I’m pretty sure that Lena Dunham was unknown to most of the world before her 2010 feature film, Tiny Furniture, was an award winner at SXSW. Dunham, only 24 at the time, showed more than just the moxie to get a film done for $50,000. Her film wasn’t typical of its kind; while it looked like an improvisational film made by friends for friends, it was scripted, and the photography in particular was almost always perfect. Her success led to a deal with HBO, resulting in Girls, the tale of four women in their 20s finding their way in New York City.
The pilot shared much of the attitude (and cast) of Tiny Furniture. Dunham is once again the star as well as the writer. While she has a strong feel for the environment of her characters, and while she approaches them with a certain fondness, she isn’t afraid to show them (or herself) at something less than their best. In this, Girls is a bit reminiscent of Portlandia, another show that loves the targets it skewers. Girls doesn’t really skewer … it is more gentle than Portlandia in that way. But the characters are self-absorbed enough that I can imagine some people watching ten minutes and deciding there were better things to do than to hang out with these folks.
Still, Dunham is up to something here, turning certain stereotypes on their heads. Alyssa Rosenberg gets to the point in her piece, “‘Girls’: Are We Actually Ready for Female Anti-Heroes?” Rosenberg argues that the typical male anti-heroes act like guys, only more so. When female anti-heroes enter the popular consciousness, it is generally by acting more “like guys” as well. But Dunham is dealing in anti-heroes who are like typical females, only more so:
Passivity, and dependence are all traits that we find humiliating, no matter the proportions they come in, while decisiveness, activity, and standing on principal are all traits we have positive associations with, and so we’re attracted to the people who exhibit them, even when they’re wildly misapplied. The former set of traits is coded as female, the latter as masculine. It’s one thing to respond to a female anti-heroine who is defined as such by her masculinized behavior, whether it’s Sarah Linden’s single-minded focus on her career and bad mothering in pursuit thereof, or Cersei Lannister’s impressive cruelty. Whether a mass audience is ready to embrace a female anti-hero whose anti-heroicness is defined by an overabundance of negatively-coded feminine traits is another question entirely.
Rosenberg loves Girls, and it is clear she would love for the masses to love Girls as well. But to the extent Girls doesn’t work for the masses, it may be due to the uncompromising way Dunham creates anti-heroes who are women, not pretend men. Rosenberg’s words also ring true to me, because I know I am attracted to the anti-heroine with masculinized behavior (I love bad-ass women), and it’s good to see another kind of female heroism, even anti-heroism, take hold.
For now, Lena Dunham seems to be on a career trajectory similar in some ways to Diablo Cody’s. But Dunham is nowhere near as self-consciously hip, which I’m betting means Girls will have less flash but more staying power than Cody’s work (although admittedly, United States of Tara did OK for itself over the course of three seasons).
Grade for pilot: B+.