I didn’t get to watch the premiere of HBO’s new series Girls before witnessing the amazing amount of hype that managed to create a backlash before the show even aired. Having now watched it, I really wish I could have gone back in time and done so without reading so much about what the show says about TV, women, Brooklyn, education, the economy, and sex. I think I would have liked it more being free to watch it as I do shows about a group of male characters—a show about unique people doing stuff and being relatable because they are individuals.
This is not to say that the pressure put on Girls as an emissary of single women has been all bad. It’s opened up discussions about the lack of racial diversity on television in a way that shows about white men seem to resist. But overall, the burden placed on this single show has been frustrating, especially when it comes to representations of sex. That one character has soulless, delusional sex with a guy who doesn’t share her expectations about the relationship has instigated articles in The New York Times and The New Yorker bemoaning the sexual revolution and the supposed failures of feminism. Another character considering dumping her infantilizing boyfriend has already given Katie Roiphe another shot at her lifelong project of declaring feminist demands for egalitarian relationships a failure, because women just don’t like nice guys. (The possibility that a man could be nice to you without baby-talking never occurs to the concern trolls of feminism.)
Of course, on Louie—the show that non-sexists can see inspired Girls far more than Sex and the City ever could—you also have a main character who, just like Hannah on Girls, keeps having really bad sex for inscrutable reasons and only longs for someone who sends strong signals of disinterest. So far, I have yet to see a single article arguing that the bad sex and broken hearts on Louie suggest that modernity has failed men in their forties. Louie is a male character, and that means he can stand for himself. The audience doesn’t need him to have our exact personalities, sexual choices, and view of relationships to find him entertaining and relatable.
So why is there the expectation of this for Girls? It’s tempting to blame the lack of female characters on TV, which would definitely increase the need for the ones that slip through to stand in for Everywoman. The problem with that theory is that while women are far from reaching parity on TV, many fully fleshed-out female sitcom characters exist without having to becomes symbols of their generation. Liz Lemon isn’t expected to be an Every TV Writer, much less an Everywoman. Leslie Knope is beloved for being an oddball. Britta on Community has never once inspired an essay lamenting the promiscuity of the younger generation. Two Broke Girls has a very similar setup to Girls (they both kick off with a young, spoiled Brooklyn woman getting cut off from her parents) and even has the same creator as Sex and the City, but no one looks to its characters as the standard-bearers for their generation. Really, we haven’t seen such inflated expectations on a female-centric show since Sex and the City.
Even though Girls and Sex and the City really don’t have much in common, they do have one thing that all these other shows don’t have: The female characters aren’t under direct male supervision. It seems that if a TV writer wants a prophylactic shielding for her characters from “voice of a generation” expectations, the quickest way to do it is to put that character in a subservient position to a man. Liz Lemon and Leslie Knope both work under lovable curmudgeons, Britta is second banana to Jeff, and the two broke girls answer to a male boss.
Giving a female lead a man to look over her is in fact, one of the longest-standing sitcom traditions there is, going back to I Love Lucy. TV creators only tweaked the formula a bit for single women. Mary Richards, the first single career woman to hold down her own show on TV, had Lou Grant standing over her, creating the mold for all never-married urban female characters after.
Except, of course, for Sex and the City and now Girls. It seems that once you remove the reassuring figure standing in for patriarchal authority, the levels of audience anxiety about what this all means for women expand dramatically. Suddenly it’s not enough for the characters to be characters. Now they must be role models, to assuage lingering fears about what it means to release single women into the world without male authority to protect and guide them. So when these characters make mistakes or even just make choices that differ from exactly what the audience members feel they would, it’s felt keenly.
Can Girls break the mold, allowing audiences to learn how to watch female characters just be, without having to be perfectly self-actualized? The marketing push of HBO certainly suggests the network brass thinks so. Now it’s time to lay back and see if audiences are truly ready yet.