“Girls,” “Scandal,” and TV’s New Crop of Flawed Women


It’s hard for me to know what to say about Girls. I like it tremendously; yet I think the critiques of its racial politics are valid. I want to give Lena Dunham a lecture (perhaps the lecture I delivered at grad school about being conscious of the blindness of privilege as we write). I want to give her a hug. A nice, fleshy, thank you of a hug. I certainly understand why the show’s supposed applicability to All Girls Ever irks those many viewers who feel no stirrings of kinship for a group of entitled white women moping and pissing around in Brooklyn. But then I (yes, a young white woman in New York) watch the show and feel like Dunham has, by letting her characters be such thoughtless, selfish creatures, found a little bit of my submerged Id and held it up to the light for all to see.

To me, that discomfort and interrogation is a hallmark of quality writing: so perhaps that’s why I can’t help qualifying criticism of Girls, even when it comes out of my own mouth. And perhaps that’s why I find it very hard to totally dismiss the claim that Dunham herself made during her Golden Globes acceptance speech: “This award is for every woman who felt like there wasn’t a space for her. This show has made a space for me.”

Immediately after her speech I saw tweets from people mocking the idea that Dunham, championed by industry players and at that very moment being feted by jeweled Hollywood elites, could ever feel like there wasn’t a space for her. And yet, of course, people with “connections” galore are not absolved from feeling alienated or creating something meaningful, whether in TV or musical or essay form or even in activism, out of that alienation. In fact, feeling alienated is a pretty basic aspect of the human condition, and it’s certainly part of the condition of being a woman who deviates from the cultural norm as Dunham does. And she does, at least in some important ways.

Girls is pioneering mostly in its depictions of sex and female bodies. Rather than being explicitly feminist or political, it’s anthropological, and as such, it works, and even manages to do some provocative stuff. Dunham’s Horvath is a defensive narcissist who challenges our sympathy with her—and our notions of how a woman should look on television. My social media feeds continually shared a manifesto on XoJane about Dunham’s use of her own body that enthused about how revolutionary is the fact that Dunham “gives no fucks” about her nudity, sometimes using it for no reason, other times using it as a running visual gag the way male comedians usually do. Her body and her character’s active (and equally unpretty) sex life reminds us that most women don’t look like models and still “get laid,” which “flies in the face of what we’re taught about female attractiveness.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates essentially makes the same point at the Atlantic:  “What Girls says is ‘Fuck the gaze.’ Lena Dunham ain’t really performing for you.” 

Coates thinks Dunham should keep channeling her narrow swath of life, her fictional study of the creature known as the young Brooklyn lady hipster in her natural habitat, rather than try to incorporate poorly-done racial plotlines for the sake of diversity.  Essentially: Dunham’s variety of whiteness must be treated by its writer and audience alike as a culture, not the culture.

Because when narrow subsets are interpreted as wide, that’s the essence of white privilege, of course, and that privilege the specter that haunts Girls: everything from its title to its early praise indicating a far-reaching quality that doesn’t exist.

Another essence of white privilege? White women like Dunham have always had more cultural elbow room than their counterparts of color to be messes, ditzes, mess-ups, and blind to themselves.

That’s why Girls, despite its creativity, is far from alone in being a pioneering TV vehicle for women, or arguably far from the most pioneering.

Olivia Pope of Scandal, played by Kerry Washington is one of the only women of color starring in a own primetime network vehicle in history; her character is both powerful and morally shaded—she is having an on-off-affair with the President—and the audience for the show is tremendous, particularly on social media. Again: she is a black female character having an affair with the white, married President of the United States, on primetime TV.

The New York Times’ piece about the success of Scandal quoted  Dr. Brittney Cooper on the flaws, and resultant depth, of its lead character:

“The few black women we’ve seen in prime-time roles in scripted shows, they have to be morally above scrutiny, and she’s not,” Dr. Cooper said. In addition to her relationship with the president, Ms. Washington’s character has defended the reputations of dictators, executives and politicians.

“She’s the most complex black female lead we’ve ever seen in prime time,” Dr. Cooper said. “You’re not getting an archetype, you’re not getting a stereotype, you’re getting a fully fledged human being,” she said.

Sound familiar? Scandal is certainly more traditionally-scripted show than Girls—it’s a primetime soap—but the fact that it’s centered around Washington’s character tilts it towards revolutionary. As Michelle Obama and now Beyonce’s defenders point out, black women in the media glare have to struggle with double the barriers, and an almost impossible threshold of prejudice that projects pathology onto them. And yet Olivia Pope manages to be glamorous, mostly competent, powerful and have her own not always wise personal desires too. (I haven’t watched it, but the brand new show Deception which surrounds woman of color investigating her friend’s death shows how quickly the message of Scandal’s success may be getting through.)  Scandal‘s creator, Shonda Rhimes, master of the melodramatic and occasionally maudlin evening soap, is a woman of color herself, and if her new endeavor continues to be successful it could certainly open a new television paradigm.

I’d add that Dunham and Washington are in good company these days. Julianna Margulies’ Alicia Florrick on “The Good Wife, Connie Britton’s Rayna James on Nashville, Claire Danes’ Carrie Mathison on Homeland, all career women, are styled to be chic and sexy like Washington’s Pope. But like Pope they’re all far from devoted wives and moms, and they’re getting leeway from audiences to do some pretty questionable things, from having affairs to being ruthless to associating with some unambiguously shady characters. TV has changed in recent years; before it was a pioneering place for badass older actresses to play badass detective and judges, it’s now really become the roaming ground where negligent and troubled and richly-drawn female characters are at last being freed to play. They can run wild in the field of human experience alongside the big morally flawed yet compelling boys, the Tony Sopranos, the Don Drapers—or compete with Larry David in the field of egotistical pratfalls. We’ve always asked these guys’ female equivalents, haven’t we? Now that we’re getting our wishes, feminists and womanists will have to get used to the new norm of seeing women behaving badly, making choices that may not bolster “the cause.”

From Dunham’s dimples to Washington’s dalliances, will these kinds of modest, imperfect changes, open doors for women of color, queer characters, trans people and others who don’t conform gender-wise? Unclear, given how deep oppressions are rooted in our pop culture. 

But if audiences can overcome their bias towards “excess” female flesh, sex scenes that defy the male gaze, moms ignoring their kids, and a woman of color having the ultimate transgressive relationship, I admit to having a little more hope, a little more space for hope even, than I did before the last few seasons of TV came around.

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Follow Sarah Seltzer on twitter: @sarahmseltzer

  • euphony618

    As a feminist who has a particular interest in media representations of women, one of my priorities has been to see women written as deeply and richly as men. That means no stereotypes but female characters written with flaws, interests, complex personalities and relationships, dreams and skeletons in the closet.

    I haven’t seen Girls, but another show that I can think of with complex female characters is Game of Thrones.

    The only hesitation I have over portraying flawed female characters is that cliched and stereotypical female flaws might bolster sexist narratives. I also tend to wish generosity was a more acceptable character trait. Overall, I look forward to women being written in diverse and complex ways.