Despite the Star Trek quote in the subject heading, this post is really one more thing about Girls (which, to repeat, I enjoyed a lot). This show sparked a surprising number of arguments about whether it accurately portrays modern women, and whether its very narrow focus (on rich white girls, who are played by rich white girls) is a mark against it. See this article, “Girls in White,” for a representative example of the articles that argue that Girls is not representative of today’s young people and today’s New York – and of course it isn’t representative, not by a long shot. If there does turn out to be a backlash against the show, HBO probably sort of brought it on itself with the promotion; they’ve been promoting the show as if it spoke for a whole generation, as if it would reveal the Way We Live Now in a post Sex and the City era. This would be like promoting a Woody Allen movie as a way of finding out exactly what New York City was like in the ’70s and ’80s.
You can argue, as some have, that the narrowness of Woody Allen’s world is an artistic limitation. (Though this was an easier argument to make when he had been making movies for a long time. If Lena Dunham is still revisiting this territory twenty years from now, that will be more problematic than her decision to use it for her first film and first TV show.) But we all do accept that Allen is not trying to give us New York life as it is experienced by the majority of people who live in it; he’s portraying the New York experience through his own eyes and his own social circle. A small, personal film can deal in broad and universal themes, and if we like it, we’re probably seeing things in it that we have felt or experiences. But as to what modern life is like, in an anthropological sense, we’re not going to find out from that particular work. The creator is showing us his or her world, not the world.
I think we all accept that from a film or a book. (Again, we can be annoyed by it, or get bored with an author for writing about the same small world over and over again. But we all accept that writing who they know is a big part of what artists do.) With TV, I sense that there’s a greater urge to see shows as broad statements about modern society as a whole. In some ways I think it’s a holdover from the era when TV was a true mass medium. When a show reached 30 million people in a U.S. whose population was smaller than it is now, its success must say something about the way Americans lived or the way they wanted to see themselves. More recently you could analyze American Idol or even Big Bang Theory and Modern Family for how they reflect modern trends, or at least what they’re saying that so many people want to hear.
But most HBO or even basic cable shows don’t reach a big, broad audience and aren’t supposed to (and the successful ones make plenty of money without having to target a huge number of people). So it doesn’t always make sense to analyze them in the sociological terms we use to talk about mass-market TV. In analyzing a big hit show or a phenomenally popular movie like Star Wars or Titanic, you are, in essence, analyzing the audience, trying to figure out what this phenomenon says about society. With a smaller, more targeted show, you just can’t make those kinds of generalizations about its relevance or trendiness. They don’t reflect what “we” think, or how “we” want to live. They’re small and personal; they reflect how the creator thinks. It’s dangerous to read broad implications into the success of something with a small, targeted audience. It can even be bad for business, as the broadcast networks found out when they launched their Mad Men imitations. They thought that because they watched Mad Men, and everyone was writing about Mad Men, it meant that the ’60s were “in.” But they weren’t. Small shows don’t drive or reflect trends as much as big shows do.
Now, of course Girls, like almost any personal work, is trying to say relevant things about modern life, and it may succeed or fail in saying them. But like a movie by Woody or Wes or Whit, it stays within a basically small, idiosyncratic world and assumes that it will have broad universal implications. A big, broad TV show is more – I guess – calculated. It tries to identify what’s going on in society right now, or what people seem to like these days, and give it to them. So many big mass-market TV shows are ripped from the headlines, and frequently work to make big, relevant problems non-threatening. (Take Undercover Boss, which found a safe and harmless way to play on rising anger about inequality. Or, to go farther back, the Aaron Spelling Mod Squad method of taking the biggest issues in America – race; youth rebellion – and making them reassuring for kids and parents alike.) These shows really are trying to speak for The Modern World, and I think it’s somewhat fair to judge them for giving a misleading picture of modern life; they don’t claim to be realistic, so we might as well ask them to be truthful. But if a show doesn’t pretend to be a great big statement about the way all people live today – and I don’t think Girls makes that pretense, even though the promotion did – then what it leaves out may be less important. Not irrelevant, just not a deal-breaker.
I’m not saying a show can’t be criticized for a lack of diversity or a lack of engagment with the realities of modern life – though I do think these criticisms make more sense collectively, applied to a bunch of shows, than centred on one particular show. (Any individual show may have a perfectly legitimate artistic reason for having a fat guy married to a skinny wife. It’s when there was a bunch of shows about fat guys and skinny wives that we knew there’s a bad trend going on.) But I do think that if we ask one show to give us a full portrait of the modern world, we’re sort of buying into the network hype. A small and semi-autobiographical piece is not going to be the voice of its generation. It’s hopefully going to say things that we recognize as being relevant to our own lives, but it’s not necessarily its responsibility to go outside the creator’s own world. Not at first, anyway.