So I stayed home from work sick today. And in an effort to do something productive, I watched the pilot episode of “Girls.”
I wanted to like it. I did. This is a show about young women my age, who were born on the same floor of the socioeconomic skyscraper as me, trying to make their way in an economic climate and an expensive metropolitan area that feel very familiar. Sub in San Francisco for New York, and I’m very nearly there.
But I just can’t with this show. I can’t.
There are so many reasons why, and many of them have already been beautifully articulated elsewhere: the navel-gazing, the stilted writing, the breathtaking entitlement and reflexive brattiness of the main character, the fact that there are no non-privileged characters or people of color in this show’s version of New York City. But there’s something else, something that makes me squirm, that hasn’t really been discussed.
There’s been a whole lot of hullabaloo about this show being groundbreaking for showcasing a character who is “normal-looking” and not conventionally attractive. So why are all the other actresses on the show thin and feminine and TV-trope-familiar? Why is she the only one?
Let me say, before going on, that it is refreshing to see someone like Lena Dunham on TV. She’s heavier than the average on-screen woman (though by no means heavy, which I’ll come back to). Her features don’t read as ultra-feminine, at least without lots of makeup, and she comes off as more gawky than coltish. She looks, if not like me, at least a little more like me than anyone else on the big or small screen. Seeing someone like her is rare, and remarkable.
So why are all the other women on this show thin, shapely, feminine, familiar? Why is Lena Dunham the only “normal-looking” actor on a show about normal women? The main character, Hannah, is surrounded by the sort of effortlessly attractive women that populate sitcoms everywhere. When Hannah is de-glammed, it’s at least a little bit easy to believe that she’s someone you might know; when her friends are de-glammed, they look just like the kind of television-normal that we’re supposed to aspire to.
From watching the pilot, there seemed to be a lot of the same exposition that’s become familiar in sitcoms: introducing an actress who is, by all definitions, smashingly conventionally attractive, and then elaborating all the reasons why she’s really a schlub just like the rest of us. The effect is unsettling: it sets Hannah off as even odder and dumpier than she might otherwise be. It’s as if the casting were calibrated specifically to emphasize that the star of the show is a Normal-Looking Person. She looks kind of like us! She’s chubby and frizzy-haired and awkward! Her thighs touch when she stands around in her underwear!
I suppose this kind of juxtaposition is necessary for the conceit to work, because Lena Dunham is not as far from conventionally attractive as the press run-up for this show would have us believe. In photographs with her co-stars, on the red carpet or in magazines, she looks so much like the rest of the group that I have to do a double-take every time. Part of this is the magic of the image machine–fashion, hair, makeup–but I think it’s also a little betrayal of the fact that what passes for “fat,” “ugly,” or even just “normal-looking” on television is incredibly skewed. Lena Dunham is not fat, or even overweight; she’s not unusually plain, or somehow inherently unfashionable. She is close enough to the Hollywood ideal that she doesn’t even stand out in a gaggle of young glammed-up actresses her age. She just happens to look a little more like the average than most other twentysomething women who are employed in the on-camera biz.
If Hannah were surrounded by more women who looked like her, I might be more willing to buy into the premise of “Girls”: a sitcom written by a normal person about normal twentysomethings going through the normal tribulations of being female in New York City in the twenty-first century. But the fact that the show’s creator–and her alter ego–are surrounded exclusively by sitcom-standby pretty girls sits very poorly with me.
I’m happy to see someone who looks a little like me on television. I just wish her own show didn’t make her out to be the Highlander.