Tuesday, May 29, 2012

HBO's Girls: Objectification by women, for women?

I've always been interested in feminism and feminist critique, but, not being a woman, you'll have to excuse me if I get anything wrong. Not that I think I've got this one wrong. Although I look forward to watching the latest episode of HBO's Girls each week, that desire is somewhat precariated by the train-wreck mentality and absolute fatalism it espouses for young people, especially young women.

I'd like to say that my problem with the show isn't global, but it kind of is. Namely, the characters are defined entirely by their sexuality and their relationships with men. It's no surprise that Shoshanna, the virgin, has the least screen time: without a sex life, she has nothing--within the rhetorical framework of Girls--to talk about. Jobs are given cameo appearances as places to meet and/or conflict with men: Hannah has her sexually assaultive boss (with whom she offers to have sex, on her friend's recommendation, for "the story"), Jemima a sexually tense relationship with the father of the children she babysits, and Marnie the opportunity to cheat on her boyfriend with some generalizably artistic asshole who I suppose is a girl's idea of a real man. (Shoshanna nearly gets a story arc, but then the dude refuses to deflower her.)

There are definitely some really good things about Girls. It generally reminds me of the movie Bridesmaids, which I suppose is just to say that it stars women, which I honestly find incredibly refreshing (besides the fact that Bridesmaids was hilarious), and it doesn't subject them to the male gaze. And the show is funny, and it is without doubt in very many ways accurate and true and I'm sure that lots of women/girls can relate to it. But then... I guess the problem is that the girls in Girls, though not objectified by the male gaze, still subject themselves to it or adopt its rhetoric. I mean, we're seven episodes into the season, and I think we just saw Hannah happy for the first time ever, namely when her creepy lover agrees--by way of a screaming match--to become her boyfriend. Not to mention that Marnie broke it off with her long-time boyfriend and is, for all intents and purposes, even less happy than she was when she was with him. And Shoshanna might be getting a story arc again, this one involving non-sexual genital massages. Right...

Maybe I'm wrong or don't get it or whatever. But I don't think so. Even the "issues" arcs appear token and are resolved in symbolically disturbing ways, like Hannah's aforementioned acquiescence with sexual harassment or Jemima's defusal of her unwanted pregnancy by drug abuse, alcohol, and sexual promiscuity (the three tokens of feminine freedom, I guess?). And what about Hannah's writing career? The only passage we've been privy to is about boys--namely in a sanctimonious judgment of Marnie and Charlie's failing relationship.

The whole show might be an example of what's been called "New Sincerity"--a type of artistic rhetoric that tries to invest more emotionalism in artwork over and against postmodern devices of irony and cynicism. But to give a comparative example of something that might also be New Sincerity and that is definitely similar to Girls but without being radically diminutive to women, I would point to Chelsea Martin's Everything Was Fine Until Whatever, which, though written in the memoir-style of what I suppose Hannah's essays might look like--and how, I suppose, creator Lena Dunham's diaries may in fact read--actually deals with themes beyond sexuality and plays artfully with poetics, even as it addresses similar kinds of insecurities and agonies as seen in Girls. In short, Martin's work appears to me to by written by a critical and thinking woman--undoubtedly a voice of her generation, as I think Dunham desperately wants to be--and not just a girl obsessed with boys. (Check out Martin's piece "McDonalds Is Impossible" at the Poetry Foundation for proof of her literary awesomeness.)

So, yeah. I am possibly way off track here. I've been reading Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism's Work is Over by Susan J. Douglas this week, which is undoubtedly informing this critique. Maybe the kind of cultural criticism on offer by Douglas is irrelevant to modern women; maybe she's one of those crusty old sex-hating hairy armpit feminists that ought to have died with the dinosaurs in the '70s. BUT WHATEVER I'M JUST A DUDE.


P.S. A note on bias: I totally prefer irony and cynicism to emotionalism... if that wasn't enormously obvious.

P.P.S. I really like Girls. I watch it every week! (And that's neither irony nor cynicism but just good old fashioned hypocrisy!)

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