A forlorn married man, lusting after his babysitter; an abject, sensitive musician; an edgy guy who likes to be sexually humiliated – and not in a stylish, 50 Shades of Grey way. Instead, he likes his dumpy girlfriend, dressed in a baggy frock and pilly cardigan, to scream at him from the foot of the bed.
These are the men and boys of the just-renewed HBO dramedy Girls, and their weakness does not function to highlight the four female leads’ power, but to express their own sad-bastard, crybaby humanity.
Girls is, technically, a chick show. In Sunday’s episode, the lead, Hannah (Lena Dunham, also the creator of the show), sits in her car and sings along, unsmiling, with Jewel’s Hands: This is, ultimately, a shrewdly radical show about the larger, private realm of young women’s lives.
And the show keeps gaining momentum: The informal and online buzz keep building around the show, not even halfway through its first season.
Girls has had a mixed reception: It is loved, or hated, most notably for being “racist” because its cast is not racially diverse.
Recently, a Huffington Post Gchat between two female commentators also called the show “navel gazing” and a bit “annoying” – annoying being female slang for, “Why is this show so popular? My life is interesting. I should have a show!”
Dunham, who actually dignified the claims of racism with a long, thoughtful response, needs to get more gangster, because the show’s popularity will continue to anger many.
She is already the unlikeliest of thugs, like Natalie Portman in a still-viral 2006 SNL Digital Short in which she raps: “It’s Portman ... drink till I’m sick/Slit your throat and pour nitrous down the hole/Watch you cry while I laugh you die.”
Andy Samberg’s joking response to her “def posse” was fear. And he is not alone in that sentiment.
The success of Girls is predicated on both a sui generis rise in female power, and its corollary: male anxiety and a newly significant narrative of men as messed-up, feeling people, not impossible enigmas known by dehumanizing nicknames such as “Mr. Big.”
Girls is significantly preceded by Two Broke Girls and Don’t Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 (well, this appears in the time slot alongside Girls), shows that feature, as Whitney tried to, women who are not so much strong and powerful, but tough and tricky; aimless, perverse and mean – normal girls, in other words.
Amid constant comparisons to Sex and the City (Dunham’s show being “grittier,” “younger” and more “normal”), Girls is really nothing like it.
The girls of Girls are plain to the point of homeliness. The title card alone – stark beige type against a mud-brown card – is an almost degenerate response to things pink and feminine.
And Dunham’s complex dowdiness is as aggressive as a burning bra, or the power stances of riot grrrl guitarists in filthy, torn-up clothes: Her aesthetic suggests an apolitical-yet-ineluctable fourth feminist wave with a merciless riptide.
“I just broke up with a feminist man,” Dunham’s Girls-like character in her film Tiny Furniture moans: The boys in Girls are also mocked, if not shredded, for the frailties typically associated with women.
Sex and the City’s entire premise was men: how to find them, keep them, lose them, have sex with them, talk to and behave with them – while lamenting about the process of finding “the one.”
The “one” is an illusion Girls does not entertain. If the men are often wretched on the show, they are also poignant in their mawkishness and need. That the producer is Judd Apatow is not surprising: His cinematic enterprise has been to lay bare the tempestuous hearts of obscene and lovesick boys.
The Girls’ girls chase and are chased by men. They just have no endgame: The chase is one small aspect of being “young, wild & free,” as the Bruno Mars/Snoop Dogg song says.
Dunham’s Hannah is the kind of girl who visits her parents, picks up the local pharmacist, sexually embarrasses him and forgets him by the time she gets home to help her dad after “a sex injury.”
“I don't even care if you get my name wrong,” she tells her off/on boyfriend, in an unusually romantic, typically indifferent exchange the same evening, during a late-night call that unfolds as Hannah walks the lawn in the dark.
This plain or plainly unformed girl and her friends are riding the new wave on black, battered boards with razor-sharp fins: Along with the boys they torture and love (“I am unsmoteable!” one girl announces after seducing her unavailable ex), they are grossly passionate, wild and free.