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Girls just want to have fun, sadly.

I have had an instant dislike towards 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.

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14 Responses

  1. “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.”

    Totally disagree with you. I think gender differences are significant. The reason this is important is that currently we live in an ablist society. People with abilities, typically the abilities that males have specialized in and dominated, are given more respect, worth, pay, social support, peer options and more. The entire experience of childbirth is a totally and completely different experience biologically, mentally, emotionally, developmentally than showing up and seeing your baby be born. The amount of commitment and devotion that women have for their children is likely not purely socialized since it’s a trend one can find across many cultures. If you have proof that all strengths/abilities/behaviors related to gender are socialized and there are NO tendencies I would like to see your evidence. Otherwise we’re working with people who have predispositions and limitations and a women’s movement probably should identify strengths/illness/weakness/struggles/limitations that are unique to women.

    The fact that there is a difference is a huge part of women’s activism. The risk of being forcibly impregnated is huge and it affects every fertile woman, even those who try to use BC because birth control can fail, you can run out, you can forget to manage it properly, and of course, in order for a female to prevent this risk she has to take a substance that alters the way her body functions for some women resulting in difficult side effects or dampening sex drive in which case why bother to take the pill for consensual sex? It’s basically socially required that women be on the pill messing up their own libido to provide sex to men that they aren’t even going to get to enjoy as much.

    Sorry but the fact you think gender is a none issues and men and women are the same with the same abilities is extremely harmful to women. Here’s where it gets tricky, if women have slightly less ability in certain types of physical activities or even mental abilities (and perhaps superior skills to men in some areas?) and there ARE statistical trends, how does that mesh with your view that gender doesn’t exist? What’s more, do people with specific ability difficulties deserve to be seen as less than? To be, for example, treated as lesser human beings as women have been treated? What if statistically, even with no socialization a majority of women were better nurturers, didn’t want to be separated from their children at 6 weeks and shoved into a workplace doing “real work” (read stereotypically male work) prevented from bonding with and nurturing their young children, forced to pump or use formula instead of just nursing? If you’re going to say that all men and women have the potential for equal performance, and that all men and women should be measured based on what is very likely a MALE SET OF CRITERIA about human performance and character, there are huge problems with this for women.

  2. Also- I refuse to watch girls, it sounds truly awful. But when you describe a character “having agency” do you mean the character knows they have agency vs is not aware they can make choice, or do you mean the actual choices given to the character in the show are limited?

    It sounds the girls in the show have plenty of agency. They are not poor or disabled, or forcibly imprisoned. They are simply choosing to use their agency to be really shitty self-centered people right? When you say they lack agency do you mean they have no choices in the show or…

    I’m just curious what you mean by that, if you’re interested in sharing.

  3. It’s also too simple to regard gender as significatory like mandude said. Even if gender is nothing but a social construct, the next step would be to deduce that gender is discursive based, and such discursivity within institutions occurs through still-patriarchal practices. Getting two women on the senate doesn’t mean gender is obliterated remember? Gender always works as long as there is the background of patriarchal institutions.

  4. I agree with Guy, but there still seems to be a way in which one can read gender disparity within the semiotic realm while still rooted in ‘real experience’.

    Take Lacan’s notion of how desire is always desire of the other. The simplest most superficial way to see this is simply when someone has ice cream, I want to have ice cream. But the thing is that one should see desire as not an open ended thing here, since one does not merely desire ice cream, but *that* ice cream. A different kind of ice cream is but a simulacra.

    However, another way to read this is through its rendering via discursive structures. Take the misogynist quip – “all women actually want to be penetrated, they are just too shy to say it.” Which such a belief allows the possibility of rape to occur in that rape is not really rape, it’s actually what “she” wants. The issue is that such a “declaration” of women’s actual desire by the men’s part does constitute a part of women’s actual desire *only* through the structures in which desire is brought to light. In other words, such a declaration of the women’s actual desire by men is constituted within the structural background which allows such thought to occur, and in this, woman’s desire *can* manifest as the desire of the other, the desire to be penetrated but too shy to say it. But this does not mean that desire is a standing notion within individuals – that is, the woman’s desire is only as such through the constitution of the desire of the other, it is not a desire inherent to womanhood itself.

    It’s easy to be critical of slutwalk since we can explain it away with the whisk of a semiotic wand plus its all about branding, but slutwalk does change the discourse in which certain things have to be brought out to light in an entirely different way from now on. In this sense, once this is changed, desire too is changed.

    Of course, of course, of course if your point is the overdetermination of capital in which signs are just changing whereas everything is the same, then yes we can relegate it all to semiotic shifts. But such a view posits a form of patriarchal power above and all other powers, which then shows that feminism isn’t really “working.” Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, I don’t know, but my point is that mandude has a point and it is that structurally, desire is always constituted via that, and not everything is about semiotics as such. There is the possibility of change even if its semiotics and branding based.

  5. I get what you’re saying – but as usual, I disagree.

    Back in bananastown, i.e PO, Homestuckergrl jumps right to the conclusion that because a remark was made on a woman’s boobs over the woman’s work, it is slutshaming. The point is not that this is a misunderstanding, but homestuck’s interpretation is purely representational thinking in that the way PastaB mentions boobs over full-nerd-identity of singer immediately calls up slutshaming. But the thing is… she’s actually ‘right’. PastaB using boobs over full identity is merely a secondary recourse to make his first point funny, but the way such a thought is allowed to come up to him is indeed from a patriarchial perspective. The thing is that everyone knows homestuck is cray cray because she has absolutely missed pastaB’s point of “semiotic collision” (did he invent this term?!). But here is my point. Why does huffpo get the authority over homestuckgrl and thousands of other feminists? Huffpo represents topless protests as gurls gone cray cray political edition, which yes, swallows them, but anyone living in a liberal area will tell you that “feminists” are constantly calling out stuff like slutshaming, so it’s not entirely lost. Of course, my point that most liberal feminism being entertainment identification eventually does get represented as madness or something else, but the discourse does change – especially on college campuses where this identity bullshit is big. People do participate in it if they want to be cool.

    Your point that discourse swallows everything is premature since what you mean is that everything can be represented as something else, and such representation is then subsumed within and under a category of dominant ideology. But my point is that representation works both ways, whereas you constantly believe it’s unilateral. representations allows homestuckgrrl to call slutshaming, allows girls and boys in college campuses to do this diversity of sexuality bullshit, and these identities representations are not as if they are any different from the ones at huffpo. Why, then, should I care about the members of the pussy riot? Is our point not that they’re merely works of signification to us now? Change can still occur, or rather does occur, through significatory pushings.

    I constantly disagree with your splitting of “real life” and “mass semiotic activity” as if they are constantly so clean and apart.

  6. Hell, I have no idea what y’all even are talking about, but if my hacktacular writing stimulates a debate in any way, I consider my mission accomplished!

  7. Fabius, if you’re lost on what we’re saying, then we’ve failed. This isn’t a two way debate between Guy and I, it’s for everyone. Try to read it again patiently and attempt to understand it, the reason you don’t get it might just be that you’re not accustomed to the way we’re talking about it. I promise it’s very easy once you get into the groove of it.

    Also, you need to respond to mandude

  8. Thanks for engaging Fabius – about the charitable reading; GFox: “She could still sexualize herself in an interaction by flirting, whatever, but she wouldn’t have to start out working against a presumed sign.”

    The problem that I pointed out is that such presumed signs are an inevitable part of discursive desire – as long as men are attracted to women, desire must manifest discursively and in that, structurally.

    Take the word ‘proletariat.’ It’s origin is from ‘proles’ – offspring, in that those who were too poor to actually serve the state helped to do so through their service of the womb, women who gave birth to labour, those women were the lowest of the classes. Now, take the current example of maternity leave, where clearly someone who goes off for 4 months giving birth to babies is more of a liability to the company than a male who will put in work for those 4 months. but here, the problem is of course that we’re looking at such structures through privatized labour where only within this discourse, women would be a liability to the lack of capital. Now, let’s say we look at this through a social view in that babies are seen as a glorious occasion for the social welfare of humanity, where giving maternity leave would suddenly be a great thing because mothers are doing a good job for humanity. in this sense, humanity > privatized labour. so in this sense, even if everything is designified, the physical aspects of womenhood still have to accord to a certain discursive structure which allows their acts to be either seen as a contribution or a detriment. mandude’s point is preciesly this, if i am right, that as long as there is this structure, the very presumed signs within Guy’s example will always exist, even if it’s desiring-semiotics changes every season. In mandude’s view, such designification is in a way, impossible.


    The notion of boredom within watching TV is something complex, I would presume. Maybe we should write an article about this together sometime

  9. Nachlasse, that did encompass where I was headed and in fact gave me some better articulations in the direction of my thinking on this. I think that men participating in the discourse and activism surrounding feminist ideals is an important part of actually addressing imbalances that exist and taking down power structures that both men and women can be blind to. It can be hard to see certain kinds of sexism or bias toward male attributes being better, or a male structured society being innately the kind of society we should aspire to if we were to designify gender as it were. Women tend to vote more in favor of liberal political structure and socialistic support programs because they know they could be, or are, at risk of carrying a dependent child, or of thus being dependent on an abusive or tyrannical father figure. We can all agree that a woman who is not working in order to birth and care for a small infant will need food and shelter during this time and have some period in which she can not work, so who is to provide that? In general, I tend to be in favor of a moral code in which the individual does their part to provide for themselves and their immediate family with the skills they posses, families and communities care for their own with the skills they posses, and state and national structures care for those who fall through the cracks of these protective structures built of voluntary goodwill.

    I’m trying to sort through some data on female/male voting and it’s hard to interpret such, but it appears that conservatives either tend to marry more, or tend to become conservatives because of being married. In terms of the female vote, marriage would be an important aspect of survival without a national support network in the event of motherhood and childbearing/rearing years. I’m not exactly going anywhere with this, somewhat musing, but the general point is that attempts to designify without looking at the meaningful differences between male and female needs across their lifespans can wind up harming women whose needs are not adequately addressed by male driven societal structures.

    Male voices are needed within these conversations and I’m happy to see them, but there is also certain bias that comes to the table and it’s hard to break that down honestly. It’s hard enough to do even as a female, in a sexist and male driven society, much less as a male.

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