If you missed the premiere of HBO's Girls on Sunday, you might be a little confused about all the controversy. While for the past year all we've been seeing are updates on the show's casting and articles on how amazing it is that 25-year-old Lena Dunham is already a successful writer/actress/filmmaker, in the week since the show aired, we've mainly seen angry Tweets and columnists ripping it apart. The premiere didn't feature any scenes of animal abuse or long anti-Betty White rants, just a few white women in their early '20s talking about trying to make it in New York. So, what gives?
Part of the problem is that the show didn't live up to expectations. People grew even more excited about the prospect of an honest and funny Judd Apatow-produced lady-centric comedy after Bridesmaids, and the humor on Girls is more nuanced. In fact, it seems some people totally missed that the show is supposed to be funny.
It's easy to understand why people would make that mistake. HBO hyped the show as a statement on young women today, and made matters worse by including the scene in which Hannah says, "I think I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least a voice of a generation." In context, it's obvious that Hannah isn't actually the "voice of a generation" because she makes this declaration while high after presenting her parents with her five-page "memoir" in an attempt to squeeze money out of them. However, since the term has frequently been applied to Dunham, and she both wrote and performed the line, it's a bit harder to tell where reality ends and satire begins. Dunham actually acknowledged the confusion in a recent interview, saying, "It's funny. The joke in the pilot, I kept being like, 'She's on drugs when she says it, so hopefully nobody thinks it's really my thinking.' But it's in the trailer so everyone thinks it's my credo."
The issue of fantasy versus reality has sparked other criticisms of the show. According to the marketing campaign Girls is a more realistic version of Sex and the City, but many people disagree with the version of young New Yorkers put forth by the show. It's entirely true that in the current economy, many recent grads rely on their parents for money while they do internship after internship and fight for jobs people used to get straight out of college. Girls really hit a nerve here because many people who took money from their parents at 24 feel embarassed about it, and many who didn't resent that they had to pass up these incredible (unpaid) opportunities to work. Plus, when you're part of a generation that's routinely criticized for being too entitled, you can't help but cringe at scenes showing Hannah's lack of gratitute toward her parents.
The shows stirs up all kinds of uncomfortable questions about class and privilege, and it's even harder to accept Girls' satire of struggling 20-somethings when it's coming from Dunham, the daughter of photographer Laurie Simmons, and actress Allison Williams, daughter of newsman Brian Williams. Plus, as many people have rightly pointed out, the New York of Girls is a city mysteriously devoid of minorities, with the exception of a black homeless man who harasses Hannah at the end of the pilot. Dunham's response to the complaint was frustrating. "We really tried to be aware and bring in characters whose job it was to go 'Hashtag white people problems, guys.' I think that's really important to be aware of. Because it can seem really rarified," she said. "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." Uh, Dunham is the creator/writer/producer of Girls. If she wanted to add more non-white characters to season one, she certainly could have.
Of course, there is a worse alternative — and it's called 2 Broke Girls. Many viewers have noted that the minority supporting characters on the show are all based on racist stereotypes. But, while that show is also about young women struggling in New York, critics don't give it the same amount of scrutiny as Girls because an offensive CBS sitcom isn't really news. So far Girls hasn't proven itself worthy of so much media attention either, but maybe we should watch more than one half hour before making a final judgment.