Dissecting a bad review of Girls

1 May

Apparently I’m not done talking about Girls. Or rather, I’m not done talking about people talking about Girls. And here’s why: way too much of the criticism surrounding Girls has been overwhelmingly shitty. This is not a flawless series—there’s no such thing as a flawless series. I don’t care if people love Girls as much as I do, but I’d like to read some complex, nuanced reviews of the show. You hate it? Fine. Tell me why.

I’m not going to agree with an evisceration of a series I’m already quite fond of, but a well written negative review will at least give me something to think about. Eileen Jones’ “The Horror of HBO’s Girls for The Exiled is not a well written negative review. It’s actually kind of terrible. And while I usually don’t relish criticizing other writers, I’ve decided Jones’ review merits dissection.

So let’s go through this sucker, paragraph by paragraph!

The tidal wave of reviewer praise for the foul new HBO show Girls has washed up against a wall of resistance recently. But as far as I can tell, nobody, whether praising or blaming, has actually conveyed what this miserable crap-colored show is like to watch.

My first issue with this review? The use of the phrase “crap-colored” as a pejorative. It may seem like a minor point, but Jones later criticizes Girls for not being “real.” Depressing as it may be, the real world is more “crap-colored” than much of what we see on TV. The color scheme Jones objects to is, in my mind, far more grounded than the bubble-gum colors of Glee or anything on ABC Family.

First scene: our homely heroine Hannah, played by writer-director-producer-monster Lena Dunham, is trying to persuade her parents to continue supporting her while she lives and perpetually interns in New York City, where everything looks drably brown. These are immediate tip-offs: we’re in mumblecore territory here. Mumblecore’s an indie film genre about contemporary affluent young white people who don’t know what to do with their lives and are generally dreary and despicable. And indeed, Lena Dunham is a mumblecore film director, who did Tiny Furniture in 2010.

“Homely heroine,” Jones writes, as though Dunham’s unconventional look is a mark against her. She will repeatedly return to this point, callously suggesting that Dunham’s “TV ugly” face and curvy body should be kept off of our TV screens.

But I’m almost as annoyed by Jones’ depiction of mumblecore. Maybe that’s because I love films like Funny Ha Ha and Humpday. These movies (and Girls) capture a very particular life experience, one that is worthy of representation. Our problems are relative: are Hannah’s financial woes on par with Greece’s collapsing economy? Obviously not, but that doesn’t mean it’s not scary as shit to be a creative person in your 20s without a clear idea of where you’re going in life.

Next we have a scene featuring Hannah passively enduring rotten sex with a vile jerk named Adam (Adam Driver). Adam insists that Hannah pretend to be an 11-year-old girl he’s raping after abducting her on her way home from school, and she goes along: fine, whatever. Critic Dave Wiegand, in his rave review of the show, describes this as one of Adam’s “hysterically inappropriate fantasy scenes when he’s having sex.” Yeah, I guess Dave laughed and laughed at those.

Yep, Adam’s a vile jerk, and Girls does nothing to suggest otherwise. He’s a reflection of Hannah’s miserable self-esteem, which—as it does in real life—sometimes manifests itself as sex with someone unworthy. If we’re laughing, it’s because we relate—perhaps we’ve slept with a guy as douchey and noncommittal as Adam. His rape fantasy is, first of all, a fantasy, and second of all, the fantasy of a twentysomething guy who lacks basic courtesy and self-awareness. That’s why it’s funny.

Lena Dunham is getting hosannas from critics for exposing her nude doughy depressing body in humiliating ways throughout the show—makes it all so “real,” somehow. They’re all calling Dunham “the voice of her generation,” and maybe she’s the body of her generation too. She must’ve known she could count on critics to dutifully take dictation when she had her character Hannah ironically describe herself as “the voice of my generation…or of a generation.” You can picture them all noting it down carefully, muttering, “‘Voice of generation’…oh, yeah, that is GOLD.”

Yes, how dare Lena Dunham expose her “doughy depressing body.” (This is Jones’ most offensive phrase, and she should apologize for it.) You know why Hannah’s awkward nakedness makes the show real? Because that’s really Dunham’s naked body, and these are uncomfortable sexual situations that many young women have actually found themselves in. Moreover, what if Dunham’s is “the body of her generation”? Better that than an unhealthy focus on skinniness and “perfection.”

The “voice of my generation” bit is something that many Girls haters have latched on to, apparently unable to identify the irony of the statement. When Hannah says that to her parents, she’s supposed to sound ridiculous—in the same way she sounds ridiculous when she explains that she can’t finish her book of personal essays until she’s lived more of her life. Hannah is both naïve and entitled: these are not qualities Girls is asking us to praise. And if denser critics have chosen to take “the voice of a generation” at face value—well, that’s on them, isn’t it?

There’s been no irony in the way show-creator Dunham augments her generational-voice status by making the PR rounds, talking about how she was inspired to create Girls because she never saw herself or her friends represented on TV shows. So she set out to remedy this by showcasing her particular demographic, the creepy white female.

OK, you can’t have it both ways, Jones. Is Dunham writing for her entire generation, or for the particular demographic you have dubbed “the creepy white female”? It seems to me that she is writing about herself and her friends, which is exactly what she said. She’s writing what she knows, not pretending to speak for all young women. And if you’d object to her assertion that Dunham did not see her friends represented on TV shows, find me another show with characters like those on Girls.

The half-hour show drags on as you meet Hannah’s horrible friends, all of whom hold forth with bizarre self-importance on the topics of sex and abortion and AIDS and media and female identity, even the one who’s a cruel caricature of a provincial inexperienced girl (Zosia Mamet). There’s also the mean, square-jawed, gimlet-eyed “best friend” (Allison Williams), and the nasty Brit bitch (Jemima Kirke). All have hard poker faces and flat affectless voices. It’s impossible to imagine them laughing out loud, or relaxing, or having a nice meal or non-grim sex. Maybe they do those things in later episodes, but like I said, it’s tough to imagine.

Wait, twentysomethings discuss issues with “bizarre self-importance”? Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time with people in my age group knows how accurately Girls depicts them. I disagree that Hannah’s friends are “horrible”: I’d categorize them as “flawed.” Some are more likable than others, but that’s the way groups of friends are.

And if they seem too serious for “laughing out loud” or having “non-grim sex,” perhaps that speaks to the same self-importance Jones misidentifies as unintentional. There is no question that the characters on Girls alternately take themselves too seriously and not seriously enough. This is a reflection of real-life, not bad writing.

The backlash against the show has been mainly about the all-whiteness of the cast, the way there are no people in color in Lena Dunham’s NYC except bit-part, background workers here and there. Personally I think people of color have dodged a bullet, and should celebrate their own non-representation in this TV-mumblecore hellscape. While this show slimes along, I like to imagine the whole rest of mixed-race NYC having a terrific time everywhere that Lena Dunham and her friends are not, letting Dunhamites move around in a permanent bubble of privileged-white-girl malevolence, shunned by all decent people.

How interesting that Jones complains about “privileged-white-girl malevolence” when her review itself is so needlessly malevolent. The characters Dunham writes about may not be aware of the bubble in which they live, but that doesn’t mean Dunham isn’t. How else would she capture her peers so accurately? And while they may be a very particular group of people in New York, they do exist. Some of them are even “decent people.”

I’ll skip over the next bit, in which Jones remarks on a controversial tweet by Girls writer Lesley Arfin, and a Gawker post by Max Read. Lesley is a Twitter friend of mine, and Max is a colleague: I think that’s a pretty clear conflict of interest. And there’s so much else wrong in Jones’ review, I think we can overlook this section.

Let’s skip ahead to what Jones incorrectly identifies as the final scene of the first episode—it’s actually the final scene of the second. Incidentally, nothing undermines your credibility as a critic more than making such a glaring factual error. But enough about that.

The final scene features Hannah at a clinic where she’s getting tested for AIDS, a personal obsession of hers. There’s a woman of color as the gynecologist who’s forced to play the role as the wise-subaltern, feeding straight lines to Lena Dunham while squatting between her legs, so Dunham can toss off more of her dubious wit and wisdom about the harsh realities faced by snotty white mumblecore females today.

I loved this scene, and Jones willfully misreads it. In many ways, this is the most annoying part of her review—she refuses to look at what the scene is actually saying, because the words coming out of Hannah’s mouth are, on the surface, so offensive.

Hannah tells the gynecologist that she wishes she had AIDS. She actually says that! And yes, what an ignorant, awful thing to say—but indeed, something that a young woman like Hannah might jokingly assert without thinking about the implications. That same self-obsession, coupled with the desire to be funny before being sincere, is why she fumbles her job interview earlier in the episode. Hannah’s date rape joke isn’t funny: what’s funny is how little she understands about what date rape really means, and why it’s not something to be glib about to a potential employer.

There’s a bit more to Jones’ review, but you get the idea: she’s wrong. She’s wrong on every level, and reviews like hers take away from any legitimate criticism that might be leveled against Girls. It’s backlash for the sake of backlash, without any substance to it.

And maybe that’s how Jones would feel about my blog post. In fact, I welcome her response.

7 Responses to “Dissecting a bad review of Girls

  1. Kelly Moranis (@MmeSurly) May 1, 2012 at 3:46 pm #

    Perfect. While I have my own reservations about the show, I think it’s well written and funny. It’s depressing how gleefully these critics have torn into it (ESPECIALLY all of the horrible body snark/image comments).

  2. on the gad May 1, 2012 at 4:55 pm #

    i took note when kyra sedgwick tweeted how good girls on hbo was before it even aired here. i am loving this painfully funny show. right on, louis!!!

  3. jenniferlauren (@jenhasgreathair) May 2, 2012 at 3:44 pm #

    Doughy white body? Crap coloured show? Creepy white female?

    This is a troll of a review. It is so overtly offensive and superficially analyzed that I don’t even think that Jones gives a shit about what she is watching but is rather writing for the sake of a reaction.

    (Which she got.)

  4. P. Michael Nugent (@nugentmania1) May 28, 2012 at 9:50 pm #

    Admittedly, I found nothing redeeming about the pilot. The characters were written in a way that I’d never empathize with, although I understand that it wasn’t written for me. But, that said, after 6 episodes I’m a fan. The 1st episode had the same problem any new show would have from a cold opening, but once you get invested in the characters it becomes more about the smart writing. And Lena Dunham is a smart writer.

  5. Hannah June 4, 2012 at 7:30 am #

    I can’t believe this woman is paid to write this stuff. That was less a review and more a garbled “crap-colored” flame-fest I’d expect to see on a forum, not a professional publication. What a disgusting read. Kudos for taking down her “argument” with a level, civil tone; you’re a stronger dude than I.

  6. Chelsea Donovan December 3, 2012 at 9:35 am #

    First of all I want to thank you for this post. Thank you SO much. Because here’s the thing. I live in North Florida, a region riddled with prejudice, sexism, and blatant ignorance. There is no debating that. There are people like me who are open minded, intelligent, and accepting, but we are unfortunately the minority. I relate to Girls in a lot of ways. Each of the characters are extremely flawed, like you said. Their flaws are not meant to be admired, we are not supposed to think, “Yeah, that’s how I want to be.” You would think that would be obvious from watching the show. Instead, all I hear from the people around me is ignorant criticism like the article you dissected. Every time I mention how much I like the show, someone (usually a guy) will rip the show apart rather passionately. Their main arguments are: 1)The main character is “fat and ugly”, 2) The girls are stuck up, whiny bitches with no real problems, and 3) The main character is “fat and ugly”. This makes me angry in so many ways that I when it happens I am so outraged and and disgusted by the person that I have no word to express my opinion. Reading your post was like reading the perfect articulation of what I’ve always wanted to say to these misogynistic and baseless reviews. The characters are flawed in the same way that male and female characters in fiction have been flawed going back to the beginning of literature! The wonderful difference is that the flaws depicted in Girls are very specific to a large and important demographic of women today. Women like me, in my twenties, creative and passionate and trying to find a place in the world. Women that have poor self esteem and can let ourselves fall into that same self-destructive pattern over and over until we become self aware. The show is a dark mirror to what intelligent young women can be if we let ourselves. And a lot of us have, which is why it is so relatable! So thank you. I needed to read this and remember that other people get it.

  7. Brigid March 22, 2013 at 11:13 am #

    Bravo Louis, this was thoughtful and enjoyable read.

    The descriptors used by Jones are inappropriate and hateful.

    Jones owes Dunham an apology.

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