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.
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.
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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Addendum: Girls‘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.