First, a couple of big disclaimers:
1. Haven’t seen the show. Might, might not. Haven’t decided, yet. Will say that knowing Judd Apatow is partly involved doesn’t make me hopeful that I might be wrong about it.
2. The largest issue with this show is its lack of racial diversity, especially considering its setting. That’s an issue I can’t personally speak to, being a Clueless White Person (and one who quite often inadvertently sticks her foot in her mouth on that subject.) Others, however, have spoken at length, and well, and I defer to their words on this. Though there are many other complaints about this show (which I’ll get into below) the race issue is such a huge one that it shouldn’t be discounted.
So, on to my complaint, which boils down to this: Did the world really need a TV series about Hipster Carrie Bradshaw? And why–oh, why–are we being told that this show is ever-so groundbreaking when there is a single character–the protagonist–who represents anything other than the Manhattan elite who have been featured in the vast majority of “artsy” entertainment for the last several decades?
When first I saw a teaser for this show, I was intrigued. The central character was slightly chubby, awkward, bookish. And hey, so am I. Cool! While I’m a generation older than her, there were elements of her that felt familiar, and I was hoping that she might, for once, represent the life of a realistic young woman, instead of the pretty, hyperfeminine princesses we’re usually told we’re supposed to identify with.
Then I found out that the character is a spoiled rich girl whining to her fellow spoiled rich girl friends about how awful her life is when her parents cut her off.
People I respect like and have defended this show. They point out (perhaps accurately) that we’re not supposed to like this character. Fair enough. I get that not every central character is supposed to be likeable, and the best ones are flawed on some level–as are we all.
But whether we like her or not, did we really need yet another story featuring a pampered New Yorker navel-gazing about first-world problems? Yes, most of us who are not these people are annoyed by them. But the reason we’re annoyed by them is because they’re granted the vast majority of screen and page time in the stuff we’re told is art. The tiresome, self-indulgent mental monologues of people who have never suffered any real poverty or discrimination are, time and time again, held up as the gold standard for people creating character-based stories. Anyone whose life didn’t involve at least trying to get into an Ivy League school may as well not exist, except as some vague concept of the third-world country that is the flyover states. That a young, Latina lesbian in New Mexico might have a story to tell that’s something other than tragedy porn is completely beyond the people in Manhattan high-rises holding the publishing and filmmaking purse strings.
This is not, in other words, a new character or story, much less a groundbreaking one. It’s just slightly different packaging for the same old thing. She’s a 25-year-old Woody Allen, and goodness knows, the world has had enough of his myopic self-pity. When your character has hit the privilege jackpot on all reels but one, giving her vast amounts of screentime in which to moan about how her life sucks is downright insulting. A pampered, Gen Y princess is not the Queen of Diversity just because she has tattoos and chubby thighs. No, merely being white or wealthy doesn’t mean a given person has never or will never suffer discrimination and oppression, and there’s no point in assuming every white or wealthy person is thus not allowed to complain when they do. But let’s face it: the list of life perks this person has is downright astronomical. The chances of her suffering in any real way from the few disadvantages she has are next to nil. The difficulties she faces are ones that are almost entirely of her own making, not ones she faces because of prejudice.
I get that not every protagonist is going to represent a marginalized group, much less check off several boxes on that very-long list. There are so few leads out there who are anything other than conventionally attractive, white, straight, upper-middle-class, etc., that every time we see a character who isn’t, some of us are going to be disappointed that the subclass thus portrayed isn’t ours. (it doesn’t help that the ruling class wants all of us marginalized folks to compete with each other for justice, as if it’s a limited commodity. When you’re starving for attention, seeing someone else get some–even if they greatly deserve it–can be extremely frustrating.)
But that’s really not the problem here, because A) The protagonist’s supposed marginalized qualities really aren’t that big a deal in context with the rest of her life and B) There isn’t anyone else in her story who represents diversity beyond her own tiny little sphere.
In the novel I recently finished, the protagonist is bisexual and half-Egyptian (and also has a plot-relevant other quirk), but also male, able-bodied, attractive, and his parents make enough money for him to afford a summer in Europe. There are many other characters in the book who represent other often-marginalized groups, and some of them are point-of-view characters, but the person around whom the plot coalesces does belong to many privileged groups. Should this novel ever get published, undoubtedly there will be people upset that the women, poor folks, older people, etc., while full characters and not stereotypes, are generally playing supporting roles for this other character instead of being protagonists themselves. But, at least those other characters exist. My protagonist does not seem to live in a world in which everyone is wealthy, able-bodied, etc. He himself may not represent every marginalized group, nor did I intend him to, but he’s not there as a token marginalized unicorn in a sea of otherwise privileged people.
I didn’t write the story this way because I want to pat myself on the back for how inclusive and PC I am (though I confess that my reaction to wanting to see more bisexual characters was to write one.) I’m not working off a marginalized-group bingo card and making sure every possible reader demographic has a potential avatar character. I wrote the story with lots of different kinds of people because a world without them would be enormously boring.
And that’s what’s wrong with “Girls.” As noted in the (great) piece linked above, the protagonist seems to exist in a world without diversity beyond the couple of (extremely mild) quirks she herself sports. We see a lot of ink/pixels on how dreadful it is to have token gay, PoC, etc. characters supporting a privileged protagonist, but the inverse scenario isn’t any more of a step forward. It’s not enough to have your protagonist check off a couple of items on the inclusiveness list if no-one else in the entire universe of the story does.
Of course, many of us know people like this character, and may even be like her in some ways–I certainly am–but none of us, unless we have made a point of living this way, exist in a world populated only by people who share that exact same set of physical and cultural DNA. That the show’s creator and star apparently didn’t even think to include people unlike herself in this story is proof positive that she has self-selected her own life thus. She is, as are many writers, writing what she knows, and what she knows is apparently very little beyond the end of her own nose. And honestly? I’m not interested in propping up the career of someone so short sighted. That her glorified diary entries are getting an HBO series is representative of how privileged she and her author-avatar character really are.
This show is not groundbreaking, folks. It’s just the same power structure that’s always existed manifesting itself in a (very) slightly different way. It’s just an ice-cream shop that’s offered little more than vanilla, except as a limited-time marketing gimmick, telling us that they have a brand new flavor because they’re serving it up in a new dish.
Frankly, if the creator and promotion machine for this show hadn’t made such a big deal about how revolutionary it supposedly is, few of us would have complained. We’re so used to being ignored in arts media that when yet another story about yet another self-obsessed child of privilege gets released to the world, we just sigh and shake our heads. But being told that we’re supposed to cheerlead for this show that actually doesn’t represent anywhere near the majority of young women–even young women in New York!–is really quite aggravating.