Social justice in television is hard to come by; for a show to be successful, have a wide audience, be supported, and include discourse about injustice and oppression in society is a lot to ask. In conversation, bringing up issues of marginalization is already difficult, it seems people tire easily of being told where they hold and lack privilege. However, people need to be recognizing where their privilege lies, and where and how they can do their part to eliminate inequality. This precisely, is why we need television to play their part in sparking conversations about inequality in society, and bring awareness to these issues. HBO’s Girls (2012) is a television show produced by and starring Lena Dunham, a prominent voice in modern feminism. While the show tries to encompass some important aspects of feminism and social justice, it occupies what Rosalind Gill would call a “postfeminist terrain” (Gill, 249) and fails to integrate intersectional and inclusive feminism into its narrative. With that, it fails to represent feminism properly and fully, and it fails to represent sexualities and racial diversities within its discourse.
Girls follows Hannah Horvath (played by Lena Dunham) and her friends Marnie, Jessa and Shoshanna who are young women in their early twenties living in New York City. Over the show’s six seasons we watch these girls go through struggles with finances and relationships, losses, triumphs and growths. The pilot sets the show off with Hannah (an aspiring writer) being cut off financially by her parents after their support for the past two years since her college graduation. Hannah is left to get used to this new independence and new struggle alongside her friends.
Girls has been both widely applauded and critiqued, for its daring (and realistic) sex scenes and sometimes overly realistic portrayals of a 20-something-year-old’s every day life. Watchers will find the show funny, awkward, embarrassing, relatable and maddening, all at once. In terms of audience, this show is clearly intended for people who can relate – to the struggles, accomplishments and awkward moments of these young women’s lives; therefore, audiences are expected to be white, privileged, and heterosexual.
It is important to note, prior to critiquing Girls, that Dunham seems very committed to equal representation of bodies. While she fails at representing bodies that are not white, able and heterosexual, she does take into account issues of body image and includes characters (like herself) that do not fit the conventional idea of a beautiful body. Dunham seems to value sexual empowerment and sex positivity, and tries to display this through realistic portrayals of sex. While there are problems with these portrayals, which I will cover shortly, she should be applauded for putting on television what many creators would be afraid to show. She shows the true rawness, discomfort, and struggles of sex, instead of portraying perfect and seamless sex scenes that give audiences false understandings of human sexuality.
Rosalind Gill writes in Gender and The Media about a postfeminist ideology (254) present in modern media culture. While this writing is dated 10 years past, it holds true when considering a television show like Girls. This show and its creator intend to incorporate feminism into its narrative, and make audiences feel educated on the topic. Gill’s argument fits perfectly here though, as Dunham intends to be feminist, but her feminism fits into a box and set of expectations for feminism within media. Gill sees “a number of recurring and relatively stable themes, tropes and constructions that characterize gender representations in the media” and argues that these themes “coexist with (…) inequalities and exclusions that relate to ‘race’ and ethnicity, class, age, sexuality and disability – as well as gender.” (255)
Drawing back to Dunham’s decent portrayal of sex positivity, Gill would not hesitate to still critique this, as she sees the transition of women in media from sexual object to sexual subject as a part of postfeminism. She says media portray “the sexually autonomous heterosexual young woman who plays with her sexual power and is forever ‘up for it.’” (258) Hannah herself is an example of this figure, as in season one, she has a sexual partner (Adam) who ultimately treats her like trash – has her submitting to uncomfortable role play and even abuse, but Hannah as a sexual subject plays along, no matter how concerning his actions may be. Gill “[points] to the dangers of such representations of women in a culture in which sexual violence is endemic,” (259) and Hannah’s submission to Adam as excused by her sexual empowerment feeds this danger. Dunham also tried to use different body types to better this issue of the woman as sexual subject, but still creates a “particular kind of self” (Gill 258) when she fails to represent women who are not white, heterosexual, and able-bodied.
Another trope that Gill introduces is irony, or jokes weaved into the media that are “based on the assumption that it’s silly to be sexist” (Gill, 267). These can be hard to detect, but Girls makes light of sexism and passes it off as funny, and does the same with racism and other forms of oppression. In season one, Shoshanna wants to lose her virginity to a guy she ran into from her past, but when he finds out she has never had sex, he tells her he can’t. He says that virgins get attached, and he refuses to have sex with them. While the audience is expected to find this scene funny due to his awkward wording and Shoshanna’s responses, she is being shamed for having never had sex, which is inherently sexist.
This irony carries over easily throughout the show to acts of racism, again passed off as jokes. In season 1 episode 4, Jessa begins working as a nanny and takes the kids to a park. She begins to chat with the other nannies, who are already stereotypical nannies – women of colour, immigrants, thick-accented and fulfilling all stereotypes of each of their backgrounds. The nannies first assume Jessa is a celebrity, and are shocked when she (a white, well dressed young woman) is also a nanny. Jessa attempts to convince the nannies they should be free from their labour, disregarding how hard it can be for marginalized women to have better careers, and turning this interaction into a joke.
Kaila Adia Story talks about representation of race in Television in African Americans on Television. (2013) Story asserts, “the white racial frame” common in television “[shapes] the ways in which mass-mediated identities are recognized, represented and replicated” (358). She sees representations of blackness as created and formed by this frame and by media’s one-dimensional views of race. Calling this construct commodified, she says it is created to appeal to audiences, but subsequently “misses the mark when it comes to performing actual human experience and identity” (359). The few appearances of people of colour on Girls are perfect examples of what Story is accusing modern television of. The white racial frame in which this show was created and takes place can only offer one-dimensional and filtered experiences of marginalized people.
There is an obvious lack of racial representation within Dunham’s show, and while she has expressed since that she regrets writing all six seasons with such predominant whiteness, there’s more to the problem. Judy Berman wrote for The Atlantic about this lack, and said “Dunham continues to cast non-white actors only when race defines their character.” The nannies were of colour because race defines their occupation, a co-worker of hers was Asian because she was quoted as “[knowing] photoshop.” Dunham has not casted characters of colour that exist as equal to her and her circle of friends, especially in the show’s first season, and that is a problem.
Girls does not have much variety in terms of characters that do not identify as heterosexual. The four main characters and their ever-changing partners remain typically heterosexual, save for Elijah, Hannah’s ex-boyfriend. When their reunion over her recently being diagnosed with HPV reveals that he has come out as gay, he is the first character to challenge the show’s heteronormativity. Unfortunately though, he is white and privileged, and falls into what Avila-Saavedra calls the “gay male/straight female best-friends narrative” (6). Elijah and Hannah rekindle their friendship and later move in together, and he fulfills the classic television role of gay best friend. Avila-Saavedra critiques this common representation of gayness stating “gay males are defined as privileged for their total access to women but as impotent for their homosexuality” (6). This one-dimensional representation portraying gay men as lucky to be surrounded by women takes away from the struggles they inevitably face as a sexual minority.
Avila-Saavedra also points out another trend in gay male characters. The typical gay male character, while being the heterosexual woman’s best friend, is most often white, privileged and working high-class jobs, are well-dressed, muscular, and attractive. She suggests, “the focus of attention should shift to understanding if what is presented as the desirable image of the gay male, in terms of race and class in particular, is the same as the desirable image of the heterosexual male.” (8) Elijah was previously Hannah’s serious boyfriend; he literally was the desirable heterosexual male, until his sexuality was redefined. In later seasons Hannah’s father Tad comes out as gay, and he too had been in a serious heterosexual relationship. Once an out-of-the-closet gay male, he still maintains the image of hegemonic masculinity.
Shows that portray gayness and homosexuality this way fail to acknowledge the population of non-heterosexual people who do not fit into this image. Girls does not present anything new with these few representations of gayness, and fails overall as these are the only representations of non-heterosexuality within the show. Repeating these representations in television also shrinks the voices of other queer-identifying people and types of queerness and could function to make them invisible if it continues. Dunham does not leave space in her show to represent lesbians, bisexuals, or non-binary and trans people, continuing only to represent marginalized groups one-dimensionally or to neglect them entirely for dominant whiteness.
Jason Mittell writes about genre within television and how genre can carry meaning and information about a culture. He sees a link between the content television shows produce and the cultural and historical period they are situated in. While texts themselves don’t determine or produce their own categorization (Mittell), he says that “discourses surrounding and running through a given genre are themselves constitutive of that generic category” (Mittell, 12). If Girls is considered a comedy, what do its discourses say about our society, and what our society deems comical? If society finds postfeminism, stereotypes or lack of diverse races and sexualities, then it is clear that comedy as a genre needs a reform.
While Lena Dunham is not alone in creating a show that neglects feminism, racial difference and varying sexualities, she cannot be called a feminist. Feminism is about recognizing all forms of inequality faced by people, and working to understand the ways that those inequalities intersect and affect people. It is also being aware of how marginalized people are misrepresented and misunderstood, and working to support their voices. Lena Dunham understands core values of feminism and this is clear through her television show as well as her book and activism, but it is limited. She must get beyond her white feminism and post feminism and understand intersectionality in order to be the feminist that pushes television where it needs to go.
There are some current shows that succeed where Girls lacks. ABC and Shonda Rhimes’ How To Get Away With Murder (2014) provides a lot more representation of marginalized groups. The protagonist is a black, female, successful lawyer, who is also bisexual. The characters come from a variety of backgrounds, levels of privilege, and sexual orientations. The show tackles stereotypes typically placed upon black or gay characters and provides a more realistic portrayal of their lived experiences. Netflix’s Orange is the New Black (2013) is great as well, including diverse sexualities and racial backgrounds, critiques of white privilege, and a transgender actress.
Girls had so much potential to do something that would make an impact and send a message. Lena Dunham as a young, vocally liberal public figure should have been more aware of her mistakes in the show, and while she has expressed regret since the first season over her exclusion, her actions cannot be undone. She created this show based on some of her own experiences and to make realistic portrayals of being a woman in modern times. But, setting the show in New York gave it the setting for diversity and representation of so many kinds of people, and Dunham disregarded this to focus on what she knows best – white privilege.
Avila-Saavedra, Guillermo. “Nothing Queer about Queer Television: Televized Construction of Gay Masculinities.” Media, Culture & Society (2009): 31.5, 5-21.
Berman, Judy. “’I’m a White Girl’: Why ‘Girls’ Won’t Ever Overcome Its Racial Problem” The Atlantic. Jan. 22, 2013. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/01/im-a-white-girl-why-girls-wont-ever-overcome-its-racial-problem/267345/ Accessed on March 30, 2017.
Dunham, Lena. Girls. HBO. 2012-present.
Gill, Rosalind. “Postfeminist Media Culture?” In Gender and the Media, Polity Press, 2007, 249-272.
Kohan, Jenji. Orange Is The New Black. Netflix. 2013-present.
Mittell, Jason. Genre and Television: From Cop Shows to Cartoons in American Culture. Florence, US; Routledge, 2013.
Rhimes, Shonda. How To Get Away With Murder. ABC Television. 2014-present.
Story, Kalia Adia, “La-La’s Fundamental Rupture: True Blood’s Lafayette and the Deconstruction of Normal.” In African Americans on Television, Eds. David J Leonard and Lisa Guerrero, Oxford: Praeger, 2013, 358-373.