Lena Dunham is clearly a bright and talented young woman. At only 26, she is the creator, director and star of her own series, HBO’s Girls, about a quartet of twentysomething females of varying backgrounds, attributes and problems, sharing what is presented as a contemporary female experience. Just before she won two Golden Globes, Parade magazine put Ms. Dunham on the cover, referring to her as “That Girl.”
With all due respect, actress Marlo Thomas was, is and always will be the original — and only — “That Girl.”
If I seem defensive, it’s because I am: I was the co-creator of That Girl, a series that featured television’s first single, working woman — who did not need a husband to find happiness. I’d like to think that over the course of its five-year run, That Girl managed to lift the aspirations of an entire generation of young women in the late 1960s. While I applaud Miss Dunham’s accomplishments, I am saddened by the message of a show that lets its characters wallow in low self-esteem, high self-pity and perpetual victimhood.
When That Girl failed, she figured out why and started over — instead of diving into a quart of Haagen-Dazs.
When That Girl doubted herself, she got to the root of the problem with her smarts — not by sleeping with the pizza delivery guy.
I don’t question that Ms. Dunham is being honest and writing in a way that feels true to life, but it is an uninspiring experience to hold up as an example to young women who are trying to find their way in today’s complex and unsupportive world. Instead of wanting more, as did That Girl (in a time that was equally challenging) the Girls seem satisfied with accepting less — of themselves and others. In a recent episode, Lena Dunham’s character Hannah is asked to write about going “outside her comfort zone” and proceeds to snort coke, expose herself publicly, and let down her friends. Where’s the human dignity?
Girls is not the only female situation comedy with a self-respect problem, although it’s probably the most intelligent. Two Broke Girls, The New Girl, The Mindy Project, Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23 — all of these shows portray characters who, week after week, take the uninspiring path of casual, empty sex and small aspirations.
I am not just some old guy yearning for the good old days of television — which weren’t always that good, by the way. And I should add that the depiction of young men is equally uninspiring: I don’t think you will find a future president — let alone a potentially good husband — among the sex-crazed slackers, nerds and underachievers featured in Two and a Half Men, How I Met Your Mother and Happy Endings. (Then again, they are superior beings compared to the Neanderthals who populate beer and takeout pizza commercials.)
But I’m worried about how young women are being depicted on TV. As the father of three daughters, one stepdaughter, two granddaughters and five goddaughters, I know that, beyond the input of our family, they are the product of the environment around them. You would think that a young female talent like Lena Dunham would be showing her generation a way up, rather than reinforcing the idea that it’s cool to be down.