On April 22, HBO aired the second episode of the new series “Girls” — the much-vaunted over-billed black comedy about four over-privileged women in their early 20’s trying to overcome the obstacles against being taken seriously as adults, while still living off their parents.
The episode — entitled “Vagina Panic” — also came on the heels of a firestorm of criticism around “Girls” that erupted shortly after the show’s premiere on April 15. Critics of the show have called it casually racist, arguing that creator Lena Dunham had effectively whitewashed Brooklyn, removing all traces of ethnic otherness from the mise en scène in order to make room for her imported cast. Soon there was a general uproar, culminating in a wave of highly personal responses from bloggers around all corners of the web, trashing Dunham.
In retrospect, the backlash surrounding “Girls” seems like it must have been just another calculated part of the promotion; how could HBO not have foreseen that their oversaturated campaign would elicit that kind of a response? That an inexperienced but ambitious 24-year-old with a famous parent but not a lot of career clout to fall back on, should have her breakthrough project so wildly overhyped before its release seems like, well… pretty much the exact nosedive trajectory of Lana Del Rey’s music career.
Much like Del Rey, the dominant tenor of the backlash against Dunham right now is that she is an untalented (or at best mediocre) fame-seeker whose rapid success is based on a kind of desultory mass appeal, and the fact that she had a well-connected mother to glean contacts from. For the record, I have to say that I don’t believe any of this is true. But more importantly, even if it were, I have to ask: so what?
All of it seems to be missing the point. If Dunham was as lacking in talent as her opponents accuse her of being, what would really be so disgraceful about that? Would the sheer amount of time and energy she’s put into writing, acting and directing the series not surely make up for a lack of natural flair? And if she was able to gain financial backing for her first film and for “Girls,” partially due to her mother’s success in the art world (although I hardly think Laurie Simmons’s fame is the kind that translates into opening doors in Hollywood), what would be so terrible about that, either?
But what’s especially galling to me is that Dunham is far from being untalented. Her sense of humor is dark and a little perverse, and but it’s intended as exactly that: dark humor. In the second episode of “Girls,” for example, Hannah goes on a job interview and seems to be getting along swimmingly with her interviewer until she jokingly accuses him of being a date rapist. After what seems like an eternal pause, her interviewer explains that her humor isn’t “office-ok”, but that she should contact them again in six months. Scene likes this are supposed to make us cringe in horror. Like countless other shows like “Seinfeld,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” it’s precisely in the perversity of the situations that the characters get themselves into that Dunham wants us to find an absurd humor.
“It’s supposed to be a comedy about women in New York who are really smart, but their lives are a mess,” commented the show’s co-executive producer Judd Apatow at the show’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. “They know they should be doing great things, but they don’t know what it is, and they have kind of a feeling of self-entitlement about it. That’s the joke of the show.”
While the initial marketing of “Girls” may have given viewers the misleading impression that it would be a “Sex and the City” for the millennial generation, in reality, Lena Dunham is absolutely nothing like Carrie Bradshaw. In fact, she’s more like the female mumblecore version of Larry David.
This is why I can’t understand so many of the articles taking “Girls” to task for not having a more diverse cast. In an article for The Huffington Post, writer Phoebe Robinson complains that the show doesn’t live up to its promotional marketing as a universal representation of “the 20-something experience,” and that it features a cast that’s woefully undiversified by 2012 standards. “‘Girls’ doesn’t represent me nor the women I know who have matured in NYC,” complains Robinson. To be fair, the HBO publicity team may have mismarketed the show to seem like it was representative of “the universal 20-something experience”, but it’s not Dunham’s fault that’s not what the show is about.
What “Girls” is is a satirical representation of the part of society Dunham is best acquainted with, and which she critiques in highlighting its glaring political incorrectness — the lack of diversity on the show is a deliberate effort at capturing this. While people seeking representation from the characters on “Girls” and feeling left out may immediately be disappointed with the show, maybe Dunham’s scope is actually just narrow enough to raise a discussion about race and privilege.