I have had an instant dislike towards Girls and stopped watching it after about four episodes. I was promised something like Louie, just with young girls instead of an old man. But there are major, major differences between the two lurking underneath. I did not care about Louie at first, but while I have, upon rewatching it, grown to love Louie, I still cannot watch Girls.
I. Girls as Entertainment.
The reason that would be easy to come up with would be “You don’t like Girls because you have a penis and therefore cannot identify with any of the characters, stupid.” But that ain’t right, I can identify with Veronica Mars just fine. I also don’t mind playing female characters in video games at all, you know. Besides, I’m not a forty-eight years old divorced dad, it’s not like Louie is a carbon copy of myself – and yet, again no problem at all to identify with him. Part of the answer comes, instead, from very simple, “mundane” (in the context of this website) movie analysis. Louis CK is, for example, a dynamite director. I wish I could link the motorcycle sequence to you, or the Afghanistan episode, but I can’t, so you’ll just have to believe me. Cinematrographically, Louie is simply a lot more impressive.
Moreover, though, it is difficult to be invested in characters who are 1) terribly narcissistic and 2) exhibit zero agency, or even the illusion of agency. You can get by with either/or, but not with neither. Tony Soprano is a narcissist, and he doesn’t even have that much agency – in fact, the whole show is practically about how little control he actually has; but The Sopranos also has a wider array of characters who together form a frighteningly accurate parable of America. Girls is just a parable for… Girls. And even the protagonist of the excellent series Rectify, despite being about a man who really just stares a lot, has some agency (which he exerts mostly through staring). Many characters of The Wire lack agency, but at least they are sympathetic so that you wish they would. Louie has agency, and very clearly so; Louie is a father, and bringing up kids is quite automatically an act of creation. A sort of deferred act of agency perhaps, but agency nevertheless. Hannah et. al, on the other hand, do nothing at all. All of their energy is spent on being terrible people, I guess…
But this is, at the end of the day, arguing against the mere face-value of the show, which is important, of course, but there are more conventional domains for such criticism. Something that further irked me, however – and that is far more easily within the reach of post-modern contortions –, is the idea of Girls somehow being a feminist work.
II. Girls as a feminist show.
My approach towards feminism or gender-issues in general is that the ultimate goal has to be a de-signification of gender. This would be analogous to the history of jeans, which went from 1) use-value in the 19th century to sign-value in the 20th century, starting roughly in the forties:
What followed was a semiotic warfare (cf. Fiske: The Jeaning of America) which, in the end, resulted in a plethora of different potential interpretations of what jeans signify – raggedness, culture, nature, the east, the west, casual wear, smart wear, femininity, masculinity, metrosexuality. This semiotic richness resulted – which Fiske, in the text linked above, fails to see when he disparages the opinion of a psychoanalyst as being concerned only with the pathological – in jeans ultimately becoming an empty, indeterminate sign, a de-signified object, an (almost) truly neutral object, the wearing of which barely says anything about the wearer (as close to truly neutral as anything can get, that is, keeping in mind that one cannot not communicate), which hides more than it says.
Another example of this process of de-signification: consider the German green party. One of their tenets of internal organisation is that their leadership is to always consist out of one man and one woman. But what would happen if they abandoned this rule now? I would argue that, after being conditioned to vote for one man and one woman for the past 30 years, this rule could be safely abandoned. In the first few years they would, perhaps, still vote for one man and one woman as a gesture. Then, at some point, two men would win the vote, or two women, so that finally the leadership position would, in regard to gender, be successfully de-signified; people would simply stop looking at gender as a means to determine this position. The crucial steps for feminism are, in other words, to show that 1) women would, in any given position, be just as capable as men and that 2) women would, in any given position, be just as incapable as men – so that gender becomes a useless tool of selection, and more accurate operationalisations of the construct “competence” would be used instead.
In analogy to this development, then, both female and male characters would have to become so overcharged in a plethora of different configurations that no one individual work of cultural work could be said to signify any kind of gender bias; characters would be “strong” (whatever that means exactly) or “weak” and coincidentally happen to be either female or male, a post-gender character. In this regard, Girls or, say, The Hunger Games would, in such a post-gender cultural landscape, be perfectly fine – after all, just like there are weak and strong (or any other kind of oppositional characterization) men, so there are weak and strong women.
However, one of the crucial stages of the de-signification process has never been completed. Since the medium is the message, i.e. since all cultural works combined will always have more meaning than any individual cultural work, we would need a multitude of cultural works with strong characters in conjunction with cultural works such as Girls, and this is what is missing. In other words, Girls portray female characters without agency in a cultural environment that doesn’t portray any female characters with agency – except for Homeland or The Bridge, i.e. shows where the characters are “broken” (Bipolar and Asperger respectively) and would not be “strong” if they were not “broken.”* What is left, then, is Girls as the celebration of twenty-something women (and men) being assholes. Which is not a problem per se – The Sopranos was about a colossal asshole, so was Seinfeld. But when shows like Girls, or Skylar from Breaking Bad are used to exclaim that “see, the utopia of post-feminism has been reached, all is well now!”, then, then we have problem.
[nota bene: Inspiration and fundamental ideas lifted from PartialObjects / The Problem of Wives on Cable TV]
* Note that e.g. BBC’s Sherlock is perfectly fine, because there are enough other “stron”g male characters without a psychological ailment (not that Conan Doyle originally wrote the character that way, but whatever), so that Sherlocks two dominat identity-markers: “broken” / “incredibly analytic and intelligent” not being incidental to one another does not say anything about masculinity.