Women of a certain age (18-30ish) seem to fall into a nebulous category best described by pop sensation Britney Spears – not a girl, not yet a woman. As cheesy as that comparison is, it becomes especially relevant when attempting to classify the young women seen on television. I realized this year that I had watched three different TV shows explicitly about the trials and tribulations of “girls” – New Girl (FOX), 2 Broke Girls (CBS), and Girls (HBO). Following in a long line of similarly-named shows (Gossip Girl, Secret Life of a Call Girl, and my favourite, Gilmore Girls), this year’s crop of girl-themed programs have little in common save for a few key features: the main characters of each show are white, they are all dealing with money problems, and they are all between the ages of 22 and 32 (give or take).
I started thinking about this trend when I realized that I could not think of a single television show that mentioned “women” in the title. A quick Internet search revealed only a few recent examples: Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (1993-1998), Bionic Woman (1976-1978), and TLC’s Police Women reality series (2009-present). In comparison, I thought of a few shows about “men” right off the bat: Mad Men, Two and a Half Men, and the now-cancelled Men of a Certain Age. The only recent shows about “boys” were Boy Meets World and My Boys, both of which are off the air now. Aside from these exceptions, current shows about adult men are explicitly titled as such, while women-centred shows usually involve a woman’s name, profession, or, as we saw this year, the word “bitch” (GCB, “Don’t Trust the B* in Apt. 23”).
Legally, the characters on New Girl, 2 Broke Girls and Girls are no longer “girls,” but they don’t exemplify many of the stereotypical traits associated with “grown women” – having children, having a spouse, working a stable job or owning a house. In contrast, their girliness makes them entertaining to watch because of the funny and odd situations in which they find themselves. The funny and quirky girls become separated from the invisible spectre of “serious womanhood,” and the former becomes more appealing to viewers.
However, when the image of the zany-but-still-cute girl is compromised, people get uncomfortable, as can be seen in the flood of opinion unleashed following the release of Lena Dunham’s series Girls in April. Her depictions of sex alone have caused a stir among critics. Frank Bruni of the New York Times writes: “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?” Others have set Dunham up as a beneficiary of nepotism, because both of her parents are successful visual artists. Still others have lambasted the show for being “profoundly bland as it is unstoppably irritating.”
The most widespread and harshest critique of the show has arguably been the lack of diversity among the main characters of the show. This is a valid critique of the show, and one that has been discussed in insightful ways, and it is interesting that this is the one show in recent memory to have sparked such debate over race visibility in popular culture.
It’s hard to say what portion of these critiques are about the show itself, and what portion is a reaction to how hyped the show was in the first place. After all, smart people on the Internet seem to have a visceral reaction towards things that they are “supposed” to like, and everyone is entitled to an opinion. But after a few weeks of nonstop commentary, the general theme is still largely one of personal antagonism towards Dunham that seems to blame her for any and all problems that have arisen on her show.
This is especially true when it comes to the issues of race and casting. Critics have argued that Dunham had a responsibility to introduce marginalized voices into her work, and while holding directors to a high standard is important, this is a systemic problem in the television industry and not something that can be fixed by Dunham alone. In June of last year, Julie Klausner wrote a piece entitled “Don’t Fear the Dowager,” in which she implored women of this age group to avoid the trap of permanent girlhood. She writes: “it’s much harder to bring down a woman, or to call her a moron, when she’s not in pigtails and Ring Pops.”
Klausner is correct in stating that the “girl” label makes it easier for men and women to write off the experiences and opinions of the twenty-something woman, and I see this in the media treatment of Dunham. Profiles of the show and its star focus on her age, the fact that she lives with her parents, and other personal details that enhance her girlish qualities. Dunham’s position as star and showrunner of Girls allows her a certain amount of power not often reserved for women in television, and this appears to be very uncomfortable for a number of critics and producers of media content. [Ed. note: in no way does this mean critiques shouldn’t be used regarding Girls! The argument here is that Dunham is being picked on more than other producers specifically because of her “girlishness.”]
Some commentators appear personally affronted at the audacity of Girls’s characters to be unlikeable, to do “bad” things, and to demand attention without asking first. Specifically in the case of her character Hannah, the scrutiny of Dunham for displaying her body and her anxieties in this “awkward” way represents the unfamiliar presence of women on TV who define, express, and work through their own issues under their own direction.
It doesn’t do viewers any favours to continue to perpetuate the idea that twenty-something “girls” don’t deserve the label of womanhood because of their position in life. This just creates a more rigid divide between “girls” and “women” that shouldn’t exist in the first place, while continuing to dictate how young women should behave. The women of Girls represent more complex characters than the contemporary “girl” archetype permits, and it’s clear from the ongoing discussion around the show that Dunham’s work is not easy to write off as inconsequential fluff.
In an excellent article, Roxane Gay argues that “it is not possible for girlhood to be represented wholly—girlhood is too vast and too individual an experience,” to be compressed into one TV show or one movie. There is also no magical age at which one stops being a “girl.” Maybe more shows like Gay’s idea of “Grown Women” (see linked article) who occupy this transitional space will help ease my demographic out of perpetual girlhood and to embrace womanhood on our own terms.
Manisha Aggarwal-Schifellite is a Master’s student in the Ryerson-York Joint Programme in Communication and Culture. She also blogs about pop culture for Snap! magazine and spends a lot of time knitting.