Can you find something entertaining and appalling at the same time? I think so. At least, I feel that way about the HBO show Girls, which I watched consistently in its first season even as I hated pretty much everything about it. Girls, it seemed to me, was basically a cable sitcom: ostensibly racy and alternative, it was actually predictable, formulaic, and conventional. And yet the culture vultures of the media world deemed it important, meaningful, pathbreaking. Why? Allegedly it was dark. It showed mildly graphic sex, some of which deviated from the missionary position. Its characters live in Brooklyn. Several of them are alienated. Girls was, according to New York magazine, the “ballsiest show on TV.”
Girls was often compared to and contrasted favorably with Sex in the City, another entertaining but appalling show (totally different reasons). It was the anti-Sex in the City!
Let me, if not start the backlash, at least be an early adopter.
It felt to me that Girls was, in pretty much all the important ways, fundamentally the same as Sex in the City. Narcissistic, insular, self-referential; if anything, it was relevant to a smaller fraction of the world than even Sex in the City was. And it seemed to me that, at least in its early days, Sex in the City was bolder and more radical than Girls; though the cougar is a cliche now, that character of Samantha—the older woman who pursued hedonistic, guilt-free sex and wasn’t actually punished for it—was novel when the show first started.
And I’ll admit, the real-life character of Lena Dunham irritated the crap out of me. Was she really anything more than a young woman who who really has her act together (which is to her credit) pretending not to have her act together so that she can climb the ladder of fame and fortune? Did I really need to read about her dysfunctional relationships in the New Yorker? Did she really just sell a book in which she discusses her vagina for $4 million? Did Time really just name her the “coolest” person of 2012?
You know that you’re in trouble when Time dubs you cool.
But this Washington Post essay by Katharine Boyle, Why Lena Dunham is a Kardashian at Heart, strikes me as perhaps the smartest piece of writing about Girls that I’ve yet seen.
(Close second: John Cooke’s Gawker recaps. ‘Laurie Simmons’ daughter is worried about what will happen to Brian Williams’ daughter…..’)
Boyle argues that, although the media elite has anointed Dunham as the queen of smart and Kardashian as a tacky ho, the two are in fact quite similar.
Dunham, 26, is an Emmy-nominated writer, director and actress schooled in feminist theory. Kardashian, 32, is a reality-TV star who spells “classy” with a K. But Dunham is following the Kardashian business model: Overshare, overexpose and become famous for being you.
Yes! Go on!
[But] without the witty dialogue and Golden Globe nominations [of Girls], you’re essentially watching “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.” The highbrow “Girls” characters joke about the perils of sexting, just like the Kardashian women do. The girls mock Hannah’s tiny breasts — and the camera fixates on them — in the same way the Kardashian sisters make fun of Kim’s posterior….
Me? I’m no huge fan of Kim Kardashian, but there is certainly a part of me that admires how she has taken what assets she has and turned them into what she apparently wants: money, (cultural) power and fame. You can’t be a complete idiot and have done this as well as she has. What really separates Dunham and Kardashian is class—not so much economic, as both Kardashian and Dunham come from privileged backgrounds, as cultural. Kardashian is LA, Dunham New York. Dunham went to St. Anne’s school in Brooklyn and artsy-fartsy Oberlin; she claims to be a Mayflower descendant. Kardashian graduated high school—no college—and her dad defended O.J. Simpson. Kardashian made a sex tape which you can watch for $4.95; Dunham is writing a book, and when Gawker got its hands and posted her absurd proposal, she had her lawyer force the website to take it down. Kardashian is dating a hip-hop star; Dunham, the guitar player from the quirky pop band, fun.. Kardashian has breast implants; Dunham has small breasts. Kardashion is E!; Dunham, HBO.
But I wonder if Kardashian isn’t actually a greater feminist than Dunham: She’s completely comfortable with success, with wielding power, with making money; you know that she’d look at the girls of Girls and say, What are you complaining about? Why are you so whiny? Do something!
And, in fact, the women of Sex in the City were greater feminists than the girls of Girls. One was a lawyer; one owned a P.R. firm; one was a successful writer! These women may have had troubles in love, but they had jobs, and they were good at them.
Boyle comes to a conclusion that I think is a little simplified, but it’s absolutely worth consideration:
Both Dunham and Kardashian prove the sad fact that exposure, superfluous nudity and calculated self-humiliation, even when drenched in irony, are the most valuable commodities women can sell. And whether they’re deemed highbrow or lowbrow, brilliant or vacuous, sharing and baring all beget book deals and beauty lines.
Maybe so. In which case, isn’t it weird that Lena Dunham is the coolest person of the year, while Kim Kardashian is so consistently on the cultural outs?