Over the last nine days, I’ve been attempting to wrap my brain around why so many people have an issue with HBO’s new show, “Girls.” Most critics initially expressed admiration for Lena Dunham’s glimpse into the lives of four young, spoiled women, but almost all have also expressed some reservation. Accusations of nepotism, poor handling of race, and the unconventional looks of the four leads have all been articulated as factors (Joanna addresed each in her review last week). But I think these critiques have been used to mask a larger, foundational issue.
If you dip into the comments section of “Girls” reviews on any given site, one refrain echoes throughout: The characters are entitled and unlikable. Why should I watch a bunch of people I don’t like?
Unlikable characters, however, are not novel. Larry David in “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is horribly unlikable. The entire cast of “Seinfeld” was unlikable. Ricky Gervais characters are unlikable. The characters in “Bored to Death” were in many ways unlikable. Hell, no one is more unlikable than Kenny Powers. To some extent, it’s a clear case of sexism: Viewers like to watch unattractive, unlikable men, but they have issues with unconventional looking, unlikable women. But I don’t think that’s entirely it; after all, the complaint has not been directed at Laura Dern in “Enlightened” or Laura Linney in “The C Word” or even Edie Falco and “Nurse Jackie” to the degree it has at “Girls,” and they’re all unlikable leads.
Indeed, I think the source of consternation for most viewers is socioeconomic in nature. It’s not that we can’t enjoy unlikable people doing unlikable things, it’s that these characters are unlikable in a specific way that revolves around money and class and entitlement. It has less to do with the way they look, the fact they’re unlikable, or nepotism (which isn’t even a real issue) and has most to do with our disdain for privileged white people.
It’s this very problem I had with Dunham’s Tiny Furniture, a movie I didn’t like at all because the problems of these women are not something with which I can relate. They’re not just First World Problems: They’re Rich People Problems, and the 99 percent has serious resentment for rich white people, and the kind of entitlement endemic to the women of “Girls” is even more problematic than the fat cats, Wall Street brokers, and CEO’s we typically associate with wealth. At least they earned it, even if it was by shitting on the 99 percent and leaving the world a worse place. The women of “Girls” haven’t earned a goddamn thing.
Indeed, although it’s obviously not the case, the women of “Girls” seem worse than even the rich, white spoiled privilege we associate with hotel heiresses like Paris Hilton or fame-whores like the Kardashians: At least they are transparent about their wealth. They flaunt it. They gleefully trample on the world’s resources and look down their noses at the rest of us. Those are characteristics we’re comfortable associating with wealth, even if we don’t like it.
The women of “Girls,” meanwhile, live in dingy apartments, wear clothes that look like something out of thrift stores, and — gasp! — take the subway. They don’t have maids, they don’t have expensive cars, and they don’t wear ostentatious jewelry. But make no mistake: They have a safety net of wealth to break their falls, and what annoys me about “Girls” is that they’re shameless about accepting it. They don’t feel that they’re owed lavish apartments and trust-fund checks. It’s almost more insidious: They feel they have the right to accept the money but reject the lifestyle, reject the choices their parents made to earn the money, and reject all the strings that are associated with wealth. They want their cake, and they want to it eat, too, but they don’t want fancy cakes. They want Hostess fucking Twinkies, but they’re not even willing to work for that.
It makes me — and other like-minded viewers — furious, furious because they don’t take advantage of their money, of their education, and of their socioeconomic position. They’ve had their lives handed to them, and they are aesthetically and self-consciously rejecting them. They’re spitting out the silver spoon, scuffing it up, scraping off the polished finish and putting it back into their mouths. They want to go it alone, but not really. What they really want is the illusion of going it alone.
These are the problems I have with the characters and the mentality of “Girls.” It’s why I hated Tiny Furniture, but what I didn’t get until I watched “Girls” is that Lena Dunham is not trying to redeem these characters. She’s not trying dig deep and find the humanity buried underneath. I don’t even know if she’s necessarily mocking them or sending them up. She’s simply presenting them, bringing them to life in a way that no show before it ever has. But the crucial difference between a show like “Girls” and a show like “Friends” — which is also populated with wealthy, privileged characters — is the sense of self-awareness in “Girls.” Dunham, whether she belongs to this class of people or not, understands that they are unlikable. She doesn’t want to offer her characters salvation; she doesn’t want to lead them to redemption. She just wants us to know they exist, and for all their negative qualities, they are complicated people, which is a lot more than we can say for hotel heiresses or the Kardashians.
Indeed, the reason why I do like “Girls,” and why I think there is something very noble about it, is that it does something that those others shows about unlikable people don’t and what very few shows have ever done: It follows complicated women dealing with their own complicated messes. It’s the polar opposite of “Entourage,” a superficial show about superficial men dealing with superficial problems. “Girls” addresses a lot “yucky” stuff, and the women of “Girls” — particularly Dunham — talk about their bodies in ways with which most men — including myself — are not comfortable. Being a woman is messy fucking business, and I think a lot of people have problems confronting that fact. Dunham is holding that mess up and rubbing it in our faces, forcing us — or at least those of us willing to confront our own discomfort — to come to terms with the insecurities, inadequacies, anxieties, and unpleasantness often associated with being a woman. It’s a hard show to like, but for me anyway, it’s an easy one to appreciate.