The Anger, Pleasure & Sheer Guilt of Sunday Nights at 9:00, A Semi-Auto-Ethnographic Analysis of HBO’s “Girls”

Girls Presentation - GirlsCast

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This past weekend I attended the Central Pennsylvania Consortium’s Annual Women’s Studies Conference.   I not only met some amazing undergraduate Women’s & Gender Studies majors from Dickinson, Franklin & Marshall, Gettysburg, and Bucknell; but I also presented my first solo-authored paper, a milestone in the world of academia!

Some have asked about my paper, but to spare everyone from reading 22 pages, I’ve attempted to convert my 12 presentation slides into a slightly more narrative form below for a brief illustrated account of my analysis:

The Anger, Pleasure and Sheer Guilt of Sunday Nights at 9:00: A Semi-Auto-Ethnographic Cultural Analysis of HBO’s Girls

In the spring of 2012, HBO introduced a new series entitled, Girls, which follows Hannah Horvath and her three best friends–all white, upper class females in their early 20s–who move to New York City to “live the dream, one mistake at a time.” While some critics felt the show captured the realities of young women across the board, others were more skeptical of who exactly was and could be included under the heading of “girls.” I have personal stakes in culturally analyzing this media artifact as a white, upper class female (now in my late 20s) who grew up in New York City. And although I share many characteristics with the main characters on Girls, my experiences have been very different.

While I’ve seen most episodes of both Sex and the City and Gossip Girl, my experiences (and the experiences of most who closely align with the social identity profiles of these characters–at least on paper) growing up in Manhattan were so far from anything that Carrie Bradshaw or Serena Van Der Woodsen experienced that they might as well have been in a different city. In addition, with a background in media literacy education, I work to constantly interrogate media images and messages, to pull apart the ways in which popular culture texts (often TV shows) reinforce, perpetuate and normalize socially constructed ideas about issues of race, class, and gender. And I am particularly hypersensitive when it comes to portrayals of what life is like for seemingly all young women living in NYC.

  • Questions posed in this paper: How do representations of and mainstream discussions about the young, white, upper class characters in Girls reinforce and perpetuate dominant ideas of what “normal” looks like? Whose stories get told? How can a “text” like Girls in turn be used to educate about such topics?* 
  • My complicated relationship with Girls: Every Sunday night I would watch Girls with humor and joy at witty one-liners and new young female powerhouses in Hollywood (Lena Dunham) pushing boundaries, while also feeling angry and perplexed by many story lines and character arcs. And yet…I kept coming back for more (what?!?) The explanation for this is rooted in the notion of cultural hegemony (Gitlin, 1981) where dominant ideologies of the of the ‘ruling class’ (those in sociocultural ‘power’) are imposed and accepted as the cultural norm (it is more complicated than this, but too long to explain here, read up on it, it’s fascinating). 
  • Concern: Watching a show like this, I wonder about viewers, particularly youth, who may lack a necessary critical lens to understand the notion of ‘real vs. fake’ (in terms of representations of people, places, and lifestyles), as well as Hollywood politics (e.g. how much of a show is dictated by contracts and ratings), and that all media messages are constructed
  • Conceptual framework: For my analysis, I drew from the fields of media literacy, critical whiteness studies, feminist studies, cultural hegemony, culturally responsive pedagogy, and antiracist education

* Disclaimers: I am focusing solely on Season 1 and largely on the “hype” (critiques, interviews and theoretical framings of selected topics) that surrounded Girls, not on the content of the show 

Mixed Reviews: One of the things that most attracted me to Girls was the hype that the show was receiving before it even premiered last year. In the three days after the premiere, conversations about the show “went from a chatter to a dull roar. And there were very mixed reactions. Some celebrated the show:

Girls is “like nothing else on television…[it is a] bold defense (and a searing critique) of the so-called Millennial Generation by a person still in her twenties. It is a sex comedy from the female POV…It embraces digital culture, and daily confession, as a default setting” – Emily Nussbaum, New Yorker

While others offered a more socioculturally disappointed take:

“…Sadly, [Girls] misses what makes the city so extraordinary—the diversity of this world. It seems narrow-minded that the show’s creator, Lena Dunham, who was raised in New York City and educated at an esteemed (and ‘diverse’) liberal-arts college—would choose to leave this element out” – Rebecca Carroll, The Daily Beast

The title, Girls, is vague. Allison Williams, who plays one of the 3 best friends, explains that she feels the title of the show is “…a bit tongue-in-cheek” because the main characters are young women, but at times still act like girls. While some might agree that the young women of the show are in a state of maturational-limbo (making the title facetious), once we see more of the characters and plot lines develop, we must ask: what are some of the potential consequences of having such a misleadingly broad, mildly ironic, and seemingly innocuous title for a television program that is in actuality reinforcing a dominant ideology of cultural norms? Contrary to what one might assume from the title, there is in fact a rather specific demographic of girls represented in the show who possess privileges based on the intersections of their race, class, education level, geographic location, etc.

Doug Kellner (1995), cultural and media studies theorist, argues that television and other forms of media culture play “key roles in the structuring of contemporary identity and shaping of thought and behavior” (p. 237). Television in particular helps to integrate individuals into the social order; it reinforces and celebrates dominant values, models of thought, and behaviors for imitation from audiences.

“Whiteness is so stabilized that introducing a character of color runs the risk of being construed as a token. When all the characters are white, a show can ignore race; but once a non-white character enters the equation…the mainstream gaze often reinforces its whiteness as presenting people of color in stereotypical, essentialized roles” – Rumnique Nannar (2012)

Below are examples of recent sitcoms (The New Normal, New Girl, and Happy Endings) that have featured the “token” Black character in their recurring casts. This cannot be considered ‘progress’ when people of color are still largely filling stereotypical roles and are featured as ‘peripheral’ characters with side plot lines (notice positioning of Black character on the end each cast):

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With Girls, it is crucial to know who the actresses are and the role that cultural and social capital (e.g. socioeconomic status, success of family members) presumably played in granting them the access and opportunities to play these roles:

Girls Presentation - Girls Cast Nepotism

Jessa Johansson: flighty and adventurous, played by Jemima Kirke (father is a rock star, mother is a designer); Marnie Michaels: uptight and ambitious, played by Allison Williams (Brian Williams’ daughter); Shoshana Shapiro: naïve and optimistic, played by Zosia Mamet (David Mamet’s daughter); Hannah Horvath: talkative, self-obsessed, yet shameless, played by Lena Dunham (NYC native, daughter of artists). I don’t mean to say that these actresses landed these roles void of any talent or hard work; I mention this to tie back to my initial question of whose stories get told; when access is directly related to social and socioeconomic ‘power,’ it is difficult to deny the patterns (and the facts) of how many people of color are in the top decision-making and story-telling positions both on and off the screen.  

Lack of Racial Diversity was a “Complete Accident”: Within the first few weeks after the show premiered, Dunham and her team received a lot of heat about the lack of racial diversity in her show. In an interview with The Huffington Post, Christopher Rosen asks Lena Dunham about whether she is “concerned that people might just think Girls is another example of ‘white people problems‘” (i.e. working at unpaid internships after college and being financially dependent on one’s parents), to which she responds:

“When I get a tweet from a girl who’s like, ‘I’d love to watch the show, but I wish there were more women of color.’ You know what? I do too, and if we have the opportunity to do a second season, I’ll address that.”

Girls Presentation - Dunham & Glover

Working to Resolve the “Issue”: As those of you who watch the show know, Season 2 of Girls opens up with Hannah dating a Black guy, yet within the first 2 or 3 episodes the couple breaks up over different sociopolitical views (but not before they have an explicit conversation about race where Sandy posits that Hannah was probably dating him to make a statement about dating someone of another race. Hannah responds that she hadn’t even thought about him being Black until that moment, to which he he lets her know that that is in and of itself the problem because, after all, he is indeed Black. This comment pretty much ends the conversation and subsequently the relationship. After the second episode of season 2, the Black character (who had potential of a main role) is gone.

“If they had responded to the controversy over Girls and race by quietly casting a famous black actor and pretending nothing more needed to be said, they might have looked just as naïve as Hannah, who claims not to see race because she’s in denial about her own prejudices… Unfortunately, one great exchange does not a truly diverse TV show (or authentic portrait of New York City) make” – Judy Berman, The Atlantic

Lived Experience vs. Knowledge of Self: In an interview on NPR, Terry Gross asks Lena Dunham about the lack of racial diversity on the show that she wrote, produced, directed and starred in. Dunham replies:

“I am a half-Jew, half-WASP, and I wrote two Jews and two WASPs. Something I wanted to avoid was tokenism in casting…I really wrote the show from a gut-level place, and each character was a piece of me or based on someone close to me. And only later did I realize that it was four white girls. As much as I can say it was an accident, it was only later as the criticism came out, I thought, ‘I hear this and I want to respond to it…’

While we can identify the white privilege undertones in her response, the point is not to ‘blame’ her for having relatively homogenous experiences growing up; the point is to recognize how normalized “whiteness” is/can be in both the media and in our every day lives. More importantly, as Ta’Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic points out, it’s necessary to recognize how conscious Dunham is about writing from her own experiences and perspectives: 

“I think storytellers…must [first] pledge their loyalty to the narrative as it comes to them…I’m not very interested in Lena Dunham reflecting the aspirations of people she may or may not know. I’m interested in her specific and individual vision…If that vision is all-white, then so be it. I don’t think a storyteller can be guilted into making great characters.”  

The takeaway is that we must work with ourselves and our youth to develop a critical consciousness as consumers of media. Ideas about race must be examined and contextualized in relation to the structures, institutional and cultural practices, and discourses in which it exists and operates in order to be understood (Lewis, 2004), particularly when it comes to constructed media images and messages. And it is especially imperative that white people examine and consider how whiteness is represented and constructed in the media and consider the ways in which these images and messages inform and impact how society understands race.

Sexism & Gender Inequalities in Hollywood: While I have spent this presentation and paper largely critiquing Dunham and Girls, a recent study out of USC Annenberg’s School of Communication & Journalism, found that across 1,565 content creators, only 7% of directors, 13% of writers, and 20% of producers are female. This translates to 4.8 males working behind-the-scenes to every 1 female (Smith et al., 2010).

In addition, in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter last summer, while Lee Aronsohn (TV writer & producer, creator of Two and a Half Men) applauded women like Tina Fey, Whitney Cummings, Chelsea Handler for “securing a voice to discuss formerly taboo subjects on TV,” his praise fell [very] short when he followed up by saying:

Girls Presentation - Aronsohn

“[But] enough, ladies. I get it. You have periods…we’re approaching peak vagina on television, a point of labia saturation…”

These overtly sexist and chauvinistic comments are powerful examples of the hostile environments that women continue to face in the entertainment industry. So again, while I stand by my critique, when we situate the show and Aronsohn’s comments within larger sociohistorical and cultural contexts, it becomes clear that women like Lena Dunham–young, artistic, creative, and envelope-pushing individuals–are incredibly important to us, to the current [and future] generations of young people, of game-changers, of those who will pave new paths for all aspects of social justice.

Conclusion(s): It has become increasingly appropriate to regard popular culture and the media not as imposed institutions, but more as terrains of exchange between participants and their lived experiences (Morrell, 2002). We can no longer deny the evidence confirming that “media no longer just shape our culture – they are our culture” (Thoman & Jolls, 2004). Critical media literacy brings an understanding of ideology, power and domination that helps teachers and students to explore how power and information are linked (Kellner & Share, 2007). As Ang (2002) and Hall (1980) argue, this approach “embraces the notion of the audience as active in the process of making meaning, as a cultural struggle between dominant readings, oppositional readings or negotiated readings” (cited in Kellner & Share, 2007). Given that media representations influence how we construct our identities and understandings of the world, media scholars scholars argue that education “must meet the dual challenges of teaching media literacy in a multicultural society and sensitizing students and the public to the inequities and injustices of a society based on gender, race, and class inequalities and discrimination” (p.370). Therefore, I argue that using popular culture texts like Girls (and the show’s accompanying ‘hype’) could serve as incredible tools for teachers and students to critically analyze how media messages are constructed and how they in turn affect how we learn to think about ourselves, others, and the world around us.