First, I know some of you BJ regulars dislike posts on culture that don’t have a direct political angle, so I’m sorry for this, but I think culture is an inescapable part of politics and really need to say this. I also know that this topic has been discussed to death, but I do feel compelled.
Alyssa Rosenberg writes about the anti-Girls backlash and specifically references a much-discussed comment from the AV Club’s Todd VanDerWerff. Both Rosenberg and VanDerWerff rightly lament the ubiquitous misogyny and sexism which cloud any discussion of media by and about women. I agree with almost every individual point, and this kind of cultural commentary and pushback is essential. And yet there’s another level of consciousness that they don’t meet, and that’s actually connected to why I don’t like the show.
I’ve only seen the first three episodes, but that was enough. For me, it’s really very simple: I am absolutely bored to death with stories about upper class educated white people struggling to find themselves after college. Is there a story that has been told more often? I would guess that there isn’t. It’s a mini-genre all onto itself, and an absolutely inescapable one. An endless number of movies comes out, year after year, about this topic. Probably half of all sitcom pilots produced have this general plot. Publishing houses are choked with pitches and manuscripts, written by affluent educated strivers, about affluent educated strivers, for an audience of affluent educated strivers. It is unavoidable, and I’m sorry, I’ve just had my fill. It isn’t just the same themes and the same attitudes, presented again and again. It’s the self-aggrandizing pretense that we’re all supposed to care, the utter lack of self-awareness in assuming that nothing could be more endlessly fascinating than watching affluent kids trying to figure out who they really are. I have run out of artistic empathy for such people; it’s just been exhausted through repetition.
That’s an aesthetic preference and it speaks to nothing more than my idiosyncratic tastes. But there are issues here. Rosenberg says that “The geography of Hannah’s world isn’t boundaried by the countors of her body.” That’s true; it’s rather boundaried by the provincial and myopic perspective that late American capitalism has granted its educated youth, a group of people that is on balance tiny and yet which exercises immense influence on our culture. Rosenberg praises the seriousness the show demonstrates towards Hannah’s desire to be the voice of her generation. She’s right to say that many would dismiss this desire because of Hannah’s gender, but she fails to mention that both the character and the actress have the opportunity to consider the possibility because they come from a particular social class. Were Dunham herself in every other way, identical in looks and smarts and drive, but had been born in rural poverty in Appalachia, Girls would not exist. Rosenberg praises Girls for allowing the women characters to transcend the stories typically permitted them. I read that and think, if Girls represents a broad narrative perspective, heaven help us.
Saying that artistic existence is better than artistic nonexistence is indeed very thin gruel, and I affirm and support the specific criticisms that Rosenberg and VanDerWerff are making. This is not a “no, but,” but rather a “yes, and.”
We have developed, in the past decade, a massive infrastructure for analyzing art and media, and particularly popular media. It is rather breathtaking, really, just how much content is being produced, endlessly picking over movies, music, and television. And yet I find a depressingly small amount of it bothers to interrogate the issue of class, both within the art and within the commentary itself. What goes unsaid in all of the endless recaps and reviews is that the people who write such things almost all come from a particular narrow demographic, and the people who make shows like Girls, and most of those who watch them, are from that same demographic. It’s all a closed loop. Of course, these shows and movies are beloved by the crew at the AV Club. There are by and about people just like the crew at the AV Club.
Look, there is no sense in which I’m saying that Roesnberg or VanDerWerff should not make these arguments in order to prioritize class issues. We have to argue for both. To do so, we’ve got to expect people to expand their capacity for empathy and identification beyond what they know personally. In my experience, people like VanDerWerff can generate passionate anger over the marginalization of someone like Dunham precisely because they can identify with her; he knows people like her, so he can feel for her when she’s insulted. More difficult is confronting the problems of people who are nothing like you, and more, of demanding to see media that concerns people who aren’t even present to be disrespected by shithead commenters. The current failure, in pop culture and pop culture commentary, is one of the moral imagination.
Left unanswered is the question of whether a culture that produces so many shows like Girls, and the limited perspective such shows engender, can accommodate such an expansion.