Coming of Age / Female protagonist / Girls / Mental illness / Social commentary / Women

Girls: reality, sexuality and feminism

I recently discovered and fell in love with HBO’s award-winning series Girls. It took me some time at first, but I am now convinced that Girls is a revolutionary move in television and a huge step forward for the portrayal of women in media.

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Girls details the ups and downs of four very different women in their early twenties living in and around New York City. From the mundane to the outlandish, Girls is brutally honest and at times unforgiving, frequently hilarious, and full of pathos.

Much of Girls revolves around the life and times of protagonist Hannah, an aspiring writer who is, among many other things, endearing, likeable, loyal, self-involved, impulsive, spoiled and incapable of adult responsibilities. Hannah is the heart and soul of Girls, a foil through which creator Lena Dunham shares her complex take on what it is to be a twenty-something 21st century woman in the affluent West.

THIS IS WHAT A REAL WOMAN IS LIKE

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One of the things I love most about Girls is that unashamedly represents real women. Our protagonist Hannah is not a stick thin, airbrushed beauty, with glittering skin and flawless make up, such as we have been conditioned to expect on our television screens. She is, in her own words, “15 pounds overweight”, with an often jarring dress sense, messy hair, and an unpowdered visage. Hannah is one of us! She looks tired when she feels tired, gives up in the struggle to keep up appearances, does not worry about her weight, and is very comfortable with her nakedness.

This may not seem like much, but in our world, where the media is dominated by objectified females, Lena Dunham’s move is extremely brave. Hannah moves around in her nudity completely unashamed, her seemingly effortless behaviour challenging swathes of people who would argue that she should keep her clothes on because of breasts that are not the right size or pockets of softness where slim angles should reside. I recently watched an episode where Hannah spends the entire time in a bikini, subverting the snarky remarks made by some of the other (clothed) characters. But this does not faze Hannah. She is completely comfortable and confident in her own skin.

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Girls doesn’t stop at appearances, either. Every female character in Girls is different. They all have different motivations, desires, and personalities, so much so that conflicts seem to be a staple of the show. Marnie is a perfectionist with controlling tendencies, for instance, while Jessa flees from commitment and intimacy. No character is a straightforward archetype. No woman in Girls conforms to a standard trope.

As in life, none of our protagonists in Girls are idealised. This makes for an uncomfortable viewing experience. In showing us the complex, multidimensional facets of Hannah’s character, Lena Dunham makes our relationship with Hannah one of love-hate tension. For as we see Hannah’s self-absorption and unreliability, we also see her forgiving and loving nature, and her distressing episodes of OCD. As we see her spoiled relationship dynamic with her parents, we see the reality of 21st century Manhattan, where educated college graduates must work minimum wage jobs to pay rent. In a similar vein, we see other characters facing familiar dilemmas of career, motivation, and purpose. In its brutally honest portrayal of characters with all their flaws, strengths and struggles, Girls gives us the reality of life and humanity on screen, an experience which is as confusing and complex for viewers as it is for our protagonists.

THE TRUTH ABOUT FEMALE SEXUALITY

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Girls is not another version of Sex and the City, with its glamour and flippancy. But Girls does delve heavily into the topic of female sexuality in a way that would scandalise the generation before us. With awkwardly realistic sex scenes, conversations about sexual behaviours, and the exploration of sex in the context of psychological need and relationships, Girls challenges an often polarised view of female sexuality in the media. On the one hand, female sexuality is highly eroticised and pornographised. On the other hand, female sexuality is seen as a taboo, a threat, or a unladylike trait to downplay. These assumptions rest against the stereotype of women as sexually passive and men as sexually active.

Girls challenges all of these things. Among our protagonists we see different levels of sex drive, different attitudes to sex and different sexual behaviours. We see what sex means for each and every one of them, especially Hannah. And we see that what unites our protagonists is the importance of sex as a human need, especially in the context of relationships and intimacy.

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Like I mentioned before, Girls is brutally honest, and with female sexuality it is no different. No stone is left unturned when it comes to Hannah’s sex life. This is uncomfortable but also hugely revealing. Much of the struggles Hannah faces are our own. Some of us crave sexual connection. Some of us dismiss it or are afraid of it. Others of us see it as an addiction. Girls addresses all of these differences in a sincere and insightful way.

LOVE CONQUERS

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As human beings we crave relationships, and this yearning to connect is fundamental to Girls. We journey through the trials and tribulations of friendships and romantic relationships, from horrific blazing rows to unspoken loyalties and resolutions. We see the love and friendship that endures even when there is no breakthrough or closure. In a manner of speaking, we see how the bonds of friendship, love and family do conquer all, though not in the way we expect.

Girls is not the stuff of fairy tales but of our disjointed, post-modern 21st century life. Many of us drift, lonely and unfulfilled, chasing dreams in what always feels like the wrong direction. Amidst broken relationships, disappointment and uncertainty, it is the relationships we build which keep us from falling apart. It is love which give us hope and strength.

One thing I love about Girls is the way that even the most awful conflicts can end, not with neat resolutions talked through with tears and smiles, but with the simple desire to go on, the knowledge that the love is there, and the commitment to keep the relationship alive. Our relationships might not be perfect, and some things may be impossible to fix, but they are still worth fighting for. This phenomenon is the stuff of reality, not fairy tale.

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On the face of it, Girls may seem relatively innocuous, a graphic sitcom of sorority sex lives. But what Lena Dunham has achieved is no small feat. Here we have a chunk of reality in all its awkward glory, funny and tragic, a feminist manifesto on our television screens. I look forward to seeing more of this one day, from women in another part of the world, with different struggles in a different culture.

In the meantime, thank you, Girls – I’ve enjoyed the ride.

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