THE television program Girls is remarkable for many reasons, not least its authorship by the gallingly young Lena Dunham. At 26, this filmmaker and writer collects achievement like others do parking infringements. By 24, she had written, directed and starred in the well-received feature Tiny Furniture. By 25, she'd received a phone call from Nora Ephron saying ''Let's do lunch'' and an email from Hollywood's most influential comedy director and producer Judd Apatow. ''If you ever want someone to give you a lot of money and screw everything up, we should talk,'' he wrote.
Dunham accepted, signed to broadcast on HBO and nothing was screwed up. Critical success and five Emmy nominations for the splendid Girls followed. And then Random House offered the young auteur $US3.5 million to write a book of humorous essays on ''sex, mortality and food''.
A younger, grittier Sex and the City?
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A younger, grittier Sex and the City?
HBO's Girls is a new, painfully honest series following four twentysomething women trying to survive in New York. Meet writer, driector and star, Lena Dunham.
But, it's not just Dunham's youth and tremendous talent that set her and her work in Girls apart. What makes this milestone in television even more interesting is that the broad and public anticipation for this all-girl production - expectations were set somewhere just south of The Female Eunuch - was then followed by censure from many of Dunham's age-mates. Dunham has been charged, variously, with being unrealistic, impossibly privileged and, worst of all, boring.
But let's start at the beginning, which is, of course, with the program itself.
It is HBO's hands-off production policy that has arguably led to television's second golden age. The cable channel's deference to the auteur has given us The Sopranos, The Wire, Six Feet Under, Game of Thrones and many more universes just as compellingly peculiar as Girls. Here, four young female residents of New York City inhabit a dramedy that is, at times, shocking in its sexual candour.
Hannah Horvath, played by Dunham, eagerly abases herself in the squalid bed of her sort-of boyfriend, Adam, who in one scene fantasises, just before the point of climax, that he is engaged in sex with an underage prostitute. Although Hannah happily complies, this is no Fifty Shades scene of artful domination. It's just bad, if adventurous, sex of the sort often endured but rarely described by people in their 20s.
Dunham gives us an uncertain young woman paralysed in equal part by self-interest and self-doubt. She films herself stripped of her dignity, morals and, quite often, her clothes. We see quite a lot of Hannah having quite a lot of unspectacular sex. Under the stewardship of Judd Apatow, cinema's reigning king of awkward smut, Dunham offers a very funny character with very few flattering angles.
Along with Girls' other central characters Jessa, Marnie and Shoshanna, Hannah takes us on an excruciating tour of the life of a white, tertiary-educated twenty-something woman whose ambition exceeds her talent.
As you might very well imagine, Girls is often described as a recession-era Sex and the City. This is a concise but imperfect comparison; spend some time with protagonist Hannah and you'll soon realise any resemblance to Carrie Bradshaw is scant. Sure, she's a writer who's unlucky in love. But the similarity to Sarah Jessica Parker's glamorous creation ends there.
While Carrie offered something for her generation to envy, Horvath offers something for hers to decode. Carrie was a ''role model'' to which we aspired; Hannah is an art piece to which we apply our critical faculty. Hannah's talent for professional self-sabotage, her neediness and her unbecoming wardrobe recall early Woody Allen. The revulsion she feels for herself is compelling and funny and, very often, the sort of thing one must watch from behind one's hands.
In episode one, Hannah meets with her parents who have flown in from the Midwest to give their daughter some news. Since graduation two years ago from a liberal arts college, expensively educated Hannah is yet to earn a dime. The Horvaths announce they are withdrawing support and suggest their daughter secures employment; Hannah's mother says she is dreaming only of ''buying a f---king lake house!'' Hannah falls apart, has appalling sex with Adam, drinks opium tea and returns to negotiate with her parents for a writing stipend because, after all, ''I may be the voice of my generation''.
It's impossible for middle-class bo-hos not to cringe at the trifles we've all turned into tantrums; at all the self-important Artist Statements we've made to our parents. Hannah is not likeable. She is, however, fascinating.
''Every share-house you've ever been in, every shitty boyfriend you've ever had, every time you've had to ask your parents for money, Dunham has somehow captured all this perfectly.'' So says Mel Buttle, comic and television writer. Thirty-year-old Buttle, nominated in 2010 by The Age for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival's best newcomer award, is transfixed by Dunham's artistry. ''I watch Girls over and over again, enjoying the beautiful writing and how it's shot,'' she says.
Sarinah Masukor, currently researching a PhD in film and television at Monash University, sees Dunham as part of a distinct filmic tradition. ''[She] comes from an art cinema world,'' Masukor says.
It never occurred to Dunham, the HBO auteur, to make anything but ''artistic'' television. ''The Sopranos started when I was in seventh grade,'' she told Time magazine earlier this year. ''I don't remember a time when TV wasn't art.''
With its slow, extended close-ups, joy in visual banality and melancholy lens, Girls is about as artful as television can be. When the television program debuted in the United States and Australia (on Foxtel's Showcase) last May, it enjoyed a time of critical glory.
That lasted most of Monday. By Tuesday, the show, its creator and an entire demographic were held to account for the fall of the Western hemisphere into a slime of bourgeois conceit.
Progressive US publication Mother Jones spared no adverbs. The show is as ''profoundly bland as it is unstoppably irritating''. The Daily Beast was one of hundreds of online publications to note Dunham's failure to depict ''the diversity that makes life in New York City so special for young women''.
Even actor James Franco (Spider-Man, 127 Hours) took the time to carp about Dunham's myopic world. Girls, he said, was full of men he did not resemble.
To be fair, the world is full of men who do not resemble James Franco. This maddening accuracy aside, the raft of complaint about Girls - a show that apparently misrepresented or underrepresented everyone - deserves a little attention. For it tells us something rather general about how we see ladies and their particular responsibilities to art.
Some of the cruellest critique was that Dunham's success was down to favouritism. Gossip site Gawker led the charge towards Dunham's family tree; that both of her parents are visual artists was held as evidence of privilege.
Dunham told The New York Times she was untroubled by the criticism ''because it seemed so rooted in basic human jealousy and dislike of other people's success''. She was more troubled, however, by the rather more serious debate on the matter of ethnic diversity in Girls.
A thousand blogs were lit with rage. The criticisms seemed to be that a progressive young white woman like Dunham was obliged to reflect ethnic diversity. The pop-feminist website Jezebel held that, ''Girls was meant to be different from what we usually see on TV: highly current, thoroughly modern.''
It is curious that amid this months-long controversy, Dunham's chief duty was seen to be to diversity and not comedy.
''Of course comedians can't reflect the universal experience; who can?'' asks veteran comedian and online publisher Wendy Harmer. ''But by bringing their own experience and observations to universal questions, comics give us a way in to topics that are off-limits for others. A comic who's too sensitive to others' feelings is like an ashtray on a motorbike: useless.''
Harmer, a performer often and unfairly attacked for a perceived lack of sensitivity, has received unwelcome instruction in how to be a ''good'' woman comedian from all sides. Although, she says, ''less from the PC brigade [in my stand-up days]''. ''They didn't have Twitter and Facebook back then. Thank Christ.''
The war declared by the media-class on a 10-part comedy series is interesting less for its substance and more for its intensity. Read the furious online criticism of Girls and get an object lesson in virtual democracy. This is what happens when an audience of middle-class digital natives find themselves with a spare evening or two. Born to instant messaging and weaned on Facebook, Dunham's young viewers are not the sort inclined to inaction when it comes to critique of items they consume.
Nonetheless, Dunham said that the debate about her unconscious racism was ''a real gift to me, even if there were moments when it was challenging''.
Masukor agrees. ''Girls started a conversation - and some incoherent rage - about how racism is still deeply ingrained in us, and how that needs to change. I don't think it matters that this wasn't intentional, it's what happened. And having that conversation is a good thing.''
That the internet now provides a sort of ongoing cultural studies seminar is, of course, a wonderful thing. The fusion of adult literacy with an almost childlike single-mindedness can produce great results. From product reviews to the elaborate world of fan-fiction to the obsessions of microblogging platform Tumblr, niche commentary is alive, well and occasionally instructive.
Every so often, though, the critique does its object a disservice. This was certainly the case with Girls. While it is true that Dunham had her own young, white and female experience at the centre of her work, it is also true she is drop-dead funny. And it is certainly true that there have been dozens of comedies - from Flight of the Conchords to Friends - that have as their focus the over-documented story of well-to-do white kids.
Girls stirred outrage incommensurate not only with the size of its audience but with the severity of its sins. This is not, by any means, to dismiss the entirely legitimate hopes many have for more diversity on the monochromatic, male-identified box. It is, however, to suggest that many viewers, even and especially feminist viewers, hold TV's women to an absurdly high moral standard.
It is entirely possible for women to ''fail'' as good feminists and succeed as artists. When writers Marieke Hardy and Kirsty Fisher set about concocting their lady-driven comedy Laid for ABC, about a (white, inner-city) woman whose ex-boyfriends start dropping like flies, ideology didn't really figure.
''Kirsty and I never claimed to be motivated by a feminist agenda when writing Laid,'' says Hardy. ''We wanted to write a f---ing funny, dark, weird show with strong female leads.''
But that particular confluence is so rare on the small screen that when such shows do appear, they are freighted with great expectations.
Before Girls launched, there was near non-stop coverage of the half-hour, single-camera dramedy on US women's sites like Jezebel: hopes were that it would be everything to everyone. When it wasn't, feminist writers were among the most ardent critics of a show they felt let an entire gender and generation down.
''It's so unusual for young women to see a young woman in Dunham's position - writing and directing her own show on mainstream television - that we all wanted her to speak for us. And that's impossible,'' says Masukor.
Dunham is an auteur who speaks for herself. That her lens is trained on her own minute world is Girls' strength; not its weakness. A more diverse participation in Girls would, of course, have been marvellous. But to hold this intimate, artfully self-absorbed work up to a moral register is a little hypocritical. Unless, of course, you're going to do it to Woody Allen, Charlie Kaufman and Judd Apatow as well.
Hannah tells her parents: ''I may be the voice of my generation.'' But then she corrects herself: ''Well, I may be a voice of a generation''.
The world depicted by Dunham is tiny. Her capacity to acknowledge this, however, is not. It is in this gap formed by uncertainty that this remarkable filmmaker will grow. Watch her emergence with Girls.
Season one of Girls will be released on DVD on December 12. Season two will screen on Foxtel in January.