BOYS WHO LIKE “GIRLS”

For years, the defiantly uninventive provocateur B.D. Myers has been making the same unoriginal argument that always manages to get him published in places like The Atlantic, as well as a book that makes a trenchant point shared by engineering majors in lit survey courses: celebrated modern authors blow. Whenever someone like Don DeLillo or Cormac McCarthy has the audacity to write a novel, Meyers picks out a few sentences to use them as evidence of ” the decline of American prose since the 1950s.” Seriously: in his widely-read 2002 hand grenade polemic “A Reader’s Manifesto,” he makes this claim after reading a few sentences of a novel by Annie Proulx. Myers emerged in 2010 from his hibernation of irrelevance to crash the party again when he called the prose of Jonathan Franzen’s novel-of-the-moment Freedom juvenile.” The ultimate point of this diatribe is to explain that modern writers are self-absorbed, myopic, shallow, too focused on their own subjectivity to examine the subjectivities of fictional characters, and that the decline of style can be traced to this desire to look outward instead of inward. Instead, we should be reading the novelists of the 1940s and 1790s – William Godwin, Patrick Hamilton, etc. – because they write “in careful, unaffectedly poetic prose” that is free from authorial intrusion.[1] Attacks on style are always attacks on voice, and what Myers seems to be complaining endlessly about is the need to for authors to inject their own personalities into a language that desires to be combed like an award-winning haircut. When style calls attention to itself, or its author, it becomes “slovenly,” and we need the presence of a critic to tell us which economically-written and precise writing manners we should emulate. Nevermind that the apparent juvenilia of Franzen or the “plodding” nature of Raymond Carver might be interesting in itself, worthy of a more sympathetic analysis with attention to the reasons why such style is produced and continues to affect. It’s easier to mark that territory as a wasteland than to spend any time thinking about the conditions that have produced the apparently aggressive insecurity that has produced it.

It’s arguments like Myers that come to mind when I hear criticisms of Lena Dunham’s argument-starter Girls. I’m not talking about the more blatantly misogynist complaints; I’m referring to more subtly misogynist ones like the things I’ve said when I suggested that the show “wasn’t for me:”[2]

andyongirls

I made arguments about how shallow and unlikable the protagonists were, and how the refusal of Dunham to explore anything outside of her immediate vicinity made it uninteresting and myopic. Until my friend Amy corrected me on Facebook, I was blissfully ignorant that Dunham is the most important and compelling cinematic voice to emerge in the last few years: a writer who has her eyes firmly fixed to her subject (which is often herself), a director who has an unpretentious eye for a city that is often captured in grand visual language, and an actor who is unafraid of her body and of giving the most pivotal dramatic moments to her co-stars.[3] And while Dunham certainly possesses an invasive solipsism, so did Montaigneand so does Woody Allen, and so did Proust and Frieda Pinto, etc.  etc. I’m not saying she’s as good as any of those luminaries, but its not wrong to fit her in their hallowed tradition, and like her for the same reason we liked them. Like Franzen, it’s what makes her interesting rather than what makes her bad.

Rather than view Girls as a window into the shallow and meaningless lives of privileged early twenty-somethings, why not view it as an intimate and personal look at what it means to be twenty-four, overeducated, and underemployed in this particular cultural moment? What would you prefer we use television for? There are valid reasons to criticize Girls, but there are really no reasons to ignore it.[4] What Dunham is up to here is more interesting than about a hundred recently produced cultural documents that are less messy, more conventionally entertaining, or about protagonists who face higher dramatic stakes. If you want to say that her intervention into the “what it means to be a woman right now” conversation is shallow, you’re missing the point of what it means to have that conversation in the first place.[5] Dunham’s self-styled protagonist, Hannah, is equally assured of her entitlement and coming to terms with her failure to actuate it. Her best friend Marnie looks to find her own self-doubt in others and when she can’t find it, she finds herself in dark places. Jessa turns self-destruction into an ethos that she wields defiantly (against Marnie, mostly). And Adam defies expectations as soon as we make them.

I think there are better shows on TV than Girls (Treme, for instance), but none are as revelatory or pertinent for the moment they’re being made. Girls is an extension of the potential of mumblecore to capture the meaningful emptiness of twenty-first century life using categories that mainstream movies won’t go near and that post-Sundance independent movies used to find too mundane. Its cinematic roots aren’t Sex and the City (a show it frequently references), but John Cassavettes and Paul Mazursky. Both Dunham and her show have become, unfairly, the representative document of a cultural war that is linked to the Occupy movement, this article, and your parents’ neighbor’s kids who only wants a job worthy of his art school degree. But Girls is blessed apolitical, and often just as critic of your ambition to live of your highly successful blog. But lookit: we can’t become B.D. Meyers when we hear a voice like Dunham’s – seizing on a sentence or two to attack a more complex whole. Instead of Meyers cantankerous salvos, we might consider another cranky old man – Stanley Fish – in asking not whether a particular style is good or bad, but what that style does.

So read this as a glowing endorsement of a show I was deeply reluctant to like. Don’t just avoid it because it’s a show about privilege starring the daughters of Brian Williams, David Mamet, and someone in Bad Company. Criticisms of the show rarely discuss the content, focusing instead on the idea of it. I’ll admit that my initial disdain for Girls – captured above in my reactionary Facebook post – had more to do with me than the show I was passing judgment on. Whatever the case, I’m excited for the new season and the opportunity to watch someone as honest, assured, and vulnerable as Dunham.

[1] This is one of the topics of my dissertation: that whenever something is called “unaffected,” it is referring to an empirical and philosophical enlightenment ideal of a language that is divorced from intention. The idea such semantic purity is possible is what was at heart of the origins of modern science, and its what drives Myers. If you’re interested in this topic, start with Thomas Sprat’s apparently innocuous but ultimately paradigmatic statement that there is “a close, naked, natural way of speaking” and go from there. And then please tell me what you think.

[2] I’m not intimating that when you say the show isn’t for you, you’re hating women; only that when I did so, I was participating in a regressive anti-girl spirit that probably has to do with girls not liking me in college.

[3] Also, Lena Dunham is clearly a striking and beautiful woman, albeit atypically so, who allows herself to be presented unflatteringly. I throw that back against anyone who calls the show “narcissistic.”

[4] However, this has resulted in this funny hash-tag

[5] And if you think that’s all that the show is about, you’re wrong: Some of Dunham’s most insightful observations are about masculinity. Its led to the most interesting acting newcomer of the year: Adam Driver. I would like to see Driver in the Joaquin Phoenix role in The Master.

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One thought on “BOYS WHO LIKE “GIRLS”

  1. Great writing Andy. I’m very glad Andytown is back in business. Haven’t seen Girls yet, and I think a lot of people still won’t for the reasons you mention–privileged girls giving a voice to an entitled Y generation and all. But your post makes me want to go watch. If you haven’t seen it yet, get someone with an iPad or iPhone subscription to the New Yorker to show you the short she did for the app. It’s great.

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