Feminism and Flawed Women in Lena Dunham’s “Girls”

As a mid-to-late-20-something woman, I have grown up with a wide range of pop-culture representations of women, from the Wakefield twins of Sweet Valley High to Cher from Clueless to any part Winona Ryder played to blandly interchangeable rom-com leading ladies to the women of Sex and the City.

I have loved and hated these women. But I’ve never fully related to any of them.

But this year, from the fierce and loyal Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games to the deeply flawed and selfish Mavis Gary in Young Adult, I’m finally finding women in film and TV that resonate with me. And no one has got my personal zeitgeist as right as Lena Dunham in her terrific new HBO series, Girls.

In Girls, Dunham, who wrote and directed 2010’s Tiny Furniture, focuses on Hannah (Dunham), Marnie (Allison Williams), Jessa (Jemima Kirke) and Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), a group of 20-something friends who live in New York while navigating jobs, dating and the city. Yes, it sounds like Sex and the City 2.0., but trust me, it’s not.

Sex and the City‘s portrayal of friendship, sex and relationships were often undercut by an overriding interest in consumer culture and designer fashions. Hell, I’d never turn down a Chanel bag, but I recognized that this was a lifestyle that the majority of young women could never access. Girls, on the other hand, encompasses the joy and sadness of what it’s like to be an under-employed, uncertain 20-something woman in a post-sexual revolution and economically downtrodden world.

This isn’t to say that Girls doesn’t contain its own signifiers of privilege: These are over-educated white women of the upper middle class. In the pilot episode, we learn that Hannah’s parents have been paying her way for about two years, and this seems to be the case for the majority of her other friends. But Dunham is careful to acknowledge this privilege. In a conversation with Adam, the guy she’s sleeping with, for example, Hannah worries that he will judge her for the fact that her parents have been supporting her. “Did that make you feel sick? Make you not want to talk to me?” she asks him.

Despite their privilege, the characters are struggling, at least in a middle-class way. Hannah has been working at an unpaid internship for more than a year. Her friends lament that their liberal arts degrees have left them in severe debt and underemployed while they live in cramped and shitty apartments that they can’t afford. In an economic moment when 12 percent of women ages 20-24 are unemployed and another 40 percent work part-time, it’s refreshing to see a mostly accurate depiction of the world of few and low-paid jobs. However, at least in the first three episodes, Girls has failed to acknowledge how very white the cast is, and how women of color would offer a different perspective on these 20-something dilemmas. I am curious to see, as the series progresses, if Dunham will bring such a perspective into the show.

Despite its lack of a serious class and race consciousness, Girls does address other feminist issues currently in play, among them body image, abortion, relationships within a social media age and street harassment. In another series, these issues might be the focus of one episode (i.e. the abortion episode of SATC), but in Girls they become everyday topics.

In the typical romantic comedies of recent years, starring, say, Jennifer Garner or Katherine Heigl, the female star’s only obvious flaw is that she’s clumsy and trips over curbs–usually into the arms of the man who becomes her love interest. But in Girls, the characters have sex with the wrong guys or no sex at all, read crappy romantic advice books, don’t have flat stomachs and have no idea what they are doing with their lives. As an underemployed 20-something who has been and done all of the above, Girls is the feminist media I’ve been waiting for, because there’s no judgment on the characters’ choices or fuck-ups.

At one point in the pilot, a drug-altered Hannah spills her job and financial frustrations to Jessa and Marnie, then leaves to confront her parents about cutting her off. Jessa says to Marnie, in what seems like willful denial, “She [Hannah] seems like she’s in such a good place.” While Hannah and many women today may not be in such a great place, Dunham’s ability to humorously/seriously express our hopes and contributions may help us get to a better one.

Girls premieres on HBO this Sunday (4/15) at 10:30pm. It will be available to all non-subscribers via HBO on 4/16.


    1. Nicholas Chase says:

      I know it’s silly of me to point this out, but it appears a period is missing at the end of this review. For some reason my brain really doesn’t like that.

      Good review though! If I didn’t think the cable companies were actively working against the interests of working-class Americans and certainly women, and thus didn’t have a problem with getting cable, and then if I had a job, and money, and spare time, I might watch this great-sounding show.

      Perhaps when Netflix releases an original show worth reviewing such as the upcoming Orange is the New Black, Ms Magazine could review that?

    2. I find ‘Girls’ infuriating. I watched the first two episodes last night and felt physically ill. Needless to say I was hoping for a lot more from a show that is being touted as a realistic and insightful look at my generation. I really wish that people with so much privilege would get out from under their self-indulgent pain and go out and make the world better. I wish the show was talking about all of the good things that are happening in the world because of people who are not like those ‘girls’ and are taking action to address the many real problems we face as a global community. Women and girls can be leaders, strong, eloquent, kind and forces for good in the world. This show seems to just encourage rich white girls to whine and it makes me want to slap them all in the face and say “wake up, get off your butt and get to work…you will find it a lot more rewarding.”

      I like the idea of presenting women as more than one dimensional on screen. However, ‘Girls’ is not breaking any stereotypes, or giving young women hope or inspiration. It is encouraging what you call ‘middle-class’ in your article and I would call ‘upper-class’ – women to sit on their butts and whine. Sitting and whining is dis-empowering. Rich, white women have been encouraged to sit and whine since Victorian times. We do not need anymore whining from rich people and we certainly don’t need anymore shows about rich, white women whining. I am disappointed by this article from Ms., I am very disappointed by the show ‘Girls’ and am baffled by all the people who embrace the show as a voice of our generation.

      Girls, women, human beings, let’s get to work to make the world better instead of getting bogged down in a negative portrayal of a few spoiled New Yorkers.

      • Yes!!! The tiny working-class feminist in me never stops screaming. It’s refreshing to see comments from (at least somewhat) like-minded people.

        Btw I was raised poor (as in, free-lunch program, shopping at good-will, electricity shut off twice, mom worked 80 hours a week, parents filed bankruptcy) and I’m now on my way to being the first in my family to get a Ph.D because I knew what I wanted and I went for it. And I worked full time while volunteering for experience and recommendations, paid (well, paying) for school with loans, scraped what I could by taking extra weekend and overnight shifts to move to a new state for a paid internship when I came across the opportunity, worked my ass off there, and am starting school next fall with full funding. And I’ve been homeless and jobless on the way. Oh, and also happy <–this is key. The freedom to do an unpaid internship while my mom pays my rent doesn't sound like anything to complain about to me… let alone write a f*cking tv show about.

      • Nicholette says:

        FIRST OFF. The women on this show are NOT New York women. They are women who came from suburban, white upper middle class households. They moved to New York. They are not born and raised New Yorkers who are some of the most hardworking down to earth people. I don’t know where the image came from of New Yorkers all being spoiled superficial brats, because frankly that’s ignorant horses*it, and people have no idea what they’re talking about. I was born and raised there and I am most certainly not that way. I have met people like that but they are mostly out of towners who had money and moved to NYC because thats where the vast job opportunities, educational opportunities and culture is.

        2nd you should watch the rest of the show before you make an assumption based on the first two episodes, because I initially had the same thought process before I continued watching and my mind changed.

        3rd let’s break it down a little..the characters Marnie, Jessa, Hannah, and Shoshanna….Marnie works in an art gallery, Hannah is a writer, Jessa is a creative wild free thinker, and Shoshanna even though she seems prudish, is probably one of the more rational of the bunch, who later breaks up with her older boyfriend to find herself, and focus on her future. Hannah also has an african american boyfriend at one point. I personally think women like these girls on the show, have the power to change the world in their own ways through art, or writing, through free thought and independence. Jessa is always rebelling and she even rallys together a group of Nannys in the park when working as a Nanny for better wages. She has a revolutionary mind, which if focused in the right direction can do wonders for a cause. They’re young and it’s about them finding their way and learning about who they are and where they fit in in the world. It’s not perfect. As a matter of fact it’s not meant to be. It’s awkward, wrong, unsure, insecure, confusing, just like a lot of our youth. It’s not supposed to be a model for how we should all be but it offers a such of humility and humanity that we can all relate to because we’ve all been there one time or another.

        I almost thought the same thing at first when I watched the first few episodes. I didn’t come from money. My parents worked hard, but didn’t have anything extra to give me. They didn’t have a college fund for me or trust fund. The didn’t pay for my first apartment or buy me a car. I didn’t get my license until I was 27. I was born and raised in New York City, worked in New York City, went to school there. Besides the fact that these women were supported by their parents or came from money at first, they’re in the same predicament that say people like me are in working lower paying jobs, high rents, relationships, feminism, sex, in the current economy, and modern world.

        4th these women have the right to have whatever kind of sex they want, and play upon whatever fantasies they want. They’re obviously not degraded or offended. They like this kind of sex. They enjoy it. They feel empowered by it, otherwise they wouldn’t do it no one is forcing them. So I don’t see it as degrading. It’s consensual. There’s a new wave of female sexuality where young women have been having less emotionally charged sex, and are having more casual sex. Marnie even though she uses sex and men, it’s empowering to her, and she likes it. It’s only degrading if one FEELS degraded. If you’re secure enough to know your own self worth and just so happen to get off on kinky sex without feeling sad about it afterwards then so be it.

        I personally think that to treat women like delicate flowers that would brake and should be handled with care is anti-feminist. To assume these women are victims who are being degraded, just because they are female even though they CLEARLY enjoy the sex they’re having and it’s there own personal choice, is anti-feminist.

        All that being said. I’m taking one for the team, as NATIVE NEW YORKER, 20-something year old, college educated, working class woman, I LOVE this show. I understand it. I relate to a good portion of it. Say what you will. That’s just my opinion and my experiences.

    3. happymisogynist says:

      Nothing mentioned in the above text suggests any relevance to feminism in the series.

    4. Does someone honestly call themselves a happy misogynist?
      This show horrifies me. WHAT is feminist about women allowing men to degrade them and degrading themselves for men.
      A virgin who’ll anything to get a guy to sleep with her.
      A boyfriend who’s not ‘manly’ because he respects his girlfriend of 4 years?
      The girlfriend who is so excited by an artist admires TELLing he’ll fuck her and that he’ll be rough, she has to run to the toilets to masterbate despite the fact the conversation began with her telling him she didn’t want to kiss him.
      A traveller who after the first 4 episodes seems set to be the babysitter who sleeps with the dad.
      A lead character who is ok with her asshole fuck buddy to role play that she is an 11yr old he found on the street and took home to come on her tits.
      A misogynistic best friend of the considerate boyfriend who thinks a girl desevres to be ‘tied to a lamppost and fucked’ for ‘being boring’.

      Are you fucking kidding me!?

      Its everything anti feminist there is!

      Ok they are finding their way in a down turned economy . So what?
      Being funded by their parents doesn’t mean its ok for them to let men treat them like sex toys. OR for them to put up with behaviour and acts they don’t enjoy or make them feel shitty about themselves just so they get make attention.

      What kind of message does this send to men and women?

      Equality of the sexes benefits us ALL.

      This show is not part of that message.

    5. Depressing. So utterly depressing. Here was a chance to re work the mould, to say FU to the horrendous stereotypes, and to make good in the world of women. Here was a massive chance completely missed. I thought more of Lena Dunham. She sold the same sexist crap, with an extra serving of sex. That’s all. What a shame. To her. And to us.

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