The Body Politics of HBO's Girls

Tianxing Ma

Lily F. Karlin

TV Forever <3

Last week, the Internet exploded with the latest wave of backlash against HBO series “Girls.” The Feb. 10 episode, “One Man’s Trash,” featured creator and producer Lena Dunham’s character Hannah engaging in a sexual escapade with an older, handsome stranger, played by a guest-starring Patrick Wilson. Amid controversy over how the unconventionally attractive Hannah could possibly snag such a nice-looking man, I’d like to say the following: Thank you, Lena Dunham. Since its premiere in 2012, “Girls” has been both acclaimed and derided, with much criticism focusing on the show’s representation of class privilege. Personally, I’ve never understood this line of attack. Yes, the show explores the lives of privileged women, but it never claims to do otherwise. Critics in this camp seem under the impression that “Girls” wants to represent its generation and fails to do so by focusing on only one specific subset. But at the moment when Hannah utters the widely reprinted quote that instigated this misconception—“I think I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least a voice, of a generation”—she is on drugs, begging for money on the floor of her parents’ hotel room. Her proclamation is ironic. “Girls” aims to speak only for the world it depicts—one of privileged, highly educated, under-skilled twenty-somethings with strong yet vague desires to pursue art—and does so, for the most part, with startling acuity.

But what has puzzled me the most about the discussions of privilege surrounding “Girls” has been the absence of dialogue about Hannah’s atypical Hollywood appearance. While I do think that the complex rendering of the show’s characters is progressive in itself, on the most surface level, it’s true that the experiences of wealthy white people in New York is not new territory for television. However, focusing on a female protagonist that lacks typical body privilege is.

Historically, women have been valued for their status as physical objects. This underlying idea buoys the narratives of countless film and television shows. In romantic comedies, for example, girls undergo makeovers to become conventionally attractive before men will date them. We internalize the idea that women must look a very specific way in order to be loved.

So when “Girls” introduced an alternatively attractive protagonist with the same confidence and romantic prospects as any Hollywood ingénue, I welcomed the breath of fresh air. But as exemplified by last week’s reactions, audiences consistently criticize this aspect of the show for its supposed lack of realism, as opposed to praising it for its truthfulness. Never do these conversations acknowledge that the point of view that finds Hannah’s love life unviable is largely shaped by film and television that propagates partnership standards much less realistic than those depicted on “Girls.”

The dichotomy in perceived attractiveness levels—as illuminated by Dunham and Wilson—provokes such criticism but doesn’t seem to hold up for the opposite gender paradigm, and many saw last week’s episode as Lena Dunham’s response to this reality. We frequently see films in which men with offbeat looks pursue classically attractive women: Woody Allen dates Diane Keaton; Seth Rogen dates Katherine Heigl. These actors’ characters are loved as full packages with personalities, regardless of their lack of traditional handsomeness. Dunham’s tryst with Patrick Wilson is just a gender reversal of the same trope.

However, claiming this is be the episode’s main feat undersells “Girls.” Yes, Dunham is reversing a common stereotype. Yes, she is responding to untruthful claims that “Girls” who look like Hannah can’t date classically attractive men. But she also is actively changing the landscape that gives birth to the points of view that find these depictions unrealistic in the first place. Younger generations will watch television shows like “Girls” and likeminded contemporaries like “Broad City” and see three-dimensional female characters with different looks, shapes, and sizes experiencing fully realized love lives. They will internalize the idea that this is a reality that can happen, just as the generation before them so clearly internalized that it was not. Close-minded notions of who can date whom will begin to expand.

Like almost any television show, “Girls” has its flaws. But it’s also a huge progressive step in the body politics of television. If future shows take up what “Girls” has done well but also rectify its shortfalls by putting together people not just of different sizes and sexual orientations, but also of different races, creeds, and other variations not readily explored on television, the viewing public of the future will change. There won’t be a large audience claiming certain romantic combinations ring false, because all will be represented both in reality and on screen. Let’s own up to the fact that television can shape the way we think—let’s allow it to make progressive strides so that our brains can, too.

—Columnist Lily F. Karlin can be reached at lily.karlin@college.harvard.edu.

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