HBO’s “Girls:” Controversy out of Context

Written By Brianna Moran

HBO’s “Girls,” created by writer Lena Dunham, has been the subject of equal parts praise and criticiMV5BMTU1Mzk2ODEzN15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDQwMjAxMTI@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_sm throughout its six seasons. Some shower both Dunham and the show itself with praise and devotion, hailing it as a progressive, feminist work of art and culture. Others bash the show for featuring a whitewashed cast with no diversity displayed amongst the characters. “Girls” takes place in modern day Brooklyn, which has a diverse and multicultural landscape. The show itself, however, features a cast of all-white twenty-somethings who, while diverse from each other, are not ethnically diverse
compared to most of the city. “Girls” is about a struggling, quirky young writer named Hannah and her three closest friends Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshanna. Each of these girls are complex caricatures of modern-day 20-something women that all women can relate to on some level. Hannah, for example, is a bumbling, awkward, can-never-get-it-right type of girl who boundlessly flails her way through city life, and somehow survives. While most of the time you are rooting for her to succeed, we can relate to her simply by relating to her failures. She provides a space for women to be able to laugh at themselves and learn from their mistakes by watching them so painfully laid out on screen. At the same time, because of their controversial nature, Dunham and the show itself have received criticisms beyond racial issues as well because of the controversial content they discuss.

When you are writing about provocative subject matter in an unequivocally blunt way, you are going to be put under a radar, which Dunham so often is. She has been the subject of several “scandals” that have propelled her into the public eye and put under a microscope. There have been hundreds of articles throughout the years about how she is a complete and total monster, a “toxic white feminist,” a reckless racist, with the list of criticism seeming infinite. These criticisms have carried over to the way people view the show; if you already feel like Lena Dunham exhibits these negative characteristics, you are bound to have preconceived notions about the show. While this controversy certainly exists, the show has also seen a high level of praise for taking a frank look at all of the complications that arise for young women.

In a NewStatesman article, Laurie Penny brilliantly discusses why “Girls” has faced so much scrutiny. She explains the cultural resistance to Dunham’s voice by saying:  

“Forbidding any woman simply to be an artist, forbidding us from speaking about our experience without having it universalised and trivialised, is the sort of broad-brush benevolent sexism that undermines the real threat that a multitude of female voices might otherwise pose. It comes from a culture that puts up endless barriers to prevent women and girls expressing ourselves honestly in public and then treats us like fascinating freaks when we do.”

Simply put, any woman that speaks up in the way Dunham does is going to face some serious scrutiny because of the culture we are currently living in. Despite this, Dunham sticks to her guns and continues to write a brilliant show that provides a voice for modern women in an unabashed way.

Aside from the commentary the show and it’s creator bring in, “Girls” explores topics about sexuality and womanhood unlike any other show. For example, in the episode American Bitch from the current season of the show, Hannah visits a writer named Chuck in his home to discuss sexual assault allegations she made against him in a blog post. Her allegations against him were based on a few college girl’s Tumblr pages, which allege  Chuck took advantage of them and sexually assaulted them. In a game of passive-aggressive Internet telephone, Chuck receives a lot of hate that affects his reputation. Hannah and Chuck go back and forth throughout the episode about what is right and wrong in different sexual contexts and how power dynamics affect sexually charged situations. As noted by Caroline Frank in a Vox article, Chuck’s argument is that “he’s a misguided person who can’t resist an attractive woman throwing herself at him, and why should he, anyway?” Hannah rebuts this notion and “maintains that women don’t just accuse men of sexual assault for fun, and that he should be way more aware of being a powerful author with considerable influence no matter what.” As they discuss these themes throughout the episode, Hannah grows to feel a certain level of sympathy for Chuck and begins to see him as a human being. Just as she begins to see him in a new light, he asks to lay down with her for a moment, wherein he ends up putting his penis on her leg, unprovoked. She follows suit and touches it, then recoils soon after.

After watching this exact conversation play out for half an hour, we, alongside Hannah, find out that Chuck is indeed the creep she originally assumed he was. At the same time, she ends up doing what all those other girls did  before her for the exact reason she called him out in the first place; something in her head wants to know what it it’s  like because he is such a talented and powerful writer. Power dynamics are a huge factor in certain sexually charged situations, and in situations like these, one party can be left feeling duped into a sexual situation, or at the very least, heavily unsettled. There are countless examples of topics similar to this throughout the show, but this one in particular is especially poignant. Lena Dunham goes to places in her writing that other television writers either do not touch on or are unable to see. She opens a conversation that is not exactly being had in a forthright and candid way, while remaining sensitive and sororal to her fellow women who have been in similar situations. She is able to open up discussions about under-the-radar issues that still greatly affect people’s lives.

It is said in television writing that you must “Write what you know.” If what you know is being a 20 year old white woman in Brooklyn with an all-white friend group, it is still a story; it is your story. Lena Dunham is still a brilliant and provocative writer, and she is remaining honest. It would be strange if she started writing about the plight of Blacks or Latinos in America when she is neither Black nor Latino. In an NPR interview, she noted that “If I had one of the four girls, if, for example, she was African-American… there has to be specificity to that experience [that] I wasn’t able to speak to. I really wrote the show from a gut-level place, and each character was a piece of me or based on someone close to me. And only later did I realize that it was four white girls.” Dunham is a white woman writing with her white voice; if she is to be an honest writer, her stories will reflect that. That being said, she could include a more diverse cast and writing staff, which is something that she has addressed in the past. While it would be nice to have more representations of different races in television, having a mostly white cast does not make the show “racist,” because she is not doing it with an “anti-black” agenda. She just cannot write about something she does not know.

As an avid fan of “Girls” and Dunham herself, I think the media firestorm of backlash toward the two is often taken out of context. Dunham is writing in a social climate that still does not fully accept the female voice and loves to pick off the loudest ones who are saying the most. Dunham is a blunt writer whose life experiences and opinions are fresh and honest, which a lot of people simply cannot handle and love to chalk up as being too aggressive, edgy, or just plain annoying. Her comments are very often taken out of context, seen in a very closed-off and judgemental way. “Girls” provides a fresh, open, and honest voice on behalf of white-20-something women in today’s modern age that Dunham is able to provide based on her own experiences. “Girls” provides a voice for women; even if it is just for white women, and even if people think that voice is too loud.

One thought on “HBO’s “Girls:” Controversy out of Context

  1. Your blog is very well written, and strongly worded. I am honestly intrigued by all of the information that you put into this, and definitely want to watch a few episodes of the show to see what it is like. Prior to your blog, I have never heard of this show. The descriptions that you give, and words you use gave me such a glimpse of what the show is like, and I am very interested in learning more. In the instance where you talk about Chuck and Hannah, your descriptions of their kindling friendship and the sympathy she has for him paints an image in my head of what the two are like in front of each other. Chuck trying to win her over, and show her the “real” him, not the alleged assailant he is made out to be. As their encounter continues I am disgusted and instantly wonder what is going to happen: if Hannah will be assaulted, if she writes about the encounter, or if she turns him in. You used great examples from the show that definitely draw your readers in to want to know more about what is going on, great work.

    – Michael Sabatino


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