HBO’s Girls, Feminism, and Hegemony

Girls

I find Girls utterly compelling to watch as a cathartic examination of the ways in which I have at times been a narcissistic egoist and the ways in which I have at times allowed myself to be dominated by narcissistic egoists.

To me the show makes sense as a naturalistic dark comedy centered on unsympathetic protagonists in the spirit of Curb Your Enthusiasm, but with a more earnest tone and with more sincere drama connecting the bits of cringe comedy.

It’s well-written in the sense that the characters are vivid and believable and their actions are morally complex enough that different viewers can form different interpretations and judgments of their actions.

Like The Big Lebowski it can be read as a kind of post-mortem of the idealistic aspirations of the American counterculture of the 1960s. Or like Curb Your Enthusiasm it can be read as a satire of the self-determining subject of Enlightenment liberalism. Whether or not its writers intend these readings is another question.

Feminism

It is arguably a feminist show if we by ‘feminism’ we mean something like ‘a personal ideology which asserts that women should have equal rights as men’. (See for example here and here and here and here.) The show presents complex narratives about the lives of certain women, touches on issues important to certain women, and its central character is shown as a desiring, desired, and desirable subject despite having a heavyset body which deviates from the beauty ideals normative on television. In these ways it somewhat addresses the woeful imbalance in the representation of men’s and women’s lives on television.

It is obviously not a feminist show if by ‘feminism’ we mean something like ‘a collective movement to end gendered oppression’. (See for example here and here and here.)  In Girls, gender is never problematized or even examined, nor are class, race, heteronormativity, cissexism, ablism, or any other form of oppression. In general, all social forces as such are studiously ignored.

In other words, Girls is a feminist show only in the most narrowly liberal sense of the word feminist.

Hegemony

The characters on Girls are, to a one, unaware of any social dimension of their personal struggles. They lack a sociological imagination, the ability to make connections between their personal troubles and public issues. All evidence suggests the show’s writers also lack this sociological imagination.

Given the existing structure of opportunities in the American culture industry, it is unsurprising that a show like this would be made and that it would claim to be feminist.

Given the existing balance of forces in American society it is unsurprising that socially engaged feminists would have to exert themselves to explain why the show’s lack of intersectional or reflexive awareness is a problem.

Hegemony functions most effectively when it operates at the level of subliminal assumptions, below the level of our conscious awareness. The crucial assumption of capitalist hegemony in its liberal articulation is “we are all essentially individuals”, i.e. that individuality is the universal ahistorical truth about human subjectivity.

When hegemony is well-established, those who enforce it do so without being aware of doing so. No doubt those who defend Girls’s feminism are sincere; no doubt Lena Dunham thinks she is just writing about what is real; no doubt the executives who hired her think that they have just hired a talented artist; and so on.

The critique of Girls’s non-feminism isn’t personal. This critique is the attempt to de-naturalize a social formation, one that is hidden not only by denial about its existence but by denial about the very existence of the social.

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AddendumGirls‘s resonance with certain publics creates opportunities to discuss the connections between private troubles and public issues which the show itself ignores. But getting people to listen may not be easy. Norbert Elias’s astute observation about middle-class ideology applies here:

The doors below must remain shut. Those above must open. And like any other middle class, this one was imprisoned in a peculiarly middle-class way: it could not think of breaking down the walls that blocked the way up, for fear that those separating it from the lower strata might also give way in the assault.

Hence the intense insecurity, anxiety, egoism, and self-exceptionalism of Hannah Horvath and her friends, which so many viewers find relatable even as they find it abhorrent.

3 thoughts on “HBO’s Girls, Feminism, and Hegemony

  1. Sociological theory is a high-culture phenomenon par excellence; as such, it ought to address itself to high culture and leave discussion of low culture to the entertainment section of the paper where it belongs. Shows like Girls should be seen but not heard, except perhaps as data in a study of how bourgeois womanhood has been corrupted by liberalism and capitalism. Unfortunately, what’s left of the discipline is eagerly giving itself over to the Philistines (i.e. its own hangmen) in a plague of “pop culture” studies.

    -Kevin

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    • Dahlke, is that you?

      Part of me wants to agree with you but the larger part wants to question these concepts of high and low culture that you’re deploying. To me the concept of high culture seems to designate the fetishised tastes of a modernist bourgeoisie itself desperate to usurp the social position of the aristocracy. Should sociology ally itself with this elitist project? I think that path consigns us to becoming traditional intellectuals in Gramsci’s sense.

      I totally concede that these pop-culture studies of mine are follies. I write them to vent my feelings. I don’t mean them as serious ideological critique, partly because I’m disillusioned with ideological critique as a vehicle for revolutionary action.

      On the other hand, if I can use these little essays about Girls or Superman or what have you to spark a discussion about sociological ideas, then they have some redeeming value.

      But enough about me. What about you? Are you still a radical cultural determinist? Are you saying that high culture is the fulcrum, and theory the lever, with which we can move the Earth?

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  2. Chris,

    Yeah, it’s me. Don’t read too much into my little rant, which is a mere aesthetic gripe and not a truly serious theoretical point of order. Also, it wasn’t directed against you- I know you’re a serious guy who deals with serious topics- but rather against the sort of mercenary, wannabe-capitalist academic who panders to “pop culture” in the (usually vain) hope of becoming a bottom-feeder of the entertainment industry. The quality of this stuff is often shockingly poor (typically failing both as real scholarship and as popular writing at the same time), and I must say that it makes a real shame for what’s left of the humanities and social sciences.

    Your point about the social ambitions of the bourgeois in relation to high culture is incontrovertible and well-taken, but there was more to it than raw social climbing. The (old-school) bourgeoisie pursued high culture with an enthusiasm that was not only sincere, but a corollary and cognate form of its typical religious zeal. The class position of the old aristocracy vis-à-vis the producers of arts and letters, and to society more generally, made all but the most superficial gestures of cultural appreciation impossible. Infamously- from a bourgeois point of view, that is- these “cultured” aristocrats would eat and talk loudly during musical performances, employ the best literary and scholarly minds of their time as little more than babysitters, and were often functionally illiterate and proud of it. Meanwhile, the relatively humble status of the bourgeois, combined with their characteristic piety, made them approach arts and letters with a sense of veneration and gratitude that must strike the aristocrat as craven and subservient, and a diligence that must odiously smack of work. And where the upper tiers of the pre-modern world saw literacy and refinement, respectively, as ruling-class prerogatives to be jealously guarded by instruments such as sumptuary law, the bourgeoisie saw them as indelibly bound up with universal religious instruction to the extent of not just permitting these things to the lower classes, but actually imposing them on the latter by force.

    To me, the bourgeois appeared in their finest possible light back when they listened to classical music with hushed reverence, visited museums, and saved their whole lives to afford a liberal education for their kids. This old-school, cultured bourgeois can be suggestively compared to the degenerated contemporary model that doesn’t read, views possession of various consumer gimmicks and gadgets (“technology”) as isometric of intelligence, and otherwise think it’s cool to be stupid well into their middle age. This creature, since he acknowledges no source of social precedence other than money and/or political power in his liberal “meritocratic” social order, has the effrontery to actually be proud of his ignorance and arrogant about his Philistinism in a way that once would have earned violent censure, but today is not only permitted, but encouraged by the “democratic” State- since the latter acknowledges no source of social precedence other than command of organized violence, which it of course monopolizes.

    In any case, I’ve offered these observations in order to help answer your final question re: current theoretical perspective. I’ve long since ditched the appellation, “cultural determinism.” I undertook the latter in the course of participating in debates that I’ve come to view as silly and irrelevant as the years pass since I’ve been away from the academic cloister with all its pointless Scholastic hair-splitting and petty ego-trips and jealousies. If I ever did any sociological work again, it would be under the rubric of something like “the pure theory of social class”, and intended as radical sociological fundamentalism in opposition to both “materialism” and “cultural determinism”. I don’t want this post to spiral totally out of control and so I won’t elaborate right now (although I may in the future), but the fragment of analysis I just pulled out of my ass should give you the general gist of it.

    -Kevin

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