I am a woman, I am all women

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.




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I am a woman, I am all women

  1. Honestly, I think you’ve got it exactly backwards (and in part this comes through in the way you actually describe the analysis of mass media). Nobody really thinks that the creators of “CSI” or “Grey’s Anatomy” or “NCIS” sat down and wondered what they had to say about the state of society. In some cases they tried to hop on existing trends, and of course you can very well analyse what it means that so many people respond to their shows, or what parts of, say, Donald Bellisario’s obsessions are reflected in NCIS, but if you want to figure out what these people set out to say, it always boils down to simply: we want to entertain you.

    But HBO, at least since the success of “The Sopranos”, has specialised in self-important shows that announce heavy-handedly how they’re not just entertainment, they’re Important Treatises on The State of Modern America, and you, the viewer, are important for watching them! I think that’s often to the detriment of both the show and the supposed message (Personally, I think “Boardwalk Empire” would have been a hundred times better if it had adopted the tone of “Rome” instead of “The Sopranos”. But, given the, uh, mixed reception of “Rome”, or more recently, “True Blood”, I also think that a Romefied “Boardwalk Empire” would have been a hundred times worse reviewed).

    But that’s pretty much the HBO brand, and it’s arguably a selling point for their shows. And it’s not exactly as if Lena Dunham has discouraged that interpretation. If you read her interviews, she does think she has important things to say. So why is it unfair to hold her to a standard she herself has set up?

    • Fair points. I do think the creators of big mass-market entertainments do worry about the state of society. The cynical view of mass-market Hollywood people is that they feed the public whatever they think the public will want to hear – and I think there’s some truth in that, but to tell people what they want to hear, you’ve got to seriously pay attention to what’s going on and what a lot of people will respond to. Now, you can’t build a hit on cynicism alone; just capitalizing on current trends and current fears will not guarantee a hit. But I do think that there is an element of calculation that goes into many hit series (and many others that try to be hits but don’t make it).

      But you’re right that I’m under-selling the element of calculation that goes into a more targeted type of show. And as you say, creators aren’t shy about saying that they’re making comments on all of society or modern life, not just the small circle of people that the show is about. I do think that if a show portrays a small, limited world – or a historically circumscribed one – I find it harder to complain about the things it doesn’t show us.

      It’s like back in the ’90s when every comedy on NBC was about young affluent white people in New York, it wasn’t just the lack of diversity (in any area) that was irritating, it was that most of these shows could easily have been set somewhere else, or had a more diverse cast, and chose not to (also, as I said, it’s worse when 12 shows are doing it at the same time). But Girls is pretty explicitly a study of Dunham’s narrow social circle. I can see saying it fails, or that the character is not worth spending all this time on, but I don’t see it as a show that’s trying to speak for everyone and failing. That said, I think HBO and Dunham and Apatow seemed strangely unaware, until very recently, that they were going to get in trouble for acting like a very narrow show was actually speaking for a whole generation. However, I’m talking about the show itself, not the promotion.

  2. Maybe you could clarify what you mean in your first paragraph because I’m not quite sure I follow. It’s pretty obvious that mass market people do try to follow public trends; that’s how we got everything from “MTV cops” to the recent mancession “comedies”. And at the same time the people actually creating the shows obviously bring in their own worries about the state of society. Michael Mann infused “Miami Vice” with his cynical views about the war on drugs; Joel Surnow brought his pro-torture politics to “24″ (itself a show that was retooled a little bit from the comparatively intimate setting of the first season to the “Jack saves America” plots of the following years to capitalise on then-current trends).

    But I think the difference is one of priorities both in the creators and in the audience. David Simon recently caused a kerfuffle by complaining about the way (some) fans seemed to gloss over the messages in “The Wire”. I just don’t see, say, Anthony Zuiker doing the same for CSI. Surnow talked about the messages in “24″ pretty much only after other people already made it a topic. And again, for the arthouse crowds the message of a show is a big part of its appeal. One of the reasons I brought up “Rome” is because it was one of the few hour-long HBO shows that didn’t wear its aspirations on its sleeves, and I frequently see it critised by words to the effect of “You know, this is a tremendously entertaining show, but it doesn’t teach me anything about the human condition.” (And then I wonder if David Benioff was worried about that kind of criticism when came up with the “Sopranos in Middle Earth” bit for “Game of Thrones”, a show tonally somewhat similar to “Rome”). When “True Blood” premiered, critics desparately tried to read more into the “Coming Out Of The Coffin” metaphor than Alan Ball intended. And so on.

    You said in your original article that “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 Dunham’s show isn’t exactly the first focusing on the neglected problems of “young affluent white people”. No, you can’t hold that against her show specifically. But I think you can hold that against all the critics trying to convince you that you MUST see this show because it’s SO ORIGINAL. “Luck” was original, too, but even the critics who liked it recognised that it would not be everyone’s cup of tea. I see no such self-awareness in the glowing reviews for “Girls”. There I see stuff like Todd VanDerWerff calling the show – a show whose main character’s prime talent seems to be that she writes stuff that may or may not be awful – “a firm look at what it’s like to be young and overqualified in a job market where absolutely nobody is hiring the young and overqualified.” And then I think that one AV Club commenter may have been on to something when he suggested that the show resonates more with critics than a general audience because it’s about a character who sees her greatest talent in saying Something Important that unfortunately has no practical value unless others validate it – in short, because her situation is fairly close to that of the aspiring television critic.

    I’m at a disadvantage when it comes to the actual show because being in Europe I can’t legally watch it. So all I can judge are the promotion, both trailers and Dunham’s interview, and the reviews. Before the whole argument started, my impression of the show was that it might be very good but that it was about a topic I had zero interest in. After reading more about her, that impression changed to that I have zero interest in the topic, and the show is probably not very good anyway. Maybe Dunham is just horrible at self-promotion, but calling her character, in an interview with James Poniewozik, “a little bit entitled” for stealing from her parents’ maid (only after softening that “unflinching” blow by saying that she’s also “a little bit scared [and] a little bit desparate”) doesn’t suggest a capability to honestly engage with her character’s flaws beyond a token ackownledgment because HBO shows are supposed to have flaws. That she thinks her character is flawed but ultimately likable.

    That Dunham is unaware of what she’s actually saying. Which is pretty much the worst thing that can happen to someone trying to say something.

    • Well, I’ll try and clarify, though I think I won’t be any clearer this time; I think this may be one case where I went too far with a generalization. What I’m trying to say, incoherently, is that a mass-market show (or movie, or book) contains all sorts of messages about the state of the world. Some of them may be calculated, some of them may be personal, and some may just be a result of the genre conventions, but the end result is that it’s telling us something (about crime, morality, sex, and so on) that it thinks a large number of people will relate to. If a lot of people like it, it must be saying something a lot of people want to hear, and so the show’s success gives us a clue as to what people out there are interested in.

      Then you have another category of show, which you’ve been mentioning and which I didn’t really address: the show that is not trying to be universally relatable, but is consciously making a broad, epic, sweeping statement. A lot of HBO and HBO-influenced dramas fall into this category. Mad Men or Boardwalk Empire obviously want to tell us something big about all of society, though they’re aimed at narrower audiences and therefore don’t have to say something that everybody wants to hear, just some people. (“Good guys always win” is a message that more or less everyone likes to hear. “There are no good or bad guys” is a message that a segment of the audience likes to hear.)

      But then there’s a third category, which is the small, idiosyncratic piece. This is a show whose target audience is narrow and whose focus is also narrow, and it’s trying to show us how a very small number of people live, rather than how life is for everyone.

      Now, I admit that all these categories overlap (was Seinfeld a small, narrow show before or after it became a huge mass success?), which is why, as I said, I think I generalized too much. What I do think is that however Girls was sold, what I saw on the screen was a little show about the problems of one very specific type of person, rather than something that tries to speak for its whole generation or its whole era. Some shows are obviously trying to encapsulate their whole era; others are trying to get a whole country full of people to love them; but I think this show is one of those that works if you look at it as a small independent picture, rather than an epic (Boardwalk Empire) or a blockbuster (CSI).

      All that said, the overlap between the categories I’ve mentioned may be so great as to render them useless. And I do think it could be true that online critics relate to the Dunham character more than most. I wasn’t exactly like her when I was in my aimless twenties, but there are similarities both pleasant and unpleasant. For people who don’t like the show, she may come off as that awful entitled person they used to know. I think she’s properly criticized for being an awful entitled person, but the element of relatability is there for me. It’s probably true that we respond best to lead characters we can relate to; people related to Tony Soprano, which is not at all the same thing as being a murderer like Tony or even liking Tony.

      • (Spoilers for “The Sopranos”, “The Shield” follow)

        Thanks, you’re clarification did actually help quite a bit. I think what keeps tripping me up is the idea of a show actively sending out these messages; that, as you put it, a show is “telling us something [...] that IT THINKS a large number of people will relate to.” I don’t see the bolded part as necessary or true, and I think the concept is less muddled if you omit it. To me, your statement seems to imply that these messages are sent out with intent (or at least an awareness that they are there) which is obviously not the case at all. I don’t think, for instance, that the big classic shootout ending with the bad guy mowed down is intentionally put into a crime TV show or movie because the creators WANT to make a pro-death penalty statement; in part because quite a few of these creators are be fervently anti-death-penalty. It’s just that the big shootout is an easy drama generator, and the “message” is a by-product. One that obviously a large part of the audience wants to hear.

        Or, in the case of “Girls”, the show apparently presents a very white view of a multi-cultural city that obviously turns off some while others at the very least don’t see it as a flaw. But Dunham herself has said that the whiteness wasn’t intentional; that she only noticed it in the editing bay. I’m sympathetic to the argument that creators have a responsibility as to the messages their shows send out, intended or not, and that this responsibility grows with the size of the audience. I just find it weird to, on the other hand, excuse the very intentionally sent out messages by the creator during promotion. Particularly since, given the ratings, a lot more people seem to have noticed the show’s promotion than the actual show.

        One final note on Tony Soprano and “unlikable” characters: I’ve seen some debate about whether we are supposed to like Dunham’s character, and Tony Soprano is often brought up as the quintessential character we were supposed to relate to, but not necessarily like. I’ve always found that argument rather dubious. Personally, I could relate to Tony, but I didn’t like him – and that led to me abandoning the show at the end of season three. It felt as if the show had run out of things to say with the end of season two, and since I didn’t like the characters, I felt no need to continue watching (I didn’t know at the time was that Chase had to readjust after the death of Nancy Marchand. If I had, I might have been more willing to excuse the show’s wheel spinning). But my impression of those who kept watching was that they did in fact like Tony Soprano (similar to Vic Mackey on “The Shield”, for that matter) and only turned on them near the end.

        And I think it’s worth noting that both shows encourage that view to a certain extent: when we first see Tony kill a guy in “College”, Chase clumsily makes sure that we don’t hate Tony too much by setting up the victim as another mobster, a traitor AND someone who threatens both Tony and his young, innocent daughter with a gun before Tony is finally allowed to do the deed. Constantly throughout the early seasons the people Tony abuses are painted in some negative light, as selfish, weaklings and the like, so that we don’t feel to bad for them. When the show carefully approaches the question of actually innocent victims (before gutlessly backing away again) with the threat of a witness against Tony after Tony killed one of the guys who shot Chris, it falls to Paulie to suggest the murder of an innocent man, and Tony is conveniently in such a stupor that he’s incapable of making any decisions that might alienate the audience. “The Shield” is even worse in that regard; that was a show that had its protagonist save a little baby in the first regular episode, for crying out loud; that portrayed every cop opposed to Mackey as either shady or a wimp, and ended its first season on that old standby of moral relativism: look over there! There’s a guy who killed TWO cops, not just one!

        What I’m trying to say is that I think the idea that you’re supposed to relate to these people, but not necessarily like them, is one more promotional message propped up by the creators of these type of shows. I think, more often than not, we are supposed to like these characters, at least at first and in an “wouldn’t it be awesome to be free to act like that?” way, before the creators can then chastise us for doing so.

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