has been compared to SATC, when here we have again wild sexpot Jessa, dewy-eyed romantic Shoshanna (or rather, too naive and caricatured to be realistic Shoshanna), strait-laced career girl Marnie and slovenly, directionless Hannah. God forbid our media ever depicts a woman as complex, nuanced and defying simple categorisation.

I suppose we could be grateful that there’s a little more realism in Girls – we actually see the characters having money troubles and pregnancy scares rather than effortlessly gliding through the expensive city without a care in the world. Hannah’s exploitation in an unpaid internship will strike a chord with many of us - I did do an unpaid internship, and although I didn’t feel exploited at all and loved it, it does rankle with me that my generation is expected to ‘pay their dues’ by doing unpaid work when our parents were never asked to do the same. However, our gratitude that someone is showing a few chinks of truth about my generation doesn’t make Girls feminist, or ground breaking, or a sign of progress in media culture.

As a commenter on Bitch put it, “I can't figure out a single thing that Dunham does that is feminist, or that her characters do that are feminist, besides being female. Which is not good enough.” The character Hannah has a sexual relationship that comes across as disempowered and degrading, involving discomfiting scenes such as her partner ‘joking’ that he is going to anally penetrate her without her consent, and later describing his fantasy (as she silently cringes) that Hannah is an 11 year-old who he is going to send home ‘covered in come’.

I’ve described in more detail how these disturbing interactions have been dismissed as mild BDSM, which they are most certainly not, and while I appreciate that there are women out there enduring cringeworthy sex, the fact this is seen as adding comedy value to the show speaks volumes. A UK TV critic described Episode 1’s sex scenes as “two of the most excruciatingly uncomfortable couplings I've seen on the small screen.” But no one seems interested in examining what this means, that in 2012 it’s still seen as ‘funny’ or ‘revealing’ that women have nasty, coercive, humiliating sex where they don’t feel empowered to speak up.

Watching Tiny Furniture, Dunham’s earlier feature film, implies that these kind of sexual encounters are something Dunham or those close to her have endured, and yet that often passes without comment. Hannah’s lax attitude to sexual health in Girls may also be unfortunately reflective of too many girls’ ignorant approach to STDs, but again I don’t see why showing this on the small screen is progressive or helpful in any way.

I suppose the point about Girls is that just as male characters are free to be idiotic, irresponsible, dim and lazy, female characters should be extended the same courtesy. However, the fact we’re still expected to jump for joy just to see four young white leads on our screen shows we’re nowhere near that point. And if we do get to that point, I will not be watching a plump young woman having disempowered, demeaning sex and claiming it as a feminist victory. I’ll be watching My So-Called Life and dreaming of real girls.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project and Quality Manager

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is an independent ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Sales Executive - OTE £20,625

£14625 - £20625 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This role is for an enthusiasti...

Guru Careers: Financial Controller

£45 - £55k DOE: Guru Careers: A Financial Controller is required to join a suc...

Recruitment Genius: Fertility Nurse

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join the ho...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Nicky Clarke has criticised the Duchess of Cambridge for having grey hair  

Letting one’s hair turn grey would be the most subversive Royal act

Rosie Millard
 

London’s foreign money bubble is bursting – but will we be better off?

Chris Blackhurst
Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'
Singapore's domestic workers routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals

Singapore's hidden secret of domestic worker abuse

David Cameron was shown the country's shiniest veneer on his tour. What he didn't see was the army of foreign women who are routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals
Showdown by Shirley Jackson: A previously unpublished short story from the queen of American Gothic

Showdown, by Shirley Jackson

A previously unpublished short story from the queen of American Gothic
10 best DSLRs

Be sharp! 10 best DSLRs

Up your photography game with a versatile, powerful machine
Solved after 200 years: the mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army

Solved after 200 years

The mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army
Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

Robert Fisk on the Turkey conflict

Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise
Investigation into wreck of unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden

Sunken sub

Investigation underway into wreck of an unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden
Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes

Age of the selfie

Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes
Not so square: How BBC's Bloomsbury saga is sexing up the period drama

Not so square

How Virginia Woolf saga is sexing up the BBC period drama
Rio Olympics 2016: The seven teenagers still carrying a torch for our Games hopes

Still carrying the torch

The seven teenagers given our Olympic hopes
The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise

The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis...

...but history suggests otherwise
The bald truth: How one author's thinning hair made him a Wayne Rooney sympathiser

The bald truth

How thinning hair made me a Wayne Rooney sympathiser
Froome wins second Tour de France after triumphant ride into Paris with Team Sky

Tour de France 2015

Froome rides into Paris to win historic second Tour
Fifteen years ago, Concorde crashed, and a dream died. Today, the desire to travel faster than the speed of sound is growing once again

A new beginning for supersonic flight?

Concorde's successors are in the works 15 years on from the Paris crash