As the divisive show heads into its final season, Dunham has one last opportunity to up its intersectionality.
By Rae Richmond, Texas State University
As feminism has become more mainstream in recent years, many female and male celebrities have begun identifying as feminist, John Legend, Patrick Stewart and Joseph Gordon-Levitt being but a few.
One of the most well-known mainstream feminists is Lena Dunham, creator of the HBO show “GIRLS.” Written by and starring Dunham herself, the series focuses on four women in their 20s who are navigating the adult world after college. The show has been critically lauded, with analysis praising Dunham’s writing and raw portrayal of young women living in New York. However, since the show’s airing, “GIRLS” has been met with a lot of criticism from feminists, especially people of color.
Given the lack of people of color in the first season and the poor presentation that followed, the criticism is valid. The people of color in the show are maids, bellhops or a poor stereotype of whatever race Dunham decided to throw in for one or two episodes.
The show, however, has more problems than a lack of positive race portrayal; the ethics of its production are questionable, if not absent. An obvious case of its lack of scruples is the nepotism of its casting, given that all four of the main characters are daughters of famous people.
Allison Williams, who plays the character Marnie, is the daughter of NBC anchorman Brian Williams; Zosia Mamet, who plays the naïve Shoshana, is the daughter of writer and director David Mamet; and Jemima Kirke, who has been friends with Lena Dunham for years and appeared in her previous work, “Tiny Furniture” (in which fellow “GIRLS” actor Alex Karpovsky also appeared), is the daughter of Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke.
In her defense, Dunham is not the first to cast prominent names instead of deserving individuals, as the show’s director, Judd Apatow, is notorious for hiring virtually the same cast in all of his movies, to the point where you know who’s going to be in the film before you see its trailer. Even so, it is very disheartening to know that sometimes success doesn’t result from working hard, but instead relies on knowing the right people and being related to celebrities.
While casting famous daughters may or may not have been a coincidence, the actresses share another important commonality, in that they all come from a privileged background that provided easy access to the acting world.
Jemima Kirke herself admitted to “BUST” that she never pursued acting; Dunham had approached her with the both roles in “Tiny Furniture” and later “GIRLS.” Instead of offering career-creating roles to your apathetic friends, why not give a chance to someone whose goal is to be an actor?
In addition to its misrepresentative cast, the issues of average women are largely glossed over—that, or they are hinted at and then bypassed. For example, Hannah’s HPV in the first season is talked about until season two, when poof—it’s suddenly forgotten about. How does Hannah live and go about her life with HPV?
In that same season she has HPV, she has unprotected sex, exposing her one-night-stand to her disease without informing him. Abortion is brought up as well, but only in episode 2 of the first season, an episode in which Marnie is able to get Jessa an appointment very easily, despite the regulations surrounding abortion at the time.
Romantic relationships in the show are also toxic, as well as heteronormative, as all the main characters are in solely heterosexual relationships, with the only exception being Elijah, the only recurring gay character. For a show that was written by a feminist, “GIRLS” doesn’t reflect feminist concepts of what is and isn’t a healthy relationship. Our four main heroines cheat, lie, abuse and manipulate their boyfriends and friends. There’s also the fact that sexual assault is portrayed as either comical, or merely serves to move the plot along.
When asked if she was a feminist in a 2012 interview with “BUST,” Dunham said, “Of course I’m a feminist; I wouldn’t even know another thing to be. It’s something that I don’t tackle in a way that’s overt, but it’s part of everything I do.” While the show does reflect her statement, the huge problem, aside from the depictions of situations and people as mentioned, is this: The show fails to be intersectional.
The target audience of “GIRLS” is essentially anyone who is like Duhnam herself—white, cis, straight and upper-class. Instead of hiring a diverse team of writers and giving them substantial roles, she doles out positions to her friends, ignores the life experiences of others and neglects to address the issues that average women face.
Your twenties are not magical. You will not have the perfect marriage, a dream apartment and an amazing career, at least not right out of college; life will be awkward, difficult, confusing and sometimes painful. “GIRLS” succeeds in portraying the hardships of early adulthood, but it’s written from a place of such privilege that the content becomes unrelatable to a lot of people.
“GIRLS” has the potential to not just speak for cis, white, straight, upper-class women, but for any woman who is trying to figure out her twenties in an overwhelming world. As it rounds into its final season, it would be a shame for Dunham to miss an opportunity to make a strong, feminist statement. Everyone is watching “GIRLS,” so maybe it could be a little bit more about everyday women.