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“Girls”: the Last Frontier of Feminism?

by SUSAN JHIRAD

As the 50th anniversary of the groundbreaking “Feminist Mystique” and March “Women’s Month” inspire fresh looks at Women’s Liberation, a new television series written by a “twenty-something” woman has taken America by storm, winning an Emmy and becoming one of the most popular programs on TV. Lena Dunham’s self-inspired heroine Hannah Horvath, a bright, funny and neurotic young writer struggling to survive a bad economy and troubled love affairs, is  the anti-heroine some of us older feminists have long been awaiting. With her gloriously large bottom, prominently displayed both naked and in heroically unflattering short shorts, Hannah comes at just the right moment for that last frontier of feminism: the female body.

She arrives in the nick of time. Today, too many Hollywood actresses are wasting away (All I could think when viewing Keira Knightly’s recent Anna Karenina was “Give that poor girl a nice hot bowl of borscht—with sour cream,”); and high fashion models on the runway resemble nothing more than refugees from “Night of the Living Dead,” making Hannah all the more radical. It’s tragic that delightful full-figured comedians like Renee Zellweger have turned into shadows of their former selves, and even the great Kate Winslet has found it necessary to pare down her oft-displayed voluptuousness.  Anorexia among young girls persists, and these “role models” will do nothing to help. In addition, extremely sexualized clothes (a product of the hip hop culture of “bitches and ho’s”?), including radically painful high heeled shoes that will undoubtedly cripple young women as they enter middle age, is another retrograde trend. The increased use of Botox and plastic surgery for faces and enhanced “boobs” is even sadder.

I know. Many young women assert that they are “dressing as they like” and “feel better about themselves.” They think they are just as liberated as we old relics who dress for ourselves and our own comfort—if not more so. They want to attract men, and indeed, why shouldn’t they have that right? Of course, they should have that right, after all that’s what our movement was about—choice. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to look good, or to attract men. But are they really choosing, or are they only mimicking fashion trends they see on screen, TV, and online? One suspects it’s the latter.

Those of us who came of age in the 50s and 60s longed for real liberation—political, economic, social, spiritual and sexual. We gained consciousness in small groups, through fevered discussions, demonstrations, and our personal relationships. Through reading writers like Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir, we came to realize that we were in fact second class citizens in all aspects of life. Most jobs outside the home were barred to us, as were positions of political power. We were treated as sexual objects, yet could not even control our own ability to reproduce. We responded to commercials that made us feel miserable about our faces and bodies.

Of course, as the infamous cigarette commercial put it, “We’ve come a long way, baby.” We still have a way to go, but the fact that women have entered doctors’ and lawyers’ offices as fully respected professionals, are now represented in boardrooms and Congress (not in sufficient numbers, but steadily growing) and that a certain woman, should she decide to run for president in four years, would have an exceptionally good chance of winning, all shows the success of the Women’s Movement, perhaps the most enduring revolutionary movement of the 60’s and 70’s. The existence of available birth control, access to legal abortion (though now being eroded) child care centers, rape crisis centers; and the fact that fathers are allowed to parent their children as well as mothers: all are all testimony to its success.

However, there is one area of female liberation where not only have we not made progress; we seem to be going backwards. And that is our physical appearance. In one of the first small consciousness-raising groups I attended in the 70s, I vividly recall the topic of conversation turning to “hairy legs.” As someone who had always been self-conscious about being too hairy, this finally broke through a kind of iceberg in my mind. As trivial as it may sound, this was the very moment when I suddenly realized, “I am a woman, and I have always felt bad about myself and my body, just like every other woman.” In short, I became aware that the issues I had struggled with were not mine alone; they were shared issues, and part of a society that demeaned us and held us down. At that moment I truly felt that the other women in that room were “sisters.”

But let’s return to Hannah and her “sisters.” In 2013, mainstream fashion opinion would be that Hannah is seriously overweight. Yet during the Renaissance and later, the testament of painters like Titian and Tintoretto, Rubens and Rembrandt would be that she is quite beautiful– indeed, could probably stand to put on a few more pounds. For those whose ideals of beauty were formed in the 1400-1600s, the plague years had taught that a thin body was a sign of dire poverty or terminal illness. Meanwhile “Girls,” makes it clear that although she often feels badly about herself, Hannah can be quite attractive to men—even if the men she attracts are sometimes fairly messed up.

Although Lena Dunham has declared that she “reveres ‘Sex and the City’,” those who see her work as the “anti- ‘Sex and the City’” are perhaps closer to the mark. Female friendships are important in both series, certainly part of their appeal, but the females in “Sex and the City” are obsessed with appearance, clothes, shoes and “getting men”( like the Cosmopolitan girl of my era), whereas the friends in “Girls” are not.

In fact, “Girls’” critique of stereotypical beauty encompasses not just Hannah, but her two more traditionally beautiful friends, Marnie ( Alison Williams) and Jessa Johanssen ( Jemima Kirk). Although these two are sexual magnets for men, their looks often prove more of a curse than a blessing. Neither woman seems able to find a lasting relationship or satisfying work. The strength of “Girls,” among others, is that it stubbornly refuses to glamorize glamor. All these friends are insecure and needy. When Jessa impetuously marries a rich businessman she initially despises, the unhappy outcome is pretty predictable. In a recent episode, Jessa goes to visit her neglectful hippie father and stepmother, and her pose of breezy sophistication completely crumbles.  As she sits on a swing set with her dad, who says “I can’t rely on you,” she is reduced to weeping, “I’m the child. I’m the child.” As for Marnie, when she agrees to “hostess” a private party given by new lover, a celebrated artist, she totally misunderstands his definition of the term. In the end, she too weeps, saying, “I thought I was your girlfriend,” to which he replies “Who said I had a girlfriend?” In short, he sees her doing the same job for him as she does in the restaurant where she works as a hostess.

Dunham’s approach is also liberated because finding a meaningful career is as important to Hannah, and to Marnie (who initially works in an art gallery), as finding a man.  Writing is not just something Hannah does until “a good man comes along;” it’s her driving force. True, she has been raised by coddling 80’s parents who have been all too willing to support her since college— until the first episode, when they mercifully cut her loose and tell her to stand on her own feet.  By the time the series gets underway, Hannah and her friends are all working minimum wage jobs. At the same time, we have confidence that they have the desire to do something more with their lives, and may even ultimately succeed.

Then there’s their sex lives. Maybe it’s the remnants of 50s era prudishness, but I’ll confess that at first I was uncomfortable with how quickly these girls flopped into bed with anyone to whom they were remotely attracted. Although sexual freedom was certainly part of the feminist revolution, sex in “Girls” seems far from joyous; in fact it’s often empty and unsatisfying. What is liberating, however, is that Lena Dunham—and the girls themselves—intuit this as well. One-night stand sex isn’t glorified; it’s often shown to be rather sad. It’s also radical that, at least in Hannah’s case, she tends to be the sexual initiator (“aggressor” would be too strong a word to use for such a tentative young woman). She finds herself attracted to a man she meets in her coffee shop, and follows him to his apartment in order to confess she’s been dumping the coffee shop garbage in his garbage can. Then she impetuously stands on her toes and kisses him. Such boldness would have been unheard of in my own generation. The sex that ensues is great—that is, until Hannah in a state of post-coital bliss decides to confide some of her darker feelings, and it’s clear he can’t wait for her to leave.  In the last scene of the episode, we see her sadly walking away from his apartment, carrying a bag of “garbage” away with her, and once again dumping it in his can.

In the end, “Girls” is an honest, witty and compassionate portrayal of intelligent twenty-something women of a certain class. Criticisms of the class and racial limitations of the series were not particularly assuaged by having two episodes in Season Two where Hannah dates a young African-American, who happens to be a Republican (Dunham’s quirky attempt at rejecting stereotype). But again, this is the reality of their lives; they are white and upper middle class. Dunham is simply being truthful about her own world.

After viewing some of the Botoxed, underfed and overdressed women strutting their stuff on the Oscar Red Carpet the other night (I make exception for genuine beauties like Charlize Theron, who are still willing to display sumptuous Monroe-like bodies), I couldn’t wait to get back to my oddball, authentically rendered “girls:” Hannah, Jessa, Shoshana (still an unhappy virgin in Season One) and Marnie, with their messy lives and loves. May Hannah never lose a pound and keep pounding away at her e-book. May Marnie tell her ego-centric artist to go fly a kite. May Shoshana never lose her child-like honesty with her 30- something boyfriend Ray, whom she is willing to bravely tell “I’m falling in love with you.” May the free-spirited Jessa never return to her rich, conventional husband, and even find a job… unlikely, but one can always hope. Nobody “promises these girls a rose garden,” least of all Lena Dunham, but we continue to view their courageous and flawed efforts at life with compassion and hope.

In his great (if sexist) film “Manhattan”, Woody Allen offers a short list of things that “make life worth living,” among them one of my own favorite novels Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, and “Tracy’s smile.” As an old (and straight) relic of the feminist struggles of the 1970’s, permit me to add just one last item to his list of life’s special wonders: “Hannah’s tush.”

Susan Jhirad a retired English professor from North Shore Community College in Lynn, MA. and a long time political activist and feminist.

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