When we first met Girls‘ antihero Hannah Horvath back in mid-April, she halfheartedly proclaimed herself the voice of her generation… seconds before backtracking, and reinstituting herself with the title, “a voice of a generation.” It was a tongue-in-cheek self-inflicted jab written and delivered by the series’ omni-hyphenate Lena Dunham, but it has turned out to be bizarrely accurate. Girls does speak to people. Just not necessarily the people you might expect.
According to a Nielsen ratings data publicized via Vulture, the majority of people tuning in to watch HBO’s first season dramedy are not actually the 24-year-old New York-based young women depicted on the series: They’re older. And Midwestern-er. And, most of all, male-er.
It turns out that Girls’ biggest fan bases lie above the age of 50, live in areas like Providence, Kansas City, Cincinnati, and Charlotte, and are distinctly rich in Y-chromosomes. The first two factors can be explained easily. Let’s start with age: Girls airs on HBO — a network that costs money, which is something that, generally, adults have more of than their youthful counterparts.
The location is another no-brainer. Providence, Kansas City, Cincinnati, Charlotte — all big cities, though not huge cities. They are locales that can understand and relate to the toils of the urban lifestyle depicted on Girls, but are not similar enough to be put off or annoyed by the program’s self-deprecating attitude about the Big Apple, or its denizens’ problems. It’s a demeanor that has been taking a lot of heat.
But the real question is: Why is a show written by, about, and ostensibly for girls being gobbled up primarily by guys?
A possible answer exists in the way women have been treated in and beyond the artistic media for decades. Nay, forever. When you create a female character for television, a movie, a novel, or what have you, you’re saying something about women. This isn’t always intended, and it shouldn’t necessarily be the case, but it is. And that’s because women have been objectified, just like every other group that isn’t white straight Christian males (and I’m not bashing white straight Christian males — some of my best friends are white straight Christian males). Restricting the conversation to TV, every female or ethnic minority character you may have seen on the small screen has been put there as a reflection of his or her demographic. At first, this was done by the powers that be, to maintain an air of superiority attached to the controlling class. But then, thanks to outbreaks in progressive thinking, it was done to combat this. Once female and ethnic voices became prominent in television, they placed characters on television representing their strengths and flavors.
Take a fairly recent example: Sex and the City, a show that is referenced frequently on Girls. It’s not for everyone, and certainly not flawless in its endeavors, but it was undeniably an empowering show for female identities. People likened themselves to the characters on the program, because they led enviable lives. Not financially realistic lives, but, you know.
They were colorful, determined, and likable. What’s more, they thrived off their impervious bond. But the girls on Girls… they’re ambivalent. They’re listless. They’re flaky, manipulative, entitled, malleable, and not exactly the kind of people you’d be shocked to see cut ties with one another, even especially for a particularly superficial reason. They’re not great people. But they’re people. And that alone is why Girls is so unpopular and so important.
To reiterate, every female character on TV (at least every major female character) is, whether we like it or not, some kind of statement about women. A woman’s gender is branded so rigidly upon her to the point where a show called Girls is even possible. A show called Guys could mean anything, because the essence of being a guy is unequivocally unrestrictive. When society thinks about a male, it doesn’t install limits. Despicably, the same is not the case for women.
But we are lucky enough to live in a time where this is the definitive. Because of society’s installation of limits, there is active demolition of these limits. There are shows like Sex and the City, artists like Tina Fey, movies like Bridesmaids. There are people and forces aching to show what else women can be and do. And then there’s Girls, which launches this to an exceptional level.
Girls is, ironically, hardly a statement about gender at all. It’s a statement about humanity. Lena Dunham isn’t out to accomplish the same things that her predecessors have; in Girls, the enemy of these young women isn’t the oppressive world around them. It’s themselves. The girls aren’t the heroes here, nor should they be. They’re not the subservients or the bad guys, as some of the unfortunate examples of our culture’s past mentalities. They’re not the divine conquerors or the heroes, as some of the necessary responses to aforesaid mentalities express. A girl on TV shouldn’t have to speak for all girls, on TV or off. Dunham’s show appreciates this; unfortunately, this makes Girls, just like its characters, its own worst enemy.
The show is ahead of its time. People are still willing to believe that one girl means all girls. Men and women alike look at a TV show depicting a female and think of her as a representation. And any woman who watches Girls like this can’t possibly like it. The characters on Girls are not admirable. They are terrific and interesting individual characters, but they are not someone you’d want representing your gender. That is why it’s easier for males to watch and enjoy the program. You pick up on more when you have the luxury of looking at something objectively, and of separating yourself from something. Believe me, if there was such a strong albeit negative depiction of four Jewish Internet writers on television, I’d need someone to spell out to me just how progressive a show it was. So it’s not that guys “get it” and girls don’t. It’s the fact that it’s hard to believe that some women could watch this program and take its depiction none-too-desirable human beings personally. And of course, there are men who watch the show without getting the point, either. Those who fit that bill most likely feel the same way about the program that females do. And those men who do watch it, don’t get it, and still like it, well… they’re just douches.
Girls is a pioneer of the ongoing plight of a female character to stand alone as a female character, and not a characterization of females. It might be hard to believe that a show like this could exist on TV alongside things like 2 Broke Girls (which calls gender- and ethnic-stereotypes its bread and butter) or Work It (which we won’t dignify with a real parenthetical). As such, its female viewership might dwindle. But if this happens, Dunham’s show won’t be the only victim. The show can’t be restricted to tired 50-year-olds in Cincinnati. Dunham is indeed a voice of a generation: One that hasn’t come along yet. We might still be plagued by the existence of restriction and objectification, but Dunham is opening the door for an end to that. And as long as we can get past the idea that Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshanna might not be worthy of our admiration, we’ll realize that they are, indeed, worthy of our attention.
[Image Credit: HBO]