‘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?

Catherine Scott
Wednesday 24 October 2012 13:52 BST

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.

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