Anatomy of a Backlash: Tracking the Arguments About Girls

Girls Photo: HBO

It has only been eighteen hours since Lena Dunham’s Girls debuted on HBO, but as has been observed elsewhere, it feels like the show has been on for weeks now. The amount of media attention — on this website, in this magazine, and elsewhere — focused on Girls has made the show inescapable, and wherever there is a glut of cultural discussion, there is also, as the Undulating Curve of Shifting Expectations proves again and again, a backlash. And a backlash to the backlash. It all happens so quickly now! So to keep you in the loop on the various arguments already being had about Girls (just one episode in), here now is a brief historical guide to the Girls Debate.

November 15, 2010: Rebecca Mead profiles Lena Dunham in The New Yorker ahead of her film debut, Tiny Furniture. The movie is compared to “’Curb Your Enthusiasm’ mashed up with Whit Stillman’s ‘Metropolitan,’ or ‘Manhattan’ if it had been directed by Mariel Hemingway rather than by Woody Allen”; Dunham’s “willingness to show herself at her most vulnerable is a source of creative strength.”

March 11, 2012: Girls debuts to raves at SXSW.

March 25, 2012: Emily Nussbaum profiles Lena Dunham and Girls for New York. It is very enthusiastic: “As a person who has followed, for more than twenty years, recurrent, maddening ­debates about the lives of young women, the series felt to me like a gift. Girls was a bold defense (and a searing critique) of the so-called Millennial Generation by a person still in her twenties.” she wrote. “As my younger colleague Willa Paskin put it, the show felt, to her peers, FUBU: ‘for us by us.’”

March 27, 2012: Writing for The New Yorker, Lorrie Moore calls Girls “unwatchable in the very best way.” The sex scenes are “heartless and degrading, and not remotely exuberant … like careless cruelty between nudists.” But she applauds the show’s depiction of “real unhappiness.”

March 31, 2012: Frank Bruni chimes in on the “bleak” sex scenes in a column for the New York Times. “You watch these scenes and other examples of the zeitgeist-y, early-20s heroines of  ‘Girls’ engaging in, recoiling from, mulling and mourning sex, and you think: Gloria Steinem went to the barricades for this?”

April 9, 2012: Katie Roiphe doubles-down on the sex issue: “Critics are calling Dunham brave and revolutionary, but might it actually be braver, or more revolutionary, to portray sex as sometimes without dire consequence, or not totally absurd? To mingle the comic with a deeper investment, the bad parts with the fun parts?”

April 11, 2012: Mother Jones launches the official backlash with a think piece titled “What the Hell Was HBO Thinking?” Girls is “profoundly bland, unstoppably irritating … has all the creative energy and maturity of Are You There, Chelsea?.” The only bright spot is Allison Williams.

April 12, 2012: At Good, Nona Willis Aronowitz responds to the perceived criticisms about the show’s “generational” failings: “This is only a problem because there are so few shows starring complicated, authentic young female characters. Girls ends up having to stand in for everybody.”

April 9–14, 2012: The New York Times, Salon, Time, the Daily Beast, and The Atlantic, among others, publish generally positive Girls reviews.

April 15, 2012: Girls airs.

April 16, 2012: John Cook starts his Gawker recap thusly: “Girls is a television program about the children of wealthy famous people and shitty music and Facebook and how hard it is to know who you are and Thought Catalog and sexually transmitted diseases and the exhaustion of ceaselessly dramatizing your own life while posing as someone who understands the fundamental emptiness and narcissism of that very self-dramatization.” His piece does not get any nicer.

April 16, 2012: Jenna Wortham, writing for the Hairpin, points out Girls’ total lack of racial diversity. “My chief beef is not simply that the girls in Girls are white … The problem with Girls is that while the show reaches — and succeeds, in many ways — to show female characters that are not caricatures, it feels alienating, a party of four engineered to appeal to a very specific subset of the television viewing audience, when the show has the potential to be so much bigger than that.”

April 16, 2012: And at 3:45 p.m., Girls’ racial politics are already being semi-defended on Twitter. Entertainment Weekly’s Ken Tucker defends the show against people who charge that the characters are over-privileged whiners. There are still nine episodes left in the first season.

Anatomy of a Backlash: Tracking the Arguments About Girls