Lena Dunham’s Girls: Representation of Race and Gender

Home Box Office’s (HBO’s) Girls follows the lives of four sexually liberated and educated young women as they deal with living away from their parents, getting careers and finding love. Although the series may not be ground breaking thematically, as the programs predecessors often dealt with the same themes, the manner in which it depicts youth and womanhood sets it apart from the rest. This paper will explore the importance of Girls, taking into account the vast cultural impact it has had, polarizing viewers and sparking discourses on a range of topics such as race, representation of gender and aesthetic.

When Girls premiered, in spring 2012, there were several other female led sitcoms dominating the American television season, some even had ‘Girls’ in the title (2 Broke Girls, New Girl etc…). The way in which women were represented on television was changing. Conventionally attractive, young white heterosexual women had a voice and were being represented on shows such as Sex and the City (HBO, 1998 – 2004). These programmes helped pave the way for Girls. They made audiences accustomed to women talking openly about their sexuality in a frank and humorous manner.  What is so significant about a woman in her twenties having complete creative control of a HBO show? According to data from the Writers Guild of America, women have never exceeded twenty-eight percent of working writers. Whilst there are numerous other female centric shows on air most of them are written by and/or show run by men.  The Hollywood Reporter releases an annual list of the top 50 show runners. In 2013 only twelve of the fifty were women and half of those women were co-running a show with a man.  Men who write female parts are more likely to struggle to understand the way women think and react to situations. This is why it is so important that there is a female presence in the writing rooms of shows.

Television’s convergence with newer forms of media such as social networking sites and video sharing platforms such as Youtube have changed the way in which audiences access television content. ‘Viewers are already accustomed to watching television in non-traditional ways.’ (Bignell pg. 282) HBO took into account the way in which the television landscape was changing by making the series’ pilot available on Youtube before it was aired on its own channel. The show’s pilot was premiered as a piece of media intended to be watched when viewers wanted to, and then to be shared around the World Wide Web.

Gone are the days of talking to colleagues about last night’s television shows around the water cooler. It has been replaced with social media communications such as Facebook and Twitter. Audiences can share their views on the show as they watch it. This is important feedback for the programme-makers because ‘this network activity measures success, since it demonstrates impact…It is likely that social media activity will affect programme scheduling.’ (Bignell pg. 64) The pilot was posted on the websites of magazines, fan’s personal Facebook pages and blogs all over the world. The show has always been closely linked to social media. As well as being available to view on Youtube, it showed characters taking the time to compose the perfect Tweet and discussing the ‘Totem of Chat’, a method in which they ranked types of communication. This encouraged active viewers to share their opinions of the show on their blogs and on social networking pages. The programme-makers uploaded teasers, trailers and photographs from production to their Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages to draw attention to the series. Lena Dunham’s own rampant use of social media also brought multifaceted attention to the show before it was even aired.

Bignell says ‘A key advantage of interactive television and its convergence with the internet is the possibility for viewers to respond to programmes, to criticise what they see on television and occasionally to contribute ideas and audio-visual content that becomes part of the television experience’(pg 24).Girls is a contemporary example of this, audiences are engaged with what they see in the series either on television or via the internet. The show demonstrates the ever increasing power the internet has on audiences today. Girls developed a network of connected fans that share their opinions. The relationships between the viewer and the characters on television programmes are changing. No longer are storylines limited to thirty minutes on a television screen. Social networking sites are created for the fictional characters, either by the programme makers or in some cases fans, and devoted viewers are interacting virtually with the characters created by the writers.

The show’s writer, Lena Dunham’s distinctive voice and the credibility that came from her low budget independent film, ‘Tiny Furniture’ (2010) makes Girls more than just a media text for women to enjoy. Each of the lead characters has their own flaws, whether it is being a little bit shallow, judgemental or rude, but they remain likable and audiences are still able to side with them. HBO’s dramas have a catalogue of flawed anti-heroes and Girls fits in comfortably amongst them. The mumble core aesthetic of ‘Tiny Furniture’ was adapted for the series. Staying true to the subgenre, the show tries to encapsulate the low budget feel, the relatively unknown actors and naturalistic, and at times improvised, dialogue. These elements combined to create a unique aesthetic and pace for a television drama.

In her paper ‘Becoming a woman: A Post-feminist feminism on HBO’s Girls’ Nancy Lee argues that if “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” (Beauvoir 1949, p. 281) then Lena Dunham uses Girls as a platform to explore what one must go through to ‘become’ a woman. The program provides a social script for viewers to follow in regards to their friendships, relationships and work life. Audiences are able to recognise the character’s flawed choices and empathise with them, having felt similar embarrassment or rejection themselves. It enables them to try to avoid making the same mistakes in their own lives. So in a way the series could act as a cautionary tale for audiences to consider the possible negative effects their decisions could have.

One of the reasons Girls is so culturally significant is because of its unapologetic display of the female body. There is a huge social pressure on young women in today’s society to constantly improve their bodies, generally by losing weight. The pressure to be thin is often blamed on the media because the women featured in magazines and on television tend to have a very low Body Mass Index. In contrast, Lena Dunham’s untoned and overweight body appears throughout the series, presenting an alternative but still attractive female form. There are not many women in the media who do not possess the bodies of catwalk models and seeing Lena Dunham with such confidence is important for female audiences. It is also of equally valuable for male audiences to become accustomed to seeing that a woman’s body can come in a multitude of shapes and sizes. In Game of Thrones (HBO April 17, 2011 – present) a show which came out around the same time on HBO, the female form is shown in an overtly sexualised manner, purely to attract the voyeuristic gaze of its male audience. Girls has a very different approach to nudity, in that it is self critical. While the nude scenes in the show may not cause a body revolution it is a step in the right direction for young women to accept their bodies.

The unapologetic fashion in which the female body is presented in the programme lends itself to its non romanticised sex scenes. These scenes tend to be gritty and awkward but at the same time capturing the discomfort of the characters. This is done by the heavy use of close ups and slow editing pace. They are included in the show to highlight flawed relationships that tend to lack real romance and intimacy.

Girls is empowering for women because it introduces bodies that are larger than we are used to seeing on the screen and celebrating them. The lead females are still reliant on finding the love of a man to resolve their story arc. The relationships in the series lack closeness and each episode could be seen as an exploration of the characters and perhaps modern women’s inability to love. Although the girls may not have strong loving relationships with the significant men in their lives, it appears they experience true intimacy and a spiritual connection with each other. The slow tracking shot of Hannah (Lena Dunham), and Marnie (Allison Williams) at the start of the pilot may have led audiences to believe it was a man and woman in bed together, until the camera tracks along their legs and it is revealed that it is the two friends. This moves the show into uncharted territory as it challenges our preconceived notions of gender, intimacy and sexuality

In some ways HBO’s Girls is a rebuttal of its predecessors. Programmes such as Sex and the City have undeniable similarities to the series. The protagonists, Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Hannah Horvath, are both writers living in New York City. Despite these similarities the series seems to have a more realistic take on relationships and work life from the perspective of a heterosexual, white, educated woman. These differences, along with a lack of conversations about designer clothes and shoes, reflect the introduction of a new generation, the much maligned ‘twenty-somethings’ from Sex and the City. This younger cohort of women feels more of the pressures of austerity than their forerunners. The Manolo Blahniks the women of Sex and the City splurged on cannot be afforded with the soaring real estate prices in New York and elsewhere. Girls is culturally significant because it is a microcosm of today’s economic struggles and the über competitive job market.

Although the programme is based on the lives of the four girls, it is interesting to examine the way the men in their lives are depicted. The two main men, Adam (Adam Driver) and Charlie (Christopher Abbott) are polar opposites of each other. Adam is what most people would recognise as a stereotypically masculine alpha male, who is a sexually aggressive, unemotional and competitive individualist. In his relationship with Hannah it is he who seems to have all the power because it appears that her feelings for him are significantly stronger than his feeling are for her. On the other hand, Charlie possesses traits commonly associated with femininity, such as being emotionally open and loving. Whilst Marnie is talking about her boyfriend Charlie to Hannah, Hannah says “I think you need to admit something to yourself, which is that you’re sick of eating him out. Because he has a vagina.” Girls seems to empower women, showing them it is okay to defy what society is expecting of you, however the series puts forwards the idea that the same standards do not apply to men. Girls seems to put forward an archaic view that hegemonic masculinity makes a man more desirable to women.

The limited presence of women in television and film is a systemic problem. The Bechdel Test was created and popularised in 1985, the name of the test comes from cartoonist Alison Bechdel. In a comic strip called ‘The Rule’ a character explains her rule about which films she watches.  It became a benchmark for female presence in fictional media.  In order to pass this test, the text must meet the following criteria: It must include at least two women with names, who have at least one conversation which is about something other than a man or men’ Lena Dunham’s Girls meets all of the criteria to pass the Bechdel test.

In the pilot the girls talk mostly about their financial situation and their careers.  The Bechdel test can serve as an indicator as to whether or not women will be properly represented in the programme/film however it is only a quantitative measure, accounting for the text actually having women who interact with each other within it. The Bechdel Test does not take into consideration the context of the female characters in the text. Feminist writers and critics have thought about other tests that could be used to assess the qualitative value of female representation in the media. Feminist music critic Ellen Willis developed a way to assess if a song was derogatory towards women, it was her 1971 essay ‘But Now I’m Gonna Move’ that inspired the test.  ‘A crude but often revealing method of assessing male bias in lyrics is to take a song written by a man about a woman and reverse the sexes.’ The same test could be equally applied to film and television texts. If the gender roles were reversed, would the narrative still make sense? Although Girls is tailored to a generally female audience it would not pass this test because of its unusual representation of men. Girls raises questions about the equality of representation in the media. Women are told to embrace their differences and imperfections while men are scrutinised for possessing more feminine traits.

A lot of media criticism came regarding the show’s racially monochromatic world. It seemed strange that a show based in New York City following the lives of people living in the most diverse generation in American history still featured no ethnic minorities. There was only one coloured person in the pilot, an extra portraying a homeless man, which is not the representation people of colour were hoping for. Ethnic minority audiences complained they were fed up of empathising with the four well educated, privileged young women and the situations they found themselves in when the only person with their heritage was living on the streets.  ‘Working towards an anti-racist common sense will depend on more than the construction of ‘positive’ media images of black people. These may be refreshing correctives to ‘negative’ images, but are based on too simplistic a view of the role of the media in ideological construction.’ (Daniels, 1998, pg 138)The portrayal of a whitewashed New York City is unfortunately something audiences have become accustomed to but Girls seemed to be unfairly singled out by critics and audiences for its lack of people of colour. Due to the large amounts of press coverage the show was getting, people were engaging in debates about the series across the internet and reading about it in print media. Although Girls failed to represent women of colour itself, it made audiences and critics really think about whom they wanted to represent them and their expectations. Dodai Stewart wrote an article exploring the supposed racism within the show arguing that ‘Girls was meant to be different from what we usually see on TV: Highly current, thoroughly modern. But the casting choices are not different.’ The steps the show made to provide representation for women was significant; it is because of the show’s potential and positive impact in other areas that there was such a media outcry. Cable News Network (CNN) took the time to dedicate a whole segment to dissecting the racial makeup of the show’s cast. The issue of the under representation of ethnic minorities on Girls would only be apparent to HBO subscribers but the coverage the show received on CNN took this criticism and made it have national importance.

The ‘whiteness’ of television is not an accurate representation of reality but then why is it that so few shows actually depict a multiracial and multicultural society? Perhaps, in the same way that men may struggle to write fully developed parts for women, white women may be fearful of tokenism and causing offence through misrepresentation. The chances of causing accidental offence are higher with a show like Girls as some of the scenes are less than flattering about the stars and their bodies. More ethnic diversity is needed in the television industry in order to resolve the racist ideologies that appear on the small screen, such as having the only black minority ethnic character portraying a homeless man. But does this mean that every worthwhile television programme has to have a multiracial cast?

When someone in a creative industry does something that goes against the status quo, it is done for the purpose of provoking thought and causing controversy. This is exactly what Lena Dunham’s Girls did with the show’s overt nudity and graphic sexual scenes, taking a small step towards acceptance of the female body. This, along with the issues the show has raised about the racial and gender diversity that is so desperately needed in the industry, makes Girls an important show and as she so rightfully proclaimed in the series’ pilot, Lena Dunham is ‘a voice of a generation.’