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Girls (2012), a popular television series, has often been criticised for its white-dominated cast members and portrayal of first-world problems (literally) as life struggles. But here are some aspects of the show that are worthy of being held on to, despite its shortcomings. Girls is honest within its plot, and brings to the screen the owning of the female body and associated experiences.
Created by Lena Dunham, Girls takes us through the lives of four young women in New York City. Predominantly shot in Brooklyn, the show attempts to capture specific pockets in the neighbourhood. While the show has been criticised for being ignorant, snobbish, and lacking diversity and representation in its characters, it has been lauded for its raw portrayal of female friendships and complex relationship dynamics.
The show’s storyline also touches upon themes of female sexuality, addiction, mental health, the looming uncertainty of the future, and manages to capture the realities of bad decisions made by the characters as they navigate their lives. Girls revolves around the friendship between Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshana, and showcases the struggles they face while living their independent lives in terms of romantic relationships, career decisions, identity, and much more.
Conflict, complexities, grey shades
“We cannot hangout anymore because we cannot be in the same room without one of us making it completely and entirely about ourselves.” – Shoshana S6,E9
There is conflict in almost every other episode either within relationships or due to an eventuality. The manner in which conflict is presented in the show is honest and real. It made me as a viewer, angry, sad, squirmish, irritated, and fed up only because it was something I might have or would have done, had I been in the situation as these characters. The struggle for the characters to communicate the conflict to one another, making it relatable for the audience, was yet another tasteful representation of complexities in relationships.
Almost all the characters in Girls are written as grey, self-centered, ignorant, and narcissistic. Hannah portrays the perfect ‘bad friend‘ for me. She is presented as ungrateful to her friends, especially to Marnie, and is in denial of the struggles her friends undergo. For me, Hannah was the most toxic character on the show and Dunham’s impeccable acting and writing brought out how unapologetically selfish this character is. There is also an underlying complexity to her character, which often leads to the poor decisions she makes, also making it difficult to completely dislike her.
Marnie is called out for being ‘uptight‘ and for how particular she can get. She always tries to be there for her friends even while she is struggling with her own life. If Carol Gilligan were writing Care Ethics today, Marnie would be an apt example of how caregivers think they cannot enjoy life because they have to ensure others can.
In Jessa’s words, Marnie tries to protect her friends, ‘mother‘ them, and is often left feeling angry and disappointed for wrong decisions her friends make since she views it as a failure on her part. Marnie also struggles with her romantic relationships. For the most part of Girls, she is caught up with the dominant heteronormative notion of settling down and having a family alongside a successful career.
Jessa is presented as the ‘cool friend’ who travels the world and always has the most adventurous anecdotes to share. She is portrayed as having casual flings and not someone who cares about emotions in relationships. It is however, later revealed how this has severely affected her self-identity and worth. This distortion to her identity along with her other struggles also pushes her into drug addiction. In the beginning of the series, Marnie is upset about Jessa’s habit of abandoning the group often and coming to them only when she has problems. The liberated girl who later ends up with self-image issues is a tired trope, but there is some nuance to the portrayal in Girls.
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Shoshana is a highly ambitious, extremely shy and awkward individual who also happens to be Jessa’s cousin. She often finds herself feeling inferior to the others in her group, especially because of the fact that she is a virgin. Shoshana is very conscious about her body and is always in awe of her beautiful and enchanting cousin.
Shoshana is truly the star of Girls, especially because of the arc her character undergoes. From being heavily dependent with low self-esteem, to traveling to a different country in pursuit of her dreams and finally realising the importance of drawing boundaries in relationships and friendships, she comes a long way.
Gender, sexuality, inclusivity: Why Girls fails in representation
The portrayal of gender and sexuality in Girls is largely through a heteronormative lens. All the main characters are hetero normative. Jessa experiments, but only as a means of acting out, with a Black lesbian which also very obviously highlights the power dynamics within the act.
The only representations of queer characters are Hannah’s friend Elijah and her father, who later comes out as gay, whose identity she is unable to come to terms with for quite a while, thereby not being there to support him. Elijah too, is portrayed as her trophy gay friend. There isn’t much depth to their friendship other than the fact that they dated briefly in college and are on and off housemates. There is also hardly any background to Elijah’s character, making his character along with his identity take a backseat in the larger plotline.
The aspirations of the main characters are also around getting married, settling down and having children. Of course, while this changes over the course of the series, the subversion and dissent towards patriarchal structures are quite weak. Gender issues largely revolve around the straight White female characters, and the issues are specifically around their first world aspirations.
Girls show has been widely criticised for its poor representation of diversity. The main characters and the recurring characters are predominantly White and the show’s portrayal of social struggles fails to address issues of racism. The very few racial representations are two of Hannah’s romantic interests played by Donald Grover and Riz Ahmed. Danielle Brooke makes an appearance as a Black lesbian, who is in the same rehab center as Jessa. However, her role also seemed to only serve the purpose of bringing out Jessa’s unstable behaviour, rather than giving any depth to her character and identity. These representations seemed highly tokenistic.
Shoshana has a temporary stint in Japan as part of her job and she seemed have to have really taken to Japanese culture and goes on to even completely change her style and lifestyle. However, this seemed to me, as a slight exoticisation and appropriation of Japanese culture. While Shoshana’s character does not seem to explicitly exoticise, the representation came across as so.
Dunham has publicly said, “I really wrote the show from a gut-level place, and each character was a piece of me or based on someone close to me“. She adds that she wanted to avoid tokenism in casting. The experience of a black character would involve a certain specificity, a type she could not speak to.
What Girls gets right
Girls serves you blunt, painful, yet warm and touching in its portrayal of the aspects of female friendships. The conflicts in the show represent the friction the characters have with one another. The show also portrays moments of support and unsaid love within friendships. It realistically depicts the struggles of young adults who try to find their place in the society and within social circles, each with their own opinions, outlooks, expectations and aspirations.
The friends express jealousy, anger, annoyance, disbelief, betrayal and being fed up and tired. However, the fact that the show doesn’t get too caught up with portraying these emotions alone, and places them across various scenarios, allows for the organic capturing of these wholesome moments within female friendships.
The show also brilliantly allows the reclaiming of female sexuality and the body. Each of the characters at different points and in different ways face body image and self-esteem issues, the portrayal of which is in itself is a means of building solidarity towards accepting and owning the female body. While Lena Dunham was overtly criticised for her frequent on-screen nudity, the comfort, and boldness with which she carried her body was empowering.
The calling out of nudity by critics is also political, since it was particularly Dunham’s nudity that seemed to have caused most discomfort. Her casual portrayal of the naked female body beyond its presence in sexual acts by placing it in regular spaces in which she entirely owns it, to me, was a strong dissent against the sexualisation and objectification of female bodies, especially since the naked body is always assumed to arouse or be involved in sexual intercourse alone. Normalising female masturbation is another aspect that Girls depicts in terms of reclaiming the woman’s autonomy over her body and pleasure.
My own viewing experience
I watched Girls in September 2020, a time when I was completely cut off from the outside world with a non-existent social life as a result of the pandemic. While I also was critical of the show, I also realised that I myself was in some aspects, similar to the characters portrayed in the show in terms of privilege and social locations.
Through the show, I realised my own ignorance towards several issues and how easy it is to overlook struggles merely because we aren’t experiencing it. Owing to the timing of my viewing of the show, it also gave me the physical space I needed to re-evaluate several of my own relationships with individuals and re-construct new expectations and boundaries. At different points in the show, I felt myself relate to each and every one of the four friends in terms of being conscious about one’s body, aspirations, keeping up with societal pressures and such.
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Girls is a comfort show for me to revisit and learn new things about myself. One definitely has to take into consideration its gaps, but at the same time, also appreciate what it has managed to serve the audience.
Girls as a show also provides space for the audience to retrospect and discern how they wish to access content. The show really brought out for me, the politics of viewing content and being able to critique it despite the popularity it might have. Through the discomfort it manages to create, it also allows one to reflect on their beliefs with conviction.
Arundhati Narayan is pursuing her postgraduate degree in Women’s Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Currently, she is working on a research project that traces the changing discourses on witchcraft in academia and society. In her free time, she enjoys interacting with people and her plants. She will also be found experimenting with recipes while listening to a wide genre of music. She may be found on Twitter and Instagram.
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