What’s wrong with Girls just being about girls?
James Franco has written an article about Girls, drawing a bit of online attention because Girls is undeniably worthy of it. Also, people are excited because to some, James Franco comes with a culturally manipulated, ineffable air of cool. It’s true that once upon a time I completely adored him; he’s beautiful and smart and made a great James Dean. He was in Freaks and Geeks. But then he went and wrote the worst book I think I’ve ever read, a collection of first-person narratives failing to embody their characters, interwoven in a careless manner completely devoid of empathy. The worst book, perhaps, because I expected more; he has studied at Columbia and Yale, after all. I am not ashamed to say that his book is the only book I have ever thrown in the bin.
Many writers both prominent and improbable, have excoriated Girls and, directly or otherwise, its creator and star Lena Dunham, who is undeniably at the helm of this unabashed look at the lives of four young twenty-somethings living in Brooklyn. Some of these attacks have suggested that Girls bares too much for its own good, that the characters woes are bred from an entitled elitism, that some scenes are overly vulgar in their sexual explicitness, or even that the depiction of sex shies away from an emotional realism. Would these criticisms would have been of the same vigorous reproach had the show been called Boys? Franco’s commentary suggests that they might not, and his immodest criticisms of the show’s creative team weakly substantiated by his self-appointment as proxy for his “female friends in New York” reinforces those very double standards that made the impact of this show so remarkable to begin with.
After all, the show is Girls, and for some reason Franco needs to state that he cannot see himself in the show, probably because he doesn’t want to identify with any of the peripheral characters. The men in Girls are, he seems personally sad to admit, “the biggest bunch of losers” he has ever seen. And while he appreciates that women are as flawed as men, Franco still has a problem with this because “we” as viewers are aligned with the female perspective, not the male, and are encouraged to identify with them. I, in turn, can appreciate Franco’s use of the generic spectatorial term “we” in his piece but I really can’t see past it as anything but a formalistic device; he had already stipulated that he cannot in fact identify himself within the show. Suggesting that there is a collective viewer while at the same time admitting the absence of one is flawed, and attempting to construct an article on that basis is, mostly, pretty unsatisfying. The general gist, though, is that he cannot see himself in the show; that, as it is, is acceptable.
Franco’s major dispute as to the show’s direction seems to be about gender. Certainly there are nuances that will not, and cannot, be reached through Girls, but the foundations of such comments prove quite shallow. A television show or film does not need to feature a mirror of myself for me to feel a connection to it; there are other elements that can reach to and elicit responses from an audience? (I do have an issue with the characterisation of the only gay male, Hannah’s ex-boyfriend Elijah who is yet to develop beyond a surprisingly cruel cliché. Deleterious, perhaps, but mostly a shame, and hopefully a drawback that will be rectified.) Primarily, Girls is about women, and their relationships and friendships with women and men. It is about women, first and foremost, and while women are of course distanced by subtle and broad gulfs, we are often on the same plane. As far as I can tell, Dunham’s aim is not to revenge the template of vapid and vacuous women who appeared on boys’ club Entourage, as Franco offers, but to continue to enlarge the cultural scope of female expression in the face of emotionally vacant pornography and, on a larger scale, everything else. When Franco offers the label of “embarrassing” to define the sex scenes on the show, he manages to perpetuate that view even if not directly subscribing to it. And when he uses the word, to whom does he suggest it applies: the viewer or the characters involved? The viewer should not be embarrassed, and if they are then Dunham’s openness in this way is very necessary. But if Franco is suggesting, as other critics and observers have, that Hannah and her friends are embarrassed during sex, he entirely misses the point of their inclusion. Sex is not something that is experienced in the same way, by everybody, and it is rarely something that can be described in a post-event catch-up with friends. By exploring sex on screen, we as viewers have greater insight into the characters, their personalities, and their relational motivations. A recent scene involved Hannah trying to spice up sex with fairly straight-laced, cherubic man from her hometown in Michigan who only wanted vanilla. Whereas she had seemed sexually unsatisfied with her previous boyfriend’s role-playing desires, in this new situation she was open to them; such a contrast expresses more than words ever could.
For one thing, Franco is right when he says that there is “no obligation to be kaleidoscopic” – even though in many ways Girls is. But the context in which he concedes this point suggests that he is merely trying to build his own intellectual and respectable persona, writing that his Palo Alto upbringing exposed him to many diversities of race and culture, that his experience as an actor has been “extremely diverse”, and that his “friends and collaborators hail from a rich background of races and nationalities.” A deviation from Girls, and a little piece of transparent braggadocio, leads into a declaration of HBO’s responsibilities as a television network. HBO should, Franco says, “represent its subjects accurately.” For one thing, who can say that HBO is not doing so? And for another, as much as is inspired by Dunham’s own experience and as much as it resonates with its generation, Girls is a fiction. The New York is never going to be exactly the same as Franco’s, and he should be sensitive to that reality.
Franco clearly cannot identify with the show, and beyond that, he seems adamant that he will never be able to. In another attempt to paint himself as a liberal, open-minded thespian, he declares, “I am fine watching a show about women dealing with men I would never want to be.” He offers his adolescent tolerance of Steel Magnolias veritable proof of this claim. But I have this advice to offer him: if you can’t identify with the show and you find the inability to do so a particularly troubling thing, then don’t watch it. Lena Dunham is, for the most part, the sole writer on Girls. Her show is also partly autobiographical; she has admitted so in interviews. She writes about living in New York, about being a writer, about exploring friendships and relationships; these are things that she knows and there is nothing wrong with that. Not reaching every demographic, every cultural niche, every aspect of every single person’s life is not a flaw, and it’s a far cry from the ingrained and aggressive discrimination that has afflicted freedoms of race and gender for centuries. Dunham can write honestly about her own experiences and this honesty is immeasurably valuable; the show resonates with me, and with many of my friends, for capturing our mood, right now, in this generation. To me, this show matters, and I am so proud that it exists.
In the end, Franco’s attack seems to target Dunham and her position as the show’s creator. Not only is his final point unclear (is he praising or criticising her writing?), he engages the fact that it is Dunham, in the end, who is the ultimate author of the show, an argument that is as surprising as it is relevant to whatever point Franco is attempting to reach. Franco says that Dunham has an advantage over other graduate students–those he attended college with–because although her fictional alter-ego is a struggling writer, Dunham herself is successful. Hannah “never has to write her book because the series is her book”, says Franco, as though he is criticising Dunham for exploring something that she herself has no investment in. But just like Franco, I’m sure, Dunham started from somewhere. She might be the daughter of a fairly well-established artistic couple, but that does not denigrate the fact that she has created, and continues to make, a successful television show. Her talent and her hard work has made her a success. Hannah has every right to try and achieve the same.
Dunham is the creator of a show on HBO that means an awful lot to a lot of people. So many shows in the past have made me idolise their female characters. I’m just like her, I used to think. A new direction, though; Girls is the first show where I’ve had occasion to think, she is just like me. And that makes it truly something special.