All Society Really Wants Is Girls: A British Cultural Studies View of HBO’s New Comedy

Everything we view in the media exists as carefully constructed, but not always intentional, social commentary. Films and television series are endlessly edited and changed at the hands of executives in suits whose end goal is to make as much profit as possible off the product. Their job is make the video appeal to as many viewers as possible. By the very nature of the job they have to suck out the uniqueness and turn the heavy, vaguely sweet taste of pumpernickel bread into plain old generic Wonder bread. Often this metaphor is actually quite literal with main stream media being predominantly focused upon white males. The average lead of you big budget, blockbuster film or high profile network is almost always going to be a white male. They may throw in a female counterpart or an American-American best friend to so-called diversify the product, but in the end you’re viewing a product told from a particular social view that reinforces a white patriarchal power structure.

This is where British cultural studies comes in to analyze these social conditions and critique the way they deal with representation. Cultural studies makes several basic assumptions about society and the way it functions, such as that capitalist societies are divided societies. The traditional division amongst society is class, but it can also be broken further down by gender and race. It also makes the assumption that social relations are understood as a social power that is broken down into a structure of domination and subordination that are continually in struggle and strife with each other. The study works with this assumptions to evaluate how well a cultural product actually presents a given culture through its specific viewpoint.

While many TV series try to hide and disguise the lens through which they are told from, due to the fear of turning off viewers who don’t line up exactly with that viewpoint, HBO’s Girls is bravely unabashed in admitting it’s lens. The main gender on display is readily apparent through the title alone, but you don’t have to look any further than the pilot’s first scene to figure out both the class and race that the story is filtered through. The series opens with Hannah Horvath, played by Lena Dunham, being cut off financially from her family. She’s been living in New York City for free courtesy of mom and dad, with no paying job. Rather she’s been an intern for a publishing company for over a year, with little chance of being promoted to an actual position. It’s clear from this opening alone that the characters being dissected in the series are of an upper class society, fueled by by their parent’s generous donations. Their apartments are lavishly decorated, and the clothing is perfectly hipster with beautiful dresses constantly shown off.

But while the show’s protagonists may belong to this elite crowd, the show openly critiques this lifestyle. Hannah’s mom is the one behind cutting financial ties, claiming they need to stop fueling her “groovy” lifestyle or she’ll never fully grow up. They need to cut their financial ties so she can learn to support herself. The characters on display aren’t necessarily meant to be likable people; quite often they’re spoiled, undeserving, brats. Or in other words, they’re twenty-something year-olds. The infamous quote HBO’s been using to advertise the series comes from late in the pilot when Hannah proclaims to her parents: “I think that I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least a voice of a generation.” When used in the ad without any context the line becomes a poster quote for all the backlash the Girls has gotten from being pretentious and hipster, but within the scene it’s not meant to be a powerful declaration, but rather the annoying babble of a young person who has just drank an entire cup of liquid opium.

A show about females isn’t exactly revolutionary, but perhaps the way in which Girls presents the titular gender is. Rather than the perfectly beautiful, skinny models that are ubiquitously among television, Girls lead star, Lena Dunham, is someone who fits outside of the normal lead model. She’s not extremely skinny or overly fat, the two types of actresses you seem to see, rather she’s fairly normal. This is almost a revolution to television. A woman who isn’t drop dead gorgeous, but rather normal. Someone whose perceived beauty can be called natural, rather than artificial. The NBC comedy 30 Rock has joked before about this type of rare occurrence when an actress on the fictional show TGS comes back from hiatus having put on few pounds, which spurs network executive Jack Donaghy to say, “She needs to lose 30 pounds or gain 60. Anything in between has no place in television.” Those that tune in to HBO are well accustomed to nudity, and Dunham plays directly to this by never holding back even if her body isn’t the typical display case that television loves to show off.

While Girls deals successfully with the female gender, the series contains flaws in how it represents males. Every male characters on the show is merely surface deep. They are mostly archetypes that exist to complicate the women’s lives. It’s an inverse of the traditional male gaze, rather than an equal presentation of gender. The is no male lead in the series, with only two reoccurring males in the first three episodes that appear sporadically when the plot absolutely requires them. When the girls are conversing with each other they discuss a variety of subjects, often going behind simply their gender, but whenever a male is on screen the text, whether upfront or underlying, is always about how different men are. There appears to be two distinct types of men that exist in the Girls universe. The first is the sensitive man, whose the type of guy who always cares about how others feel and tries his best to be nice. This archetype is personified in Marnie’s long-term boyfriend Charlie who always asks how she’s doing and making sure that he’s the best boyfriend he can be. Marine is portrayed as annoyed and disgusted by his lack of confidence in himself. His constant reassuring of her feelings and trying to win her approval comes off as a weakness and makes him a constant chore to put up with.

In contrast is the masculine man, who is personified in a young artist Marine meets at a gallery showing where she works. The artist is ultra confident in himself and bosses Marine around, telling her to care less about things. After she warns him that she’s not going to kiss him, he says he has no intention of it right now. But he then moves closer and warns her that the first time they sleep together he may scare her. “Because I’m a man, and I know how to do things,” he says before walking away. The following scene depicts Marine more visibly aroused than she’s ever been around her boyfriend. At first this depiction of men may seem like yet another cry for the modern emasculated men to return to their macho exterior ways, but the show presents another angle of the ultra confident alpha male type that reveals it to be just as deeply flawed as the sensitive male. This other side of the coin is portrayed by Hannah’s sort of boyfriend Adam, an overly masculine, albeit still hipster, man who has no regard for her feelings whatsoever. Adam is shown constantly pushing Hannah around and in general just being a terrible influence in her life. It’s the very macho attitude that attracted Hannah to him in the first place that makes their relationship so destructive. Whether you’re too masculine or too sensitive, no matter what the boys are never right for the girls.

While Girls representation of gender may contain a few problems, it most successfully nails modern day youth culture. Never before has technology changed and advanced so quickly in our lives, which has created a large gap between today’s generations. With the majority of the media being created by older generation, the use of the internet and new technology has generally been used poorly in films and movies. With a decidedly fresher, younger voice behind the series, Girls features some of the best, subtle integration of technology on television. In the pilot Hannah debates whether she should call Adam rather than text him to which Marine reminds her the Totem of Chat: “The lowest would be Facebook, followed by g-chat, then texting, then email, then phone. Face to face is of course ideal, but it’s not of this time.” The show openly acknowledges the younger generations obsession with electronic communication, showcasing their reliance rather than talking down about it as other shows tend to.

But the show’s crowning achievement in presenting technology is in a simple scene where Hannah struggles to craft the perfect tweet to describe how she’s feeling. Scenes of people just typing are almost never interesting, yet Girls manages to perfectly capture exactly why the youth run wild with social media: it’s empowering. Alan Sepinwall, TV critic at HitFix.com, writes about this scene, “It’s been a shitty day, one where nothing has gone the way Hannah wanted it to, and leaving her feeling very much out of control of her life. But she can control what she writes, what she listens to, and how she moves when there’s no one around to see.” No show seems to capture this social media movement among the younger generation better.

The reason why Girls speaks to such a specific voice is because it comes from an almost singular voice with Lena Dunham working not only as the lead actress, but also the creator, head writer, and main director of the series. The daughter of two successful New York artists, Dunham experienced much of the same life her character Hannah has. But rather than be cut off from her parents they continued to encourage her career and now at the young age of twenty-five, Dunham has reached a high level success in only a short amount of time. Her breakthrough project came in the form of the 2010 indie film Tiny Furniture, which she also wrote, directed, and stared in. The film was based directly off her real life experiences right after college and co-stared her own mother, establishing an official track record of her projects being rooted personal. This carried over when her pitch for Girls got picked up, thanks in part to executive producer Judd Apatow who found himself drawn to Tiny Furniture.

Like the character of Hannah, Dunham has lived a privileged life as an upper class, white female. Tiny Furniture was filmed on a camera she was given for her twenty-first birthday and the twenty-five thousand dollar budget was financed completely by three art investors that already knew her. Dunham has barely even experienced living away from her home, as she chooses to still live with her parents and sister. But the greatest gift Dunham has been given is self-awareness to realize how lucky she has been and how absurd it all kind of is. It’s this self-awareness that led to the subject matter of Girls and allows herself to both continue to be apart of this unique social upbringing and at the same time deconstruct and mock it perfectly.

Girls is not a show for everyone. It comes from a specific voice from a singular comedian and deals with her precise experiences. It’s deals distinctly in the intersection of gender, class, race, and age. Sure Girls may still belong to a partially upper class, white voice, but it’s female pitch and young tone separate it amongst the Wonder bread as something new, fresh, and unmistakably pumpernickel.

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