Viewpoint: The Problem with Lena Dunham’s Girls

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Zosia Mamet, Lena Dunham, Jemima Kirke and Allison Williams attend the HBO "Girls" Season 2 premiere at the NYU Skirball Center on January 9, 2013 in New York City

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.”

(MORELena Dunham Developing Another Series for HBO)

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?

(MORE: The War on Women Begins With Girls)

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 GirlThe Mindy ProjectDon’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.)

(MORE: Strong Female Characters Can Negate Effects of TV Violence)

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.

40 comments
KatieMunchmaQuchiSmith
KatieMunchmaQuchiSmith

In other words, I can't take women on TV acting like women in real life. They have to be flawless or it's "problematic." 

Pleionepi
Pleionepi

There's a few things I'd like to say about this article, but first I'll admit that Girls is not a perfect show (is there one, though?) , but I don't want to talk about all the potential issues in this show.


There's point I cannot agree with in this article: how sleeping with a random guy, a pizza man, or a man you've met in a bar one night is such a bad thing? I mean, it's consensual sex, both parties agreeing to do it. If a woman wants to do it, what's so wrong with that? It's not self disrespect, or whatever you want to call it. 

You can like it, or not. You can be part of the women who do it, or not. I absolutely don't care, as long as it's your choice and that you're okay with this. 


Does a woman has only the right to want the perfect man with whom she'll have a family? That's not how it works. You don't always want a relatationship, sometimes you just need physical affection and that's okay. You're not less of a person for that.

Life isn't like a movie, when the character loses everything, and start from the bottom and then manage to create some big thing and get famous for it or whatever. Life is a lot harder than that, sometimes your "down" moment can last for a very long time, and yes you lower your ambitions for a moment, especially when you're young. But that's life. And that's okay, maybe you realize that ambition you had wasn't really "you" in the end. 


I think, you're having an image of women that's not realistic. And I'm not saying that Girls is. But you're definitely not right on that one. 


somethingsomehowyeah
somethingsomehowyeah

When women are confident and satisfied with their lives, they don't need anyone to tell them to improve. Men like this author think they are entitled to that power. As long as women have not reached their utmost potential, men can feel superior to them, especially in coaching them to reach that potential. But "Girls" doesn't grant men or anyone that power. The characters internally know they are good enough and don't need anyone else to instill that within them. The loss of absolute power over a woman's happiness threatens men, knowing women don't need men to complete their lives. Thus, men who think women should always act inferior to and depend on a man, and the mindless women who are brainwashed to believe this, are angered. And that's where the hatred towards Lena Dunham and her show stems from: patriarchy and misogyny. 

OwnLessLiveMore
OwnLessLiveMore

I live in Bushwick (Brooklyn, New York) off the L train and have a lot of friends who are twenty-something girls and most of them are NOTHING like the girls on this show.  In fact, they are completely opposite.  Most of the 20-something year old girls I know are ambitious, determined, focused, and have goals.


I meet a handful of people who behave like the girls in the show "Girls" and these are usually trustafarian a++hole girls and guys who live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York, the most expensive hipster-infested area of the United States.  The girls on "Girls" are self-absorbed, lack morals, and are politically-correct as to be boring, similar to the hipster rich girls that congregate in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.


All the show "Girls" does is raise rent in areas of Brooklyn like Greenpoint, Bushwick, Williamsburg, and elsewhere, and hype Brooklyn to the point that it's being invaded by more self-absorbed hipsters from the Midwest and other places.  


http://www.DieHipster.com  - I do not advocate that hipsters should die.  They should live.  The sight is funny, though.


Is Lena Dunham a talented writer?  Yes.  Is she ambitious.  Yes.  Is her show hindering Brooklynites?  Yes, because the rents are being raised and more look-at-me hipsters are moving to the area because they want to participate in the myth that is "Girls".


I'm an actor and I don't expect to get work on the show "Girls" once this is posted.


However, I have to express my thoughts.  Thanks for reading.

ChuckJones2
ChuckJones2

The supporters of 'Girls' are right...the show is funny because it shows how stupid mid-twenties 'girls' (who used to be termed 'women' at that age) can be...especially liberal 'girls' who grow up being told what to think and do by their masters.  As "here's the thing" says...that's the "truth" represented by these sad, hilarious characters.  It's funny to see how they keep begging to get walked over by men and come back for more.  Thanks, Lena!

Heresthething
Heresthething

@LeslieMichelle I thought I was the only over 40's person connecting to the show. I connected to the writing more so than SATC. Of course at times it's over the top, but the writing from the perspective of a 20-something female is pretty spot-on. When I was a 20-something I was already a mother, so I was quite distant from the typical lifestyle. I took the path not taken by most of my girlfriends. While they were finishing college, I was changing diapers, paying bills, trying to figure out a marriage and quite alone. However, I can relate to almost each character's core structure. That's the kind of writing that creates a common ground between all generations. Surely each generation had its "ideals and specifics" but the overall essence is really the same: trying to find ourselves, trust others and emerge at the other end of the tunnel. Now at 40 plus, I can look back with clarity, that what I thought, when I thought, no matter how different, was a truth.

CatherineBenter
CatherineBenter

"When That Girl failed, she figured out why and started over — instead of diving into a quart of Haagen-Dazs." 

Wow, that last comment is very unprofessional. I'm disgusted.


QuintonTolbert
QuintonTolbert

I understand that no one fictional character can be perfect and relatable to everyone, but the characters in "Girls" are niche, convoluted, and contrived. The show doesn't accurately portray the mix of ethnicities one would associate with an urban setting. You want to talk relatability? They're all white. I mean, Charles Manson had irritable bowel syndrome, so I can relate. Right? No. I understand it is loosely based off of Dunham's life, but damn. Think about the female culture at large. The series doesn't live up to it's name. The title 'Girls' screams, "Hey! Let me tell you what it's really like to have a vagina in 2013!" Too bad the only people that have vaginas are young white self-loathing females. A more appropriate title would be "Hipster and the City", a dirtier, cheaper version of the earlier HBO series that brought the social problems of women to every home across America demanding solutions to evils such as misogyny and sexism be made paramount to the survival of the human race. You know, "Sex and the City"? Hell, it's like if the series 'Oz' was set in a US penetentiary and all the characters were white because the show was a creative non-fiction about the (white) writer, star, and creator who was an ex-con. That show would be ludicrous, because minorities make up the majority in prisons, with African-Americans taking up 41 percent of the 2 million prison and jail inmates, Hispanics with 19 percent and whites 37 percent. So why can't we see the wrong in "Girls" being all white in the Bronx?

In a generation where keeping up with the Jones' is more like keeping up with the Rockefeller's, experiencing something just to seem normal has replaced individuality. Universal interests speak for the population, because individuals lack the confidence to speak for themselves. So, people watch it and like it because everyone else does. We're taught to break away from our own interest and crave the rapture of normality and seek acceptance. What about the ethnic youth? Should they change just to relate to these characters and be accepted by the kids that look like the characters themselves? You might say, "Well, they have there own 'Black' version of "Girls", don't they?" No! They don't. I'm just saying this. If you stop calling it great then I'll stop calling it fake, and maybe it will disappear along with the rest of the shows that lack accurate representations of our generation. That last bit was soooo Jesse Jackson! Tee Hee Hee!

Rudee_Thugstable
Rudee_Thugstable

It is fair to say that the characters in Girls are not always role model material? Yes.  Is it fair to say that there are moments or behavior that lack self-dignity? yes.  Is it fair to say that it is wrong that these characters are not setting an obvious example for young women, or inspiring the youth of america to join the peace corps or maybe aim for the presidency?  In my opinion, hell no!!I it isnt fair at all.  I'm a man in my early 30's who stumbled upon this show while my wife was locked in to a marathon of episodes one weekend last year, and I remember saying to my wife "wow, this is very real" and "these ladies remind me of my friends when I was right out of college in Boston".  And that's what's refreshing and exciting about "Girls'.  People can relate! Hallelujah!! Finally a close-to accurate depiction of how 'imperfect' life can really be, and a protagonist who does't always know what to do nor does she always make morally sound decisions or take the path of self-respect.  My opinion is that it is actually not that Lena Dunham is writing her characters as some outrageous exaggeration of young american women in their early 20's, it's that you aren't realizing how much young american women are identifying with these characters.  And why are they identifying with them? Because whether you like it or not, those girls are "That Girl" of today and they represent a larger demographic than you think.  More importantly you are not seeing that there are, in fact, many moral victories and triumph's over life's cruel curve balls in almost every episode.  But, in my opinion you are too out of touch with this audience, therefore somewhat blind to the lessons of inspiration and hope that are peppered throughout the series.  Albeit at times at the conclusion of a string of bad decions and self deprecating behavior, but who hasn't made a few bad decisions??  Lastly I'd say this; everything evolves, and as you are aware, so does television.  Understand your audience and become acquainted with the world they live in and maybe you would see what many people see , which is a gritty, no-frills, hilariously real  representation of fictitious people overcoming real, very relevant, obstacles in life.   

alexandraares
alexandraares

As a woman author I run into this point of view a lot: that heroines should be a model of self-respect, strength, positive outlook at, in short a raw model. Many readers and critics expect this today, as a given, after the feminine revolution, but this approach only pushes the ball in the opposite wrong corner. In the 60s the super woman concept was a novel idea, but now it has become a standard and straight jacket that I want to escape. Life and fiction are about flaws, pain, and conflict, imperfect people often doing silly things, and, once in a while brave things. This HBO series is a success because it is real. The same way we shouldn't inject sugar and its substitutes in food, we shoudn't  inject self-help rhetoric in fictional heroines to make them 'likeable'. I am glad Balzac, Flaubert and many filmmakers, such as Woody Allen and Lena Dunham, dared to dissent.

hollye75
hollye75

I don't believe anyone would watch this show if it were some mainstream show on national television. I know I wouldn't. Maybe it doesn't show the best side of a young woman, but it is reality. I'm 37 and can tell you this is reality. I love this show because I can watch this show and laugh and think yeah I felt the same way or something similar happened to me at that age. I can laugh and say, "you know it's ok. It's part of growing up. I'm happy with myself and my life. I'm in a great place!!" So, Bill, please don't fool yourself.

Hollywooddeed
Hollywooddeed

I was a big fan of That Girl in the late sixties and it certainly did lift my aspirations as much as a fantasy TV show could.  But what a rude awakening it was to find that I as was making a very low wage and couldn't afford the cute apartment or cute clothes Ann Marie had.  I was stuck in a dead-end job with a boss who sexually harassed me, a boyfriend who expected me to do it (no point of reference for that since Donald never expected such a thing) and no daddy to bail me out whenever I got into one of my madcap jams.  I suggest you tell your daughters and granddaughters to turn off the TV and look elsewhere for their aspirations.

kateskee
kateskee

How this idiotic dribble was determined to be seen worthy of publication by the editors at Time is completely beyond me. Shame on them. Sad that such whining is on Time as opposed to some "I'm jealous that no one's talking about the show I once did with Marlo Thomas" blogspot that no one save your golf caddy will read.


Who's to say that their sex is "empty", anyway, Gramps? 


No one cares that you created "That Girl" and no one cares about your kids, grandkids, etc. This is simply put a horribly written piece. Why don't you use your "That Girl" resourcefulness to look at this failure and write a piece of criticism worth a damn?

kateskee
kateskee

Also my feistiness is not because I'm a huge fan of "Girls" (though I do like the show), but it is more because lazy writing by a writer to criticize another writer is just egregious. Using the motif of a woman eating Hagen-Daz as the symbol for self-pitying despair? Give me a break. Did you work on this for more than 5 minutes? I'm concerned about other 60-70 year olds, and how they're being depicted on the internet. You know, they're the product of the environment around them, aren't they?

MichaelChaseWalker
MichaelChaseWalker

So true, Bill! And how about that filthy Elvis Presley, too? These young whipper snappers are just vile, corrupt and don't love Jesus anymore! Why the whole country is going to hell with their min-skirts, long hair and foul mouths! Please bring back That Girl and Andy Griffith and Father Knows Best while you're at it. They were the true cutting-edge "voices" of the 20th century.

taylormith3301
taylormith3301

She's not much of a looker is she? She has a face that only a mother could love! And she's not the "voice of our generation." What a joke. Me and my friends are in our 20s and no way does she represent us. The media needs to stop shoving this woman down our throats. Her show doesn't even have high ratings. Its in the news because she creates controversies to keep her name in the headlines and the media overrates her. She's as racist and ignorant as they come. And you wonder why the rest of the world hates and looks down on America now...its because you allow women like her to represent us. Gross.

chrîs
chrîs

I think it's fairly condescending to suggest that young women (now or then) are so lost and incapable that they need plucky televised role models (created in large part by men) to guide their way. Dunham's work paints the messy post-adolescence of her generation in strokes not all together different than Melville did... or Knut Hamsun, JD Salinger, F Scott Fitzgerald or Jack Kerouac. The difference, I guess, is that those are the stories of men, written by and ostensibly for men, and thankfully men are, I guess, capable of surviving such demoralizing portraits without turning to Haagen-Dasz. 

Also, though it's not one of the more major problems with this piece, How I Met Your Mother seems a poorly researched inclusion. That show's hyper-romanticized version of New York twenty/thirty-somethings is the polar opposite of Dunham's project with a Dramatis Personæ that includes a successful architect, a cable news anchor, a teacher, a bank executive and an environmental lawyer. Four of those five are married... and the show's principal narrative explicitly follows the fifth's search for true love. Sex-crazed underachievers?


lizmcenaney
lizmcenaney

Here is what you don't understand, Bill Persky.  You haven't the slightest idea what it is like being a "twenty-something" in 2013.  None.  It is exhausting, terrifying, lonely, and also incredibly fun at times.  It is, for all intents and purposes, confusing.  So for me, a twenty-two year old who just graduated from college in December, who has an on-again off-again boyfriend who "treats my heart like it's monkey meat", divorced parents who couldn't understand me any less, is bartending at a poorly run, stupid sushi restaurant to save up money to move to New York, where I want to eventually start a career, this show is everything.  Up until Girls there lacked a realistic depiction of girls, just like me, "jittering through their twenties", on television. And here is the thing, my friends and I all feel the same way about this show.  I watch it over and over like I have never watched any show before because it makes me feel less alone in my own struggle, trying to figure out my life which can be extremely weird and sad and difficult.  The last scene of the most recent episode where Hannah and Jessa share a bathtub together mirrored exact moments of my best friend and I when she was home from school this past Christmas, it was also one of the most honest scenes shared between girls that I have ever seen on any show ever.  Hannah, Marnie, Jessa and Shoshanna are actually very meaningful, real characters who, although flawed, are, as the tagline of the show this season says, "Almost kind of getting it together." Just like me. Also Lena Dunham is my hero, and truly actually is the voice of our generation. I'm done here.

RuthEierCrates
RuthEierCrates

I think we all know that the current tv shows are not real life.... but they are setting an example for young girls.  As a retired educator, yes I am a bit older (60)  I have watched teen girls model their behavior after actresses, singers, tv personalities, all the WRONG role models. 

Every show on TV does not have to be The Waltons or Seventh Heaven, but there is not much to choose from when it comes to shows about single men and women.  They all follow the same plot and it sure isn't something I want my granddaughers to watch.   

I guess we can go the route of "What is TV's responsibility?"   Lately, it seems they aren't taking any....

issen
issen

Not to be an agist-- but if you wrote an article about " an independent woman" of the 1960's that likely means you are well into your 70's.  I would purport that there are likely some generational issues at bay. I don't purport to understand my grandparents way of thinking because the aggregate of a person's experience at 75 or 80 versus my mere 30 are likely 180 degrees different.  Why on Earth your editors assigned this to you has me lost.  Second, as the other commenters have already said and quite clearly TV isn't reaity, just like when you read a novel  you have suspension of disbelief I'd like to think viewers of GIrls are smart enough to take away the "important bits" about self-discovery and "stupid" mistakes". Life goes on with or without you on the train and i think the show has emphatically demonstrated that for these characters. 

#TheEnd

aristycat
aristycat

The show is getting a lot of attention but not because it is so much like "real life" uhh no. #GIRLS is over the top on the issues it supposedly exemplifies. Therefore it's not 'just life'. You see, not all girls are self loathing, uninspired, victims having empty sexual encounters every chance they get. The fact that you admit to believing that this show is 'real life' is the exact problem that Bill Persky is concerned about! Here's a tip for ya...TV is not real life. 

kalienne103
kalienne103

Lena Dunham isn't presenting her characters as admirable or somehow "cool," just as she also isn't portraying their universally shared traits of low self esteem, high self pity, general lack of self awareness and tendency to make bad decisions as positive. I don't think anyone has any illusions to the contrary -- who out there watches Girls and thinks "hey, I should try to be more like Hannah!" or, "hey, I feel really great about occasionally being a cold evil bitch without a legitimate job -- Marnie's doing it, so it's okay for me to do it as well"...? These girls are anti-heroines, plain and simple. 

Girls is great because it doesn't glamorize being a pain-in-the-ass, self-absorbed 20 something. 20-something girls (and guys, frankly) are frequently as loathsome as Lena's characters -- that's just life. If anything, the unmistakable loathsomeness present in the show deters -- it doesn't reinforce.