Girls: Naked ambition

by Diana Wichtel / 28 February, 2013
Girls continues to earn its place in the history of groundbreaking television.
Girls actress Lena Dunham
Lena Dunham: demanding women’s equal right to be idiots.

Girls may well be the best thing on television. In its second season, it manages to be more unnerving than the shameless splatterfest – Banshee, Sons of Anarchy, The Following – currently overrunning primetime. It wouldn’t be so scary if it didn’t have something to say about the culture. What that is exactly remains, like its regressive characters, a work in progress.

The show has been accused of mining semi-autobiographically the lives of a spoilt, privileged, self-obsessed coven of females with dodgy sex lives and toxic levels of entitlement. Well, bingo. It’s not empowering, say some. News flash: it’s comedy, not Oprah.

“I can’t figure out a single thing that Dunham does that is feminist,” complained one commentator. Once, there were rules governing the behaviour of female leads. Watch some old Bette Davis movies and see how things used to work out for those who didn’t conform. Now there’s a new set of rules and Girls is busy breaking them.

Somehow, it’s fine for men to portray themselves and their peer group as a bunch of hopeless dolts with the social skills of plankton – think everything from Seinfeld to our own Flight of the Conchords and the truly alarming Auckland Daze. Lena Dunham is merely demanding women’s equal right to be idiots.

Actually, these women have a certain reluctant resilience. Sexual and employment experiences that would have less-hardy souls considering a lifelong vow of chastity and the dole are taken more or less in their stride by Hannah, Marnie and co. It’s hard not to have a sneaky admiration for their work ethic. On Hannah’s laptop is a sticker that reads “I used up all my sick days so I called in dead.”

It’s true that, although she and her friends are clearly smart – with the possible exception of dippy Shoshanna – they still fall for jerks. Nothing true to the female experience about that at all. Nope.

Girls was always going to get a mauling. But the show continues to earn its place in the history of groundbreaking television for Dunham’s courageously, often literally, naked performance as the unlikeable yet somehow a bit lovable Hannah Horvath. She has the sort of body mostly verboten on primetime these days, its vulnerability only increased by tattoos that look like the scribbles of a small disturbed child.

The nude scenes are only outdone by the scenes in which she is wearing clothes. There was the episode where she took coke for the first time. A web editor told her to do it so she could write something “edgy” about the experience. She took some, silly chook. I can’t recall much of what happened – neither, you imagine, can she – but the sight of her swapping her top at a nightclub for her dance partner’s see-through mesh singlet is something I won’t easily forget.

Women dressing badly. It’s something of a television trope at the moment. Currently putting in retina-searing performances are Robyn Malcolm in Agent Anna and Jennifer Ward-
Lealand as Oliver Driver’s fluorescent cougar of a mother in TV3’s really quite funny campground comedy Sunny Skies. Hannah’s wardrobe – seemingly made for some other, slightly smaller person – runs an ongoing commentary on her blighted attempts at self-invention.

For those who insist on something uplifting, there is the way the show treats its male character. Hannah’s sometime boyfriend Adam is so awful it’s surprising he’s allowed out of his apartment. And yet, over time, he has become strangely endearing. The same goes for Shoshanna’s wretched Ray.

The jury is out as to whether Dunham is or isn’t, as Hannah rather hilariously aspires to be, the voice of her generation. What emerges as you watch Girls is that her generation actually has quite a bit in common with my generation of women – perhaps every generation of women – when we embarked upon adult life. We’re all making it up as we go along. Clueless.

GIRLS, SKY SoHo, Thursday, 8.30pm.
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