Tuesday, April 17, 2012

My problem with Lena Dunham’s “Girls,” and all the criticism of it

Let’s get one thing out of the way quickly: I do NOT believe that Lena Dunham’s “Girls” has an obligation to “diversity.” I am of the mind, which I’ve seen written about elsewhere, that if “Bored to Death” didn’t have that obligation, then “Girls” doesn’t have it either. What is that, anyway? That a show about Women is defined as “other,” and therefore it has to represent every population that is ever “othered”? I think it’s almost more progressive to have a show about rich white girls that doesn’t try to be universally diverse, where that’s not its raison d’être, because then we’re one step closer to women not being “other.”

However, the whole debate about diversity, and whether “Girls” is obligated to have more of it, is limited to boxes on a diversity checklist (does it have a person of color? check; gay person? check; disabled person? check), and I guess I am opposed to that checklist view of humanity, not only because it promotes tokenism, but also because it isn’t humanistic enough, holistic enough. It reminds me of people in relationships who have a Conversation about whether they’re going to be Exclusive, and if they aren’t Exclusive, it means they’re Free to date and sleep with other people. What about the emotional tenor of your relationship? What about the implicit promises you’ve made to the other person by confiding in them, by acting as if you care about being with them? I’ve always been wary of people who treat other people like a checklist, who need a contract to have a relationship.

But if “Girls” wanted to acknowledge the diversity of the human experience in a more holistic way, it might do so in a less lazy approach to the main character’s central problem. Hannah, the protagonist, suddenly gets “cut off” by her mom and dad, who have been entirely supporting her for the two years since college, during which time she’s had an unpaid internship at a publishing company and started writing a memoir. And as much as I bristle at people who get to do unpaid internships in glamorous industries rather than get the first job they can find the minute they graduate from college because they need the money, I understand that some people are like that, and if Lena Dunham wants to represent those people, that’s her prerogative.

But then Hannah is all, “What am I gonna do, work at McDonalds?” and that’s when my heart sinks. Because “working at McDonald’s” is such a lazy cliché of a worst-case employment/career/future scenario. It’s such a lazy cliché that if you DID end up working at McDonalds, you could mitigate the horror of it by being self-consciously twee about it, like, Look At Me, I’ve Really Hit Bottom Now. The symbolism of it would be heavy enough to carry you. And being carried by symbolism is actually a comfortably familiar way to live for someone like Hannah.

I would like to see Hannah get a job as a customer service representative at a car insurance company, or something like that. She should get the job by looking at a bunch of want ads and responding to all of them and taking the first job offered. And she should NOT be comically bad at the job, but rather perfectly competent at it even if she hates it, because then she wouldn’t even be able to fall back on the image of herself as a flaky fuck-up.

And then she would meet people at her job who were totally unfamiliar with the type of lifestyle she used to lead. People who had gone to college, yes, but maybe they went to CUNY while living with their parents in Queens and working at the same time, rather than a four-year stint on an idyllic quad where people had dorm-wide meetings about cultural hegemony. People whose favorite band was Maroon 5 and had no idea anyone thought there was anything wrong with that. People who don’t understand those little boots Hannah wears. People who don’t even USE the word “hipster.” People who don’t watch “Girls” but do watch “American Idol.” People who would peg Hannah as “artsy” and use the word “funky” to describe her outfits and then get it all wrong when buying her a birthday present, maybe they’d buy her some goth thing made of crushed velvet because that’s what they associate with the idea of “alternative.” Women who think French manicures are beautiful and have never met anyone who didn’t agree.

Because that’s the population that you work with when you just have a job because you have to support yourself. In real life, it isn’t a question of publishing internship or McDonald’s. It isn’t about symbolism of despair. It’s the way the rest of the world works, and diversity would be a natural by-product of that scenario. You’d definitely get racial minorities there in addition to middle-class (as opposed to upper-middle-class) white people, maybe not so many out gay people because homophobia runs super rampant in environments like that, but that idea too might be eye-opening for Hannah. That Republicans aren’t just freaks you see on the news, they’re also the people in the next cubicle at your unglamorous job that is too mundane to even offer the comfort of being a symbol.

“But wouldn’t that be boring? It’s a TV show; it has to be fun,” some might say. No, it wouldn’t be boring. Hannah’s JOB would be boring, yes, but I’m not saying we should watch her do data entry for eight hours. Her being in that environment would be anything but boring. Especially if she still held onto dreams of “being a writer” and led her former lifestyle in the off hours. I mean, you could still live in Greenpoint with a roommate on a customer-service salary. What kind of conversations would she have with that horrible guy she has sex with, about her job? Would he encourage her to switch to woodworking because it’s more “honest”? What if she went and had sex with some Republican guy from work who had a thick New York accent and unironically showed off his giant flat-screen TV to her but was better in bed than that guy? (Which wouldn't be difficult.) What would be more offensive, hearing his opinions about illegal immigrants or having the woodworking guy say “let’s play the quiet game”?

That’s just one example of what could happen. What I’m trying to say is, if you let her work at McDonald’s for comic effect, you’re playing it too safe. If you let her be a “day hostess” at a fancy restaurant where her only coworker is a hipster, as Lena Dunham’s character did in her movie “Tiny Furniture,” you’re still playing it too safe. You’re indulging the upper-middle-class mindset about what the possibilities are for how a person can survive and build their adult life. Which is a much bigger implicit insult to the viewers than anything the critics are saying about checklist diversity.


  1. Have you ever seen "Enlightened"? It actually does a decent job of looking at this sort of diversity--Laura Dern has a breakdown and winds up working with the sort of people who would think a crushed velvet keepsake box from Hot Topic would be a good gift for someone "artsy."

    In any case, utterly agreed here--that sort of diversity is woefully underexplored, and often accomplishes the same goals as checklist diversity--it explores what class really means (education and other forms of social and cultural capital, in addition to race) without being all LOOK RICH PEOPLE AND POOR PEOPLE TOGETHER.

    1. How have I never heard of "Enlightened"? Thank you for pointing me to it. It would be fantastic to see that phenomenon explored on a TV show. I'll seek it out.

  2. Once again, you are able to verbalize my discomfort with a cultural trope perfectly!

    I wonder if Lena Dunham even realizes that this is a thing, though. Based on her body of work and NY Times articles I've read about her (which is a whole other story), I don't believe she's ever had a job like that, or even been in a situation like that. She's one of those kids who grew up with creative parents in NYC, then went to a small liberal arts college, and then pretty much started making movies. Which is great for her, but not really conducive to that sort of story.

    But *someone* should make that TV show.

    1. But that's just the problem. Why are there people who go to small liberal arts colleges who realize that unpaid publishing internships are a thing, but not that shlubby corporate-drone jobs that "require" a "college degree" are a thing? Where does that exact split of knowledge and ignorance come from? I mean, it's not like Lena herself did an unpaid internship in publishing--like you said, she just started making movies, aided by all the cultural and financial capital that having parents steeped in the Tribeca art scene afforded her.

      I feel like as much as Lena realizes that Hannah acted like a brat toward her parents, and in stealing the housekeeper's tip, she may not have realized that the "McDonald's" thing was also bratty, especially since then she has that dude say that other clueless/obnoxious thing about McDonald's.

    2. Yeah, it's a very specific kind of being sheltered.

      In a sort of sideways way, it reminds me of people I know who have spent their whole lives in places like NYC and San Francisco, and are completely unaware that there are culturally interesting places in the middle of the country. Not even in a snide way - they're just totally unaware. And it ends up being its own form of ignorant provincialism - like making a joke about how it would be hard to be a vegan in Minneapolis, when Minneapolis is actually a great place to be a vegan.

      Anyway, I think the thing about the schlubby corporate drone thing is that it's not bad ENOUGH. McDonald's is the universal signal of "you're fucked." It's lazy but safe. Human Resources administrative assistant at Budget Rental Car takes a bit more explaining and nuance.

    3. Exactly. It's that type of ignorance, borne of living your whole life in a rarefied little bubble. And the McDonald's vs. schlubby corporate drone thing--that's exactly what I was trying to say about it in my original post. McDonald's is too easy, too comfortingly symbolic. You NEED the thing that takes more explaining and nuance, if you're going to be "real" about it the way "Girls" wants to be, but I think Lena D. thinks in cartoons when it comes to the parts of society outside her bubble. McDonald's is performance art, but HR assistant at Budget Rent-A-Car would be too horrifyingly real to contemplate.