HBO’s Girls Has A Sexually Conservative Streak, But It’s Still Great

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There's been much hand-wringing, mostly on the part of older television critics, about all the unfulfilling sex had by the young women on new HBO series Girls, and what that means for the state of feminism(!) today. “Gloria Steinem went to the barricades for this?” blusters Frank Bruni, as if it's impossible for a young feminist to ever make mistakes or feel conflicted while figuring out what she wants from her personal life. While I think some of these people are misinterpreting Lena Dunham‘s character Hannah‘s jokey line “I think I might be the voice of my generation” as something Lena actually believes about herself, I can see why they came away thinking these things: the hilariously awkward sex scenes can read as a critique of casual sex, porno culture, and everything that's supposedly wrong with how young women allow themselves to be treated by young men today.

Dunham herself has done quite a bit to reinforce this idea in interviews: “There’s a biological reason why women feel about sex the way they do and men feel about sex the way they do,” she told Bruni, as he probably nodded with a concerned look on his face. “It’s not as simple as divesting yourself of your gender roles.” That sounds an awful lot like gender essentialism to me, a way of thinking that's utterly incompatible with sex-positive feminism. Unlike many seem to think, the point of sex-positive feminism is not that all women should behave “like men” (whatever that means) when it comes to sex. The point is that you should have the choice to do whatever feels right to you, without fear of judgment from a conservative culture or your supposed feminist allies. Figuring out “what feels right to you” may take a while, and you might not get it right the first time. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't try.

This was all enough to make me mildly dislike the show before I even saw it. Like the free-spirited character Jessa (who seems to be wired quite differently from Hannah), I wanted to yell, “don't you tell me what I am, you presumptuous, Puritanical child.” But when I actually watched the show, I loved it. It's a much more nuanced portrayal of young female NYC life than I was expecting, and the script pokes fun at the characters without ever descending into cruel caricature. Parts of it were painful to watch, because they resembled my own early-twenties so closely: the fruitless job search, the guilt over feeling sad and desperate when I was more privileged than most, the guys who didn't text me back, the inability to assert myself sexually. It's rare that a TV show comes along that portrays female characters (or any characters, for that matter) with anything resembling realistic complexity. Contrary to what some critics think, Hannah is figuring it out, like we all must, and it's rare to see that reality acknowledged on television.

I do think Hannah's dude problem stems from the fact that she's trying to squash a square peg into a round hole (figuratively) in terms of her physical and emotional needs. She's afraid to speak up and demand different treatment, because like her shitty boss, she knows this dude will just fire her. Girlfriend, I have been there. But I think where you get into trouble is when you start trying to generalize your experience onto others.

Then again, maybe Lena misspoke in the Frank Bruni interview and made the show sound like something it's not. Speaking to Salon.com more recently, she said of Bruni's piece:

…The piece was really interesting to me because it was a little challenging to be put in the position of having to speak for the sexual reality of a lot of women. I’ve never said that was something I was comfortable doing. In fact, I’ve spent most of my sexual career feeling like everything I was doing was alien and not representative of the populace, so if people relate to it, great, it makes me feel less lonely and it’s wonderful. But the idea of being asked to speak to the state of the union of young sexual encounters … I just would [need to] go out and get more experience before I could do that. I was given a role I never said I could handle.

That's more like it! I can now enjoy this show with a clear feminist conscience, knowing that just because I identify with experiences had by Lena's character does not necessarily mean I am proving some larger, sexist point about women. Which is fortunate, because it's a great fucking show and I love it.