Being messy, clumsy, and boozy isn't exactly new territory for “funny” women on TV. So why do we keep falling into the same tired tropes?
Marnie (Alison Williams), Hanna (Lena Dunham) and a cupcake (itself) in the shower.
Aside from being exceptionally joyless and hollow (traits I’d somewhat expected, given the way I felt watching Lena Dunham’s 2010 movie "Tiny Furniture"), the "Girls" premiere showed me things I already know to expect from years spent watching TV and movies. There is disturbing sex and the haunting feeling that I’m supposed to find it funny. There is female friendship that feels much more hollow than the kind I’m familiar with. The whiteness and privilege is wall-to-wall. There is food being conspicuously consumed, which I guess is supposed to make me hum with recognition, all, “Hey, that lady eats food and so do I. Sisterhood.”
No single TV show can be everything to everyone, and perhaps that’s the main thing driving me so batty about "Girls." Who made me feel like it was my show? Why did I fall for this AGAIN? Give us more to work with and the shows won’t HAVE to be perfect. Given a slew of TV shows written and led by women, we wouldn’t have to sit breathless and anxious in front of our televisions, hoping that this chance isn’t our last. Don’t send us back to the minors – we promise we’ll be funnier next time.
But for right now, we have "Girls," and it arrives on the heels of what feels like a 10-year wave in what we might call “Lady Humiliation Comedy.” This is the surprisingly pervasive technique in which girl characters are made “funny” exclusively by being written as people who fall down a lot, or get food on their faces constantly, or put up with the antics of their sexist dirt-bag boyfriends, or get their skirts hooked under their underwear in public. (Along the same lines, Mindy Kaling has outlined the specimens of women in rom-coms who don't exist in real life, including The Klutz, The Ethereal Weirdo and The Sassy Best Friend.) There is nothing inherently wrong with a female character embarrassing herself now and again — and I want nothing less than I want a female character that never makes a mistake — but the device becomes worrisome when it stands in entirely for character development and a genuine sense of humor. Are we most comfortable with women in comedy when the funny is being done to them rather than coming from them?
Even the things on "Girls" clearly designed to feel “new” and edgy felt painfully familiar. The sex scene – uncomfortably degrading – might be “realer” sex than what we saw on, say, "Sex and the City," but I resent the idea that I’m supposed to find it funny because someone’s being debased. Food and drugs are conspicuously and sloppily consumed, which is fine – and real, even! Women be eatin’ – but being messy, clumsy, and boozy isn’t exactly new territory for “funny” women on TV.
It isn’t particularly revolutionary or challenging to tell a story about a pretty white woman who is always dropping things into men’s laps, no matter what every Kate Hudson/Sandra Bullock/Jennifer Aniston character would have you believe. Nor do I find it “refreshingly real” to watch a woman leap onto the lap of a man who tells her that he wants her to be his slave (!), have terrible and humiliating sex with that man, and know, just be so sure, that she’ll be following him around for episodes to come. This isn’t news. This is what we’ve been working with for years.
Dunham is clearly not untalented or unfunny. Her show might not be for me, because I’m weird about not enjoying watching female characters that I’m supposed to relate to both being treated like shit and acting like shit at every turn. If we are not a match, that is okay.
But please don’t let this be a sign of things to come — or, more accurately, to continue. There are literally thousands (probably millions; I’m not sure how this could be counted) of other ways for girl characters to be funny without relying on writing in their humiliation. Let there be more shows about girls – nay, women! – whose stature as Women In Comedy derives not from their accidents but from their intentions. Being funny while female isn’t about mistakes, at least not totally; it can (and should) be about the things we do and say on purpose. Just because we’re that goddamn funny.