“Girls” Surprisingly Reactionary Message
I was not a fan of the show “Girls”, even before its creator Lena Dunham rose to prominence as a perfect representation of everything odious and distasteful about the modern-day feminist movement. To be blunt, I simply found the show too depressing. I’ll be the first to admit that my generation has been dealt a bum hand of bad advise and poor job prospects while being left the carry the brunt of the fallout of the Boomer generations terrible choices, but a few episodes into the first season and I was inexplicably ranting at the television screen that life as portrayed on the show simply wasn’t that bad. The female protagonists of the show seemed to simply be reciting an endless litany of complaints about how their lives generally sucked. My job’s going nowhere! I’m broke all the time! My boyfriend is too nice! I’M A VIRGIN AND I CAN’T GET A MAN TO HAVE SEX WITH ME (it was about this point that I said “F this”)! Simply put “Girls” was just too bleak and depressing even for a generally pessimistic bloke such as myself. I stopped watching mid first season and quite happily forgot the show entirely.
With it’s run finally over, however, the more than a few farewell pieces to “Girls” suddenly started appearing in print and online media opining on what the legacy of the show would be and how it would be interpreted by future generations, one of which was by NY Time’s columnist Ross Douthat and succeeded in taking me by surprise with his argument that Lena Dunham’s prized masterpiece was in fact an inadvertent critique of post-patriarchal modernity:
“….successful art has a way of slipping its ideological leash, and the striking thing about “Girls” is how the mess portrayed made a mockery of the official narrative of social liberalism, in which prophylactics and graduate degrees and gender equality are supposed to lead smoothly to health, wealth and high-functioning relationships.
In large ways and small the show deconstructed those assumptions. The characters’ sex lives were not remotely “safe”; they were porn-haunted and self-destructive, a mess of S.T.D. fears and dubiously consensual incidents and sudden marriages and stupid infidelities….Meanwhile the professional world was mostly a series of dead ends and failed experiments, and the idea that sisterhood would conquer all even if relationships with men didn’t work out dissolved as the show continued and its core foursome gradually grew apart.”
I’d agree with Douthat that this was most certainly not the message that arch-progressive feminist Dunham intended to put across to her audience, but that does not mean it is not there and it has significant relevance to the millennial generation.
More so than any other generation in history, millennial such as myself have been told ad nauseam to simply pursue happiness. The Baby Boomers had rebelled against the strict upbringing and traditional values of their parents, and when the time came to raise their own children they responded by bringing them up as near as possible freed from boundaries and rules. Freedom, we were told, was everything while obligations and duties were simply buzzkills.
Of course, happiness and the means to pursue it was given a very particular definition, one narrowly restricted to immediate sensual and material gratification; “sleep around, get wasted and go to the mall for tomorrow we die!” just about summed it up. Career and material acquisition were elevated as ends in and of themselves instead of merely being means to provide for ones’ self and family as marriage and children were degenerated to mere afterthoughts to be done later in life if there was time for them. For the fairer sex, such traditional pursuits are defined almost as a selfish indulgence, a betrayal of all the hard work of women’s rights advocates over the centuries that obligates them to “lean in” and put career first as a duty to the “sisterhood”.
Douthat quite accurately points out that inadvertently “Girls” managed to point out the lie of it all, which is quite rare in modern-day television. The young, urban, professional certainly is a staple of most sitcoms and television dramas, the portrayal almost always conforms to the aforementioned Boomer-inspired conception of what the idyllic adult life should conform to. Everyone has an established career that progresses with only a occasional hiccup. Even characters that are socially awkward go on seemingly endless progressions of dates and one night stands without ever seemingly suffering any consequences. Everyone always gets there happy ending at the end of the day. Ted finally met the mother of his children after raunchily rutting his way through half the New York dating scene. Penny might never have become a famous Hollywood actress, but she eventually left behind her waitressing gig at the Cheesecake Factory to become a successful pharmaceutical sales rep.
“Girls” did actually break this mould by showing “the mess” of modern-day progressive politics and the very tragic effects it has had on people and went even further by not tying everything up in a happy little bow at the end of it all. The promised prescription of workaholicism and empty sex is instead found to be ultimately wanting as the much vaunted “careers” failed to materialize for the main characters and they stumbled from dead end relationship to dead end relationship, constantly miserably and feeling like failures for failing to meet the expectations set for them by society.
Does this change my opinon of the show itself? Not really. I’m not about to go and watch the rest of the series. My original opinion of “Girls” as a dark and often times nasty piece of television still stands. However, in hindsight I must acknowledge the credit it deserves for addressing the dirty underside of modernity that pop culture often turns a blind eye to. We have been sold a lie that has left us sadder and poorer for it in many ways, and acknowledging it is the first step towards finding a better way.