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Girl Pressure: Why Being the Voice of a Generation Can Be Problematic

There is probably nothing more frustrating than seeing a voice and a talent like Lena Dunham’s — maybe the coolest thing to happen to storytelling in a long while — being relegated to stories about how these girls’ lives are shaped and defined by the men they pursue. So you might be thinking, first it’s the racism thing, now it’s the sexism thing — why can’t Lena Dunham just be Lena Dunham? Why does she have to be “the voice of a generation”? Can’t she just create good material and leave it at that? And the answer to that, of course, is yes, she can. Her writing is witty enough, and the characters are interesting enough to keep this thing going through a second season and beyond. And who isn’t willing to follow Dunham throughout her growth as an artist? Who’s not curious to see where she’s headed next?

I certainly am. But I don’t know how long I can keep looking forward to Girls if every episode is going to revolve around this guy, that guy, this guy, that guy. In fact, I already know the answer: not long.

Why? Because this is the same story we women have been handed for decades now, especially BY women storytellers. The notion that a man can save you, or that you are incomplete without a man in your life is really the same ol’ same ol’. There are so many interesting voices of women out there whose lives aren’t centered solely around men. Young women, old women — it’s important to note, and to be reminded, that women have worthy narratives beyond their need for and their ability to land a man. If you watched Girls, knowing nothing about the real world, you’d think the purpose of four years at an expensive college and moving to New York is to launch a voyage of discovery narrowly mapped out to seek only one treasure — to find a man at the end of the rainbow. And if you don’t have a man, if you’re properly loved, you’re not worthy.

Take the various story lines about each character in Girls. Marnie starts out as the bored and boring girlfriend of a pretty cute and affectionate guy. We see him struggling as a musician, a singer/songwriter. But we see her complain that the sex is tame because he’s tame — and never blames herself for taming him. She’s controlling with Hannah and uptight. She calls Hannah selfish but that’s really as far as their relationship goes. The meat of her character relates only to her choice of boyfriend. Now, she’s regretting letting him go and she spends her days drabbed down, obsessing on the guy she took for granted. Is this truthful? Yes. Absolutely. Does it make for interesting storytelling? I don’t know. For a minute or two, sure. 8 episodes, no.

Then there’s Jessa, the best actress and most interesting character on the show — what does she do? She ambles around as a nanny looking for laid back diversions. Jessa is one of those people who exert a natural magnetic field for attracting fun, and she gets her kicks from whatever is caught in her orbit — pot, booze, sex. I know this person is far more interesting than the show allows her to be. Her abstract rambles and throw-away lines are brilliant. The punctuation mark on her character, though, is the same as the other three — it always rounds down to the guy who hovers over her life, in this case, her boss. Is this true to life? Absolutely. But can this be the ONLY thing going on with someone as worldly-wise, interesting and potentially fascinating as Jessa? No.

I won’t go into the fourth female friend, Shoshanna, because so far she is basically been a punch line. But finally, let’s look at Hannah. What a brilliantly conflicted character to hit television. Rarely onscreen do we see a woman outside the image of covergirl perfection chasing men, having sex and reaching orgasms. Unless an actress is centerfold material, we usually never see her undressed — much less experimenting sexually. But… is that all there is? The best episode so far has been the one Dunham wrote with Judd Apatow where she goes home to her parents’ place. It was interesting because it dared to start to reach outside the show’s usual scope — that is, filling in details about one of the girls beyond her standard interaction with a boy.

In her early twenties, Lena Dunham, fresh out of college, was making the film Tiny Furniture, which was really about a girl fumbling her way through coming of age. In its own way, that still involved sex, about defining part of a girl’s fulfillment through the spectrum of what a boy can provide. But the bigger picture beyond the film frame was the arrival of new auteur on the scene. And that simple fact, because it’s so rare, is still the driving force behind the success of Girls. It’s compelling because Lena Dunham is a fresh, new female voice on the scene. That part is nonnegotiable. She’s talented, smart, driven and miraculously successful. All of that is true. But none of that will matter if the only subject matter she chooses to pursue is bland and predictable.

So we’re back to the defense of girls. Mark Harris scolding me on Twitter for scolding Lena Dunham for her failure to be a voice of a generation. Other male tweeters angry that I would dare to criticize Dunham for having to right the wrongs of society with her show. Racism, sexism — why can’t Girls just be another fun series? It can. But it probably can’t last very long as such. Because many of us tune in hoping to see Dunham break new ground, and each week some of us wonder why we’re watching a field that’s already been plowed.

Why complain at all, people might be inclined to ask. Why must minorities and women always be held to a higher standard? Why can’t they just tell stories? This subject comes up continually with African-American filmmakers and actors. Why couldn’t Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer be judged as characters in film? Why did they have to speak for the evolution of black Americans? Why did racism have to play a part at all? Would it have mattered if it had been written and directed by a black filmmaker?

Why must Lena Dunham be the voice of the generation, why must she chart a new course for TV by showing a more ethnically diverse group of characters? Why can’t Lena Dunham just be Lena Dunham?
Fair questions, but so are these: Why are they only white people on her show? Why are the stories only about girls having relationships with guys? Why are the men on the show far more interesting than the girls? Why can’t Lena Dunham set a better example instead of reinforcing patterns we’ve seen too many times before?

I don’t know the answer, except to say that when a door is opened that has been shut for so long many people want to see trailblazers shove their way through it. It isn’t ever just about the one story — When you call your show Girls, there’s obligation the show a broader spectrum of Girls’ stories waiting to be told, those that have been sidelined for far too long, those that never get told because most of the time, here in America, and especially now, stories revolve only around white male characters.

Now that the keys to the city have been handed to Lena Dunham, are we to just stand back and be happy that a young twenty-something female voice has managed to push her foot through the door? Or should we speak up to wish for more, and risk a slap-down by from the esteemed likes of Mark Harris et al for daring to complain? All I know is that for me, as a woman, feeling a duty to watch Girls and support Lena Dunham, whom I admire so much and stand fully behind as one of the filmmakers to watch, I often feel suffocated. I know that women are worth so much more than their position standing beside (or chasing behind) a man. And then I have to ask myself the harder question, did Girls only get greenlit because it promised about girls talking about sex, talking about boys? Is that the only thing that sold HBO and Judd Apatow on the series? Is the main purpose of the boys in Girls to provide the girls with lots of reasons to get naked? Surely other brilliant shows like Nurse Jackie, Veep, Mad Men reveal female characters with more going on than just their relationship to men — they are successful, ambitious, independent, so how could HBO want Girls to be a throwback to the days of girls accepting boys in all their dickishness, and adjusting their needs accordingly?

As a mother, I feel protective towards these girls and I want to fly to New York and give them all a good talking to. As a girl, I know first hand the damage that can be done to a life that depends too much on a man completing the picture. As a writer I know that Lena Dunham is not telling the truth about herself or about the girls she surely surrounds herself with in the real world. As a viewer I hunger for more. I applaud her for her accomplishments and, as I’ve said, I’m a fan for life, but that doesn’t mean I’ll keep watching Girls unless they start showing some progress toward becoming Women.