Protagonists do not have to be likable. As proven by characters like Miles in Sideways or Mavis in Young Adult, protagonists can be distinctly unpleasant.
However, in order to have a successful story, the audience must be invested in the main character. You need to empathize their situation and preferably desire the character’s success even as you dislike them. During the premiere two episodes of Season Three of HBO’s Girls, I did not give two shits about the hateful lead characters.
HBO premiered the first and second episodes of Girls on YouTube, so I have the privilege of reviewing both. In the first episode, “Females Only” (Jan. 12, HBO), Hannah (Lena Dunham) is finally in a good place. Using medication to alleviate her OCD, she is on schedule writing her e-book, and is dating Adam, a loving boyfriend in times of need. She also has a steady job at Ray’s coffee house.
Marnie (Allison Williams), conversely, is stuck. Having been dropped by boyfriend Charlie and unable to move on, Marnie wallows. At one point her mother, played by Rita Wilson, tells her (in so many words) to get off her ass and get over it. Marnie complains she and Charlie were supposed to be together forever. Her mother laughs uproariously in response.
Jessa (Jemima Kirke) is in rehab, mocking the other patients and the process. She explains to a supervisor that she is only attending because her Grandma promised to buy her Ugg boots if she completed the program. She asserts that a fellow patient, Laura, played by Danielle Brooks of Orange Is the New Black, is a lesbian, despite Laura’s vehement denials. When Jessa is caught going down on Laura, she is kicked out of rehab.
Lastly, Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) has broken up with Ray and is entertaining a “work hard, play hard” mentality while attending college. She studies all week and sleeps with different men all weekend, a strategy she deems “smart.”
In terms of plot, there is little to summarize. In the first episode, Adam’s crazy ex-girlfriend screams at Hannah while she is at work. Hannah has her friends over for dinner. Despite his initial disgust with Marnie, Adam talks her down from the proverbial ledge. Jessa causes trouble at rehab and gets kicked out. Shoshana is there.
In the second episode, “Truth or Dare,” Hannah, Shoshanna and Adam road trip to retrieve Jessa from rehab. Shoshanna refuses to eat and later gets sexiled. Marnie feels left out. Adam explains that girls in rehab do not know what is best for them. Hannah comments “road trips are boring” despite the fact that she hopes it will give her inspiration for her own writing. The episode culminates in Hannah discovering Jessa did not need to be picked up because the rehab director offered to take her to the airport. Jessa quickly dispels Hannah’s consequent anger by complimenting her new haircut. Problems solved.
That is literally the entirety of two episodes.
As a female writer looking to work in the film industry after graduation, I have followed Lena Dunham’s success with more enthusiasm than most. As co-producer, writer, director and lead protagonist in Girls, Dunham is in a rare position of female authority in the film industry. I have been (largely) a huge fan. I am not alone. Over half a million viewers tuned in for the season finale of this past season. Is it going to keep up?
At this point, I am mad. Dunham is wasting a golden opportunity. She has the capability of presenting females from a female perspective.
As a woman writer she is expected to accurately depict the feelings, abilities and struggles of women. White women. Privileged white women in their twenties in New York City. An extremely limited perspective of the female experience, but an opportunity to give an honest portrayal of females, nonetheless.
So why are these women, Hannah, Marnie, Jessa and Shoshanna so unbelievably irritating? Is it because white privileged women in their twenties are the worst? Perhaps.
The female characters on Girls are hateful. They do not care for each other, except when it suits them. They are endlessly selfish. They express little if any desire to discuss issues external to the “self.”
Girls could take place anywhere because the show is self-referential in its entirety. Never mind politics or class or rights—these women are concerned about turkey bacon.
If this is a criticism of privilege, fine. Speaking from a place of relative privilege, surrounded by many people of a similar background, I agree that there is too frequently a tendency towards the inane. The abundance of conversations revolving around sexual relationships, what the opposite or same sex “thinks” of you, what you are wearing, what you’d like to wear, how your hair is, how annoying this boy in class is, etc. is absolutely idiotic. However, these same women of privilege are more than stereotypes and idle conversations. These people care, are generous, loving, intelligent.
Women can and do create, educate, debate, affirm, uphold and tear down. Women in their twenties are deeper and more complex than Lena Dunham paints them to be. Women who care about one another, who are generous, and loving, and intelligent. Girls does not expound this portrait.
While abroad, I was sitting with three fellow (male) filmmakers. When I mentioned that I loved the show Girls, one of the three grimaced.
“Seriously?” He voiced an opinion, rich with sarcasm, that anyone who wanted to watch four wealthy girls talk incessantly about their emotions as they experienced them was as stupid as the characters on it.
While not a particularly tactful friend, he had a point. Why does a show like this have such a vast audience? Is it possible that viewers will continue to watch when all Girls depicts is caricatures of real women?
By denouncing her audience, Dunham is only hurting herself. If we are to take the show not as a criticism, however, but merely a representation of a subset of Manhattan, a close look at the witty repertoire which occurs between the population’s privileged women, well, fuck her. At HBO, the possibilities to create rich, complex characters is vast, and Dunham has produced a Sex and the City remake of vapid, immature women. This disgusts me.
If you desire enriched content, Dunham, give me a call.