Arts / Entertainment

Audiences Hate 'Girls' and Critics Love It - For the Same Reason

The humiliation of women has somehow become their own empowerment

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April 19, 2013
Girls HBO
In physics, the law of inverse proportions describes an equation in which one variable increases by a certain amount while a second variable decreases in direct proportion to it. Basically, as X goes up, Y goes down. Now as you may have noticed, you can sometimes find this principle at work outside the world of science, occasionally even in such venues as entertainment media. Take, for instance, the controversial television show Girls, HBO's ongoing series which chronicles the lives of a small group of young women as they try to establish a life for themselves in New York City.

The setup of Girls is familiar, sharing surface similarities to both The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Sex And The City. Comparisons end at the surface, however, as the two older shows chronicled the comedic situations encountered by a group of close knit successful business women, whereas Girls... does not. Girls instead follows the woeful existence of four over-privileged twenty-somethings as they stumble through meaningless sexual encounters and try to avoid actually keeping a job. 
 
Probably the biggest difference between Girls and its predecessors, though, is that The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Sex And The City were both bona-fide hits with large audiences, while Girls just finished up its second season to steadily dwindling ratings. And yet, in a perfect display of the law of inverse proportions at work, even as viewers trickle (sometimes run) away, critical adulation for Girls and its writer/star Lena Dunham continues to pour in. In fact, over the past year, Girls has garnered an Emmy, a pair of Golden Globes, honors from both the Writers & Directors Guilds, and even a prestigious Peabody Award for outstanding achievement in electronic media. You have to admit that's not too shabby for a show most people seem to loathe.
 
And it's not like this dichotomy is lost on the show's champions in the media. Even as columnists lavish praise on Girls, they readily acknowledge the reasons most of the public prefers to avoid the show like the plague. For example, AJ Marechal of Variety exclaims that those who watch Girls are “witnessing something important” and yet concedes the show makes most viewers “cringe, look away and feel isolated.” Emily Nussbaum of NY Mag calls Girlsboth stunning and a gift, but admits the actions of its characters “verges on the repellent.” And Jace Lacob of the Daily Beast believes the show to be a work of art, yet notes that it is “often uncomfortable” to sit through. Dubious endorsements indeed, and that's coming from people who actually adore Girls. So you have to ask, just what is it about the show which nauseates casual viewers, yet makes the pundits positively giddy?
 
Most often you will hear the claim that it's because of the authenticity of the show. In an interview with Rutgers Today, psychologist Jennifer Tanner claims Girls is a perfect illustration of "emerging adulthood," a term coined by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, Ph.D. to describe the supposed new developmental stage many millenials experience between the ages of 18 to 29 wherein they avoid marriage and permanent jobs and concentrate instead on self-exploration. To accurately portray this demographic, Lena Dunham and her crew utilize the Mumblecore school of film making, a style focused on naturalistic performances and settings. That means instead of featuring the generic Hollywood hunks and starlets you find in other productions, the actors in Girls basically look and talk just like the grubby annoying hipsters you get stuck behind while waiting in line at Starbucks. So, yes, the show is realistic.
 
But let's be honest, what the critics are mostly cheering for is the sex. That's because the sex depicted on Girls is not the same as the simulated debauchery found on typical pay-cable soft-core pornography shows. Rather than acting like the insatiable nymphomaniacs found in those other offerings, the young women on Girls are rarely shown enjoying the loveless, near emotionless sexual acts they participate in. And it's no wonder, as the titular girls have experienced countless degradations ranging from being urinated on to possibly being raped.

Unsurprisingly, most viewers want nothing to do with this kind of stuff, and the show's ratings prove it. As for the critics, however, their love continues unabated. Emily Nussbaum gushes that “the sex on Girls isn’t a reward, it’s a revelation... [presenting] sex as a rough draft, a failed negotiation, at once hilarious and real.” AJ Marechal praises the show for "spitting on the shoes of auds [that's cool journalist-speak for audiences] that want sex scenes that reside comfortably in propriety’s confines." And psychologist Jennifer Tanner bluntly states that "The sex part is one of my favorite aspects of the show." 
 
All of which begs the question, if most of the viewing public is repulsed by the sex shown on Girls, why do so many members of the entertainment media applaud it? Are they just a bunch of perverts who hate women and enjoy seeing them sexually humiliated? Well, no, not if you see things from their point of view. From where the show's fans are sitting, what they're seeing on Girls isn't really women being objectified or used at all, but rather empowerment.

As Prof. Tanner explains it, "Viewers expect there to be a connection between people having sex. In many of the scenes, there is no true intimacy. But what you’re really seeing is that it’s impossible to have real intimacy without a true knowledge of yourself. But these kids don’t have real selves yet; they have temporary selves. I’ve asked a lot of other people what they thought of the sexual relationships in the show and they were aghast. They said, 'The way the men treat these women is horrible!' But when have we ever seen young women in this much control of their sex lives? Never. They’re talking about exploring their sexual identity, who they are as sexual people. These explorations with different partners and trying out different things, having all these mishaps, yes, that’s very representative of this new stage of life.”
 
Nice, huh? You see, the problem with Girls isn't necessarily its unlikable characters or the detestable way it depicts the mistreatment of women. Those things will go away because, eventually, so many viewers will drift away from the show that even the publicity surrounding Girls will dry up and HBO will take it off the air. The real problem is that there is a sizable portion of the media out there who think the things depicted on Girls are natural and possibly even healthy, and so they will eagerly jump aboard the next similar show that comes along and relentlessly promote it as well.
 
It sounds hopeless, sure, but the thing to keep in mind is that there's another rule in physics besides the law of inverse proportions that seems just as applicable to entertainment media. It's the one which states that a system tends to disintegrate into disorder and chaos if left to itself, a tendency which can only be reversed if order is reintroduced to it from a source outside the system. Given that, it behooves those of us on the outside to introduce what order we can into a system so obviously on the verge of collapse.
 
The first thing is not to concede the debate. One of the last things Pope Benedict XVI did was to encourage Christian involvement in the social media. In his message for 2013 World Communications Day, the pontiff wrote, "Believers are increasingly aware that, unless the Good News is made known also in the digital world, it may be absent in the experience of many people for whom this existential space is important... The ability to employ the new languages is required, not just to keep up with the times, but precisely in order to enable the infinite richness of the Gospel to find forms of expression capable of reaching the minds and hearts of all." So as long as the secular media trumpets the world view of shows like Girls, we should be there to trumpet right back. Charitably, of course.
 
And while some of us are engaging the media in that manner, others can do what Christians have done since the very beginning, offer an alternative. In a recent article for First Things, Prof. Alan Jacobs suggests the best possible way to combat shows like Girls is to get out there and produce better art and better stories, give the minds of viewers  better "sandboxes in which to play with true, or truer, myths." We are made in the image of the creative force behind the universe, after all, so there's no reason we can't do a little creating of our own.
In physics, the law of inverse proportions describes an equation in which one variable increases by a certain amount while a second variable decreases in direct proportion to it. Basically, as X goes up, Y goes down. Now as you may have noticed, you can sometimes find this principle at work outside the world of science, occasionally even in such venues as entertainment media. Take, for instance, the controversial television show Girls, HBO's ongoing series which chronicles the lives of a small group of young women as they try to establish a life for themselves in New York City.

The setup of Girls is familiar, sharing surface similarities to both The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Sex And The City. Comparisons end at the surface, however, as the two older shows chronicled the comedic situations encountered by a group of close knit successful business women, whereas Girls... does not. Girls instead follows the woeful existence of four over-privileged twenty-somethings as they stumble through meaningless sexual encounters and try to avoid actually keeping a job. 
 
Probably the biggest difference between Girls and its predecessors, though, is that The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Sex And The City were both bona-fide hits with large audiences, while Girls just finished up its second season to steadily dwindling ratings. And yet, in a perfect display of the law of inverse proportions at work, even as viewers trickle (sometimes run) away, critical adulation for Girls and its writer/star Lena Dunham continues to pour in. In fact, over the past year, Girls has garnered an Emmy, a pair of Golden Globes, honors from both the Writers & Directors Guilds, and even a prestigious Peabody Award for outstanding achievement in electronic media. You have to admit that's not too shabby for a show most people seem to loathe.
 
And it's not like this dichotomy is lost on the show's champions in the media. Even as columnists lavish praise on Girls, they readily acknowledge the reasons most of the public prefers to avoid the show like the plague. For example, AJ Marechal of Variety exclaims that those who watch Girls are “witnessing something important” and yet concedes the show makes most viewers “cringe, look away and feel isolated.” Emily Nussbaum of NY Mag calls Girlsboth stunning and a gift, but admits the actions of its characters “verges on the repellent.” And Jace Lacob of the Daily Beast believes the show to be a work of art, yet notes that it is “often uncomfortable” to sit through. Dubious endorsements indeed, and that's coming from people who actually adore Girls. So you have to ask, just what is it about the show which nauseates casual viewers, yet makes the pundits positively giddy?
 
Most often you will hear the claim that it's because of the authenticity of the show. In an interview with Rutgers Today, psychologist Jennifer Tanner claims Girls is a perfect illustration of "emerging adulthood," a term coined by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, Ph.D. to describe the supposed new developmental stage many millenials experience between the ages of 18 to 29 wherein they avoid marriage and permanent jobs and concentrate instead on self-exploration. To accurately portray this demographic, Lena Dunham and her crew utilize the Mumblecore school of film making, a style focused on naturalistic performances and settings. That means instead of featuring the generic Hollywood hunks and starlets you find in other productions, the actors in Girls basically look and talk just like the grubby annoying hipsters you get stuck behind while waiting in line at Starbucks. So, yes, the show is realistic.
 
But let's be honest, what the critics are mostly cheering for is the sex. That's because the sex depicted on Girls is not the same as the simulated debauchery found on typical pay-cable soft-core pornography shows. Rather than acting like the insatiable nymphomaniacs found in those other offerings, the young women on Girls are rarely shown enjoying the loveless, near emotionless sexual acts they participate in. And it's no wonder, as the titular girls have experienced countless degradations ranging from being urinated on to possibly being raped.

Unsurprisingly, most viewers want nothing to do with this kind of stuff, and the show's ratings prove it. As for the critics, however, their love continues unabated. Emily Nussbaum gushes that “the sex on Girls isn’t a reward, it’s a revelation... [presenting] sex as a rough draft, a failed negotiation, at once hilarious and real.” AJ Marechal praises the show for "spitting on the shoes of auds [that's cool journalist-speak for audiences] that want sex scenes that reside comfortably in propriety’s confines." And psychologist Jennifer Tanner bluntly states that "The sex part is one of my favorite aspects of the show." 
 
All of which begs the question, if most of the viewing public is repulsed by the sex shown on Girls, why do so many members of the entertainment media applaud it? Are they just a bunch of perverts who hate women and enjoy seeing them sexually humiliated? Well, no, not if you see things from their point of view. From where the show's fans are sitting, what they're seeing on Girls isn't really women being objectified or used at all, but rather empowerment.

As Prof. Tanner explains it, "Viewers expect there to be a connection between people having sex. In many of the scenes, there is no true intimacy. But what you’re really seeing is that it’s impossible to have real intimacy without a true knowledge of yourself. But these kids don’t have real selves yet; they have temporary selves. I’ve asked a lot of other people what they thought of the sexual relationships in the show and they were aghast. They said, 'The way the men treat these women is horrible!' But when have we ever seen young women in this much control of their sex lives? Never. They’re talking about exploring their sexual identity, who they are as sexual people. These explorations with different partners and trying out different things, having all these mishaps, yes, that’s very representative of this new stage of life.”
 
Nice, huh? You see, the problem with Girls isn't necessarily its unlikable characters or the detestable way it depicts the mistreatment of women. Those things will go away because, eventually, so many viewers will drift away from the show that even the publicity surrounding Girls will dry up and HBO will take it off the air. The real problem is that there is a sizable portion of the media out there who think the things depicted on Girls are natural and possibly even healthy, and so they will eagerly jump aboard the next similar show that comes along and relentlessly promote it as well.
 
It sounds hopeless, sure, but the thing to keep in mind is that there's another rule in physics besides the law of inverse proportions that seems just as applicable to entertainment media. It's the one which states that a system tends to disintegrate into disorder and chaos if left to itself, a tendency which can only be reversed if order is reintroduced to it from a source outside the system. Given that, it behooves those of us on the outside to introduce what order we can into a system so obviously on the verge of collapse.
 
The first thing is not to concede the debate. One of the last things Pope Benedict XVI did was to encourage Christian involvement in the social media. In his message for 2013 World Communications Day, the pontiff wrote, "Believers are increasingly aware that, unless the Good News is made known also in the digital world, it may be absent in the experience of many people for whom this existential space is important... The ability to employ the new languages is required, not just to keep up with the times, but precisely in order to enable the infinite richness of the Gospel to find forms of expression capable of reaching the minds and hearts of all." So as long as the secular media trumpets the world view of shows like Girls, we should be there to trumpet right back. Charitably, of course.
 
And while some of us are engaging the media in that manner, others can do what Christians have done since the very beginning, offer an alternative. In a recent article for First Things, Prof. Alan Jacobs suggests the best possible way to combat shows like Girls is to get out there and produce better art and better stories, give the minds of viewers  better "sandboxes in which to play with true, or truer, myths." We are made in the image of the creative force behind the universe, after all, so there's no reason we can't do a little creating of our own.
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