Thursday, February 20, 2014

Reactions to Girls and Breaking Bad: Auteur TV, White Privilege, and Gender

After the most recent episode of Girls, “Beach House,” I've started to wonder if I'm watching the show wrong. I knew that there was a lot of hate for the show, but this season more than ever I wonder if the show itself wants me to hate its characters and, by extension, only enjoy the show when other characters are criticizing the girls or they're lighting into each other, in both cases as proxies for “the audience.”

Even though with every season, and this season with every episode, I'm less sure how to respond to the show, I'll say this for it: it's a radical experiment in tone. It's common for sitcoms to feature protagonists that you love to hate, from the lowbrow Archie Bunker to the highbrow Frasier Crane and from the cast of Seinfeld to innumerable British sitcom examples. The way it works is that you know the character or characters are loathsome but you enjoy watching them out of what's basically sadism (play is the only thing that distinguishes comedy from sadism, as Northrop Frye put it): you enjoy watching them make themselves and others suffer, and often enjoy their outrageousness while they do it. This is not the same trope, by the way, as the socially incorrect character in a group comedy, who wins the audience's love, without any hate, by doing and saying things you aren't supposed to do and say, even though the creators may intend him (it's usually him) as a criticism of what they're portraying: Alex P. Keaton, Barney Stinson, and, of course, the greatest of them all, Bender on Futurama. Sheldon Cooper is this type as well, although he's not a criticism of anything but rather a representation of a popular idea of autism.

The first thing that makes Girls different is that it doesn't seem to have won any love-hate for its characters: as one can plainly see all over the internet, a vocal portion of its audience just hates them, period, as if those viewers are watching a reality TV show where they can't find any characters to root for (except the men a little, sometimes). The second thing that makes it different is that Dunham and co. then ask us to sympathize with the characters anyway in their trials with relationships, jobs, their friendships, body image, mental health, etc., making far more soap operatic (and dramatic) demands on the viewer's emotions than most sitcoms. When sitcoms go into dramatic territory they usually change their tone to do it, and become sentimental, but Girls is never sentimental, and when it goes dramatic it just goes even darker than the comedy.

I continue to basically sympathize with the main characters, Hannah and Marnie, because I can identify with them as social types, and as the show goes on it starts to seem like they are two sides of one woman (their creator presumably). Shosh and Jessa are the “zanies”: Jessa is The Bender, the straight-up sociopath who's easy to love because, being rich, she gets away with everything and doesn't call for a complicated reaction; Shosh is The Phoebe, who seems like a ditz from another dimension most of the time but has a harder edge than any other member of the group and is the only one who'll let them know what morons they are. What's interesting about Jessa is that she's not, as she so easily could be, just a portrayal of a rich bitch who takes people's lives apart because of her own boredom, emptiness, unhappiness, and immunity to consequences. The show allows her to be that but also to be occasionally wise, although as with its other resident wise character, Adam, it's hard to know where the wisdom stops and the bullshit begins.

Girls, Awkward Black Girl, and Women's Fiction

Ray, we learned last week, thought he was “too wise for grad school,” definitely an example of bullshit masquerading as wisdom. Neither wise nor sociopathic, Ray has transformed from his humble beginnings as Charlie's bitches-hating homeboy into the show's heart, and a lot of credit for that must surely go to the marvellous Alex Karpovsky, who manages to make the most assholish things his character has to say seem to come from a place of sensitivity and pain. The show's writing needs more actors like this, who can bring the sense of a whole human being to the often one-note meanness of the dialogue.

In Season 3, more than ever, it feels like the two remaining main male characters are emotional ballasts for Hannah and Marnie, now that Adam's post-Hannah tailspin is in the past. Early in the first season, Hannah fantasized out loud about wanting to have AIDS; this was a fantasy about having no responsibility, so that no one could ask or expect anything from you and could only take care of you. In the second season she had a new version of that fantasy, with Patrick Wilson as her rich and handsome caregiver. By the end of the season she was living it out in a different way by becoming very, very ill, and although Adam coming to her rescue (she shuts out Marnie and she's abandoned by Jessa) seemed, at the beginning of Season 3, like only a momentary solution after all, the fantasy continues beneath the surface. I get that Dunham wants to make the point that female friendships aren't always like Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, just like she wants to make the point that everyone doesn't have a Victoria's Secret body, but instead of counselling self-reliance as the alternative to placing destructive expectations on your friendships, she seems to counsel reliance on men (or, at least, on romantic relationships). Make no mistake, the climactic line of the big “Beach House” argument, Hannah's “I miss my boyfriend,” wasn't just a slap in Marnie's face, it was an Oedipal knife in the heart of Mama Feminism.

In my last post I talked about how the kind of privileged white girlness shown on Girls and its simultaneous celebration and critique can be traced back at least to Jane Austen's Emma, and Anne Helen Peterson LA Review of Books piece on Marnie, subtitled “Pretty Girl Privilege,” backs up my point while failing to recognize that “The Marnie” is not a type of real person but rather a trope of fiction. And it's fascinating, and a little disheartening, to see the extent to which cutting-edge women's fiction of the early 21st century relies on tropes that were used by Austen in the early 19th century. The Austenian core of Girls is the reason that the male love interests are more mature, older-acting (remember Adam's “Kid” nickname for Hannah) or actually older than the girls, and often take a tutelary stance towards them, which includes speaking criticism to privilege. This does not preclude sometimes siding with the “unruly” girls and finding the “grown-up” men tedious, as I suggested that you could when watching the “Dead Inside” episode. I also, however, tried to make a comparison between the men's finger-wagging attitude in that episode and Skyler's relationship with Walter in Breaking Bad, but that was a really big stretch. Fans of Breaking Bad will let you know that when women call men on their bullshit, it's “nagging” and “being a bitch,” while the hate-watchers of Girls (who can be found, for example, in the comments section of The AV Club, under the thoughtful and sensitive weekly reviews of Todd VanDerWerff) will let you know that when men criticize women, it's calling them on their bullshit.

Hannah dreams of a Mr. Darcy that looks like Patrick Wilson, but gets a sort of Heathcliff/Mr. Rochester brooding Gothic weirdo/soul mate, who, in Season 2, stalks her like Caspar Goodwood. But Marnie, who's way more of an Emma than Hannah is an Elizabeth, gets a proper Mr. Knightley in Ray. I mean, surely today Mr. Knightley would be a Classics Ph.D. drop-out-turned-coffee shop manager. And this young-ditzy-woman/older-wise-man love relationship ideal may even be conscious on the part of Dunham, who's namechecked Clueless as being among her influences.

The tropes of Austen, or perhaps one should just say women's fiction as it has been since at least the 19th century, also seem to haunt Issa Rae's addictive web series The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl. When the show begins, the heroine, J, has two problems that most of us have experienced: she's single and she hates her job. In the first season, she's coached by her best friend to find love, which results in a whole season where she must try to choose between two men, Jay White, whom she nicknames “White Jay” for obvious reasons, and her black co-worker Fred. At the end of the first season, she realizes which man she really wants in an Elizabeth Bennet-style epiphany. But there are no real obstacles to the eventual relationship, not even J's own psychology. The who-will-she-choose suspense is generated entirely by the serial format: as befitting the microscopic storytelling of the webisode, the tropes of Awkward Black Girl are in their simplest and most basic form (the inventiveness and originality come into play with the comedy and the POV). What fascinates me is how compelling they are in that form.

George Eliot's Pretty Girls Issues

More even than Emma Woodhouse, in “Pretty Girl Privilege” Petersen is describing a Gwendolen Harleth:

There are Marnies all over the contemporary media, they just get everything that we've been conditioned to expect their looks, class, and education level meriting: outrageous success, perfect happiness.... The implicit message of these Marnies? If you work hard - if you have great hair – you will get the things to which you are entitled. The job, the boy, the body, all yours, simply through the force of your American will. You don't have to have charisma, per se, or even superlative, well, anything – you just have to let things happen.... You're a pretty, skinny, moderately intelligent girl, and every piece of media you've consumed has told you that your life would go one way.

Seriously, did Petersen have the heroine of George Eliot's Daniel Deronda in the back of her mind when she wrote this? And was she thinking of Harold Bloom's “Heroines of the Protestant Will,” a banner under which he includes Gwendolen as well as Emma and Elizabeth, when she wrote the phrase “your American will”? Eliot, who was beauty, had some deep-seated pretty girl issues that she took out on Rosamond Vincy in Middlemarch, whose vapid social climbing and overspending ruin the idealistic genius husband with whom she's grievously mismatched, and on Gwendolen, who learns, in Petersen's words about Marnie:

Only WAIT A SECOND, that's all bullshit, because American is neither a meritocracy nor a prettitocracy: it's all about connections, and no one in New York cares if you went to Oberlin and your mom has a solid upper middle class job as a real estate agent in New Jersey. Marnie spent so much of her life thinking that things would work out when she graduated that she forgot to actually become something.

To translate this into the terms of Eliot's Victorian novel: in ways that Simone de Beauvoir would understand perfectly, Gwendolen has been warped into a pathological narcissist (and neurotic) by being treated all of her life as perfect because she's, precisely, “pretty, skinny, moderately intelligent,” oh and rich, and she has been given her way in everything. She has been celebrated for who she is, immanently, without ever having to become anything, since it was never expected that she would have to be anything other than a socialite. When she learns that she's no longer rich, she at first thinks that she can support herself and her mother using one of her minor accomplishments, singing, and asks for the appraisal of an expert, who informs her that she has neither skill nor talent – a little like Marnie's YouTube video experience.

Girls is dealing with the echoes of these privileged white girl tropes from 19th century fiction even though, as I suggested in my last post, the circumstances that created the tropes have changed. Marnie has not been brought up to think that she will never have to earn a living, but she has, more vaguely and insidiously, been brought up to think, as Petersen says, that she will be a success. Because it can be deduced from her whiteness, prettiness, skinniness, and economic privilege that she will be a success, she has never had to work hard at developing any particular skill, including singing. And now she has to face the fact – if any of the girls were able to face any facts – that she is ordinary. Yet surely it's that sense of entitlement, that indomitable, irrational sense that she is better than all of this, better than her circumstances, that makes her attractive to Ray? 

It's interesting to compare the ways in which white girls feel entitled to the ways in white guys feel entitled, and the different reactions their privilege receives. Todd VanDerWerff wrote a piece for Salon on white male privilege in Breaking Bad in which his description of Walter White's entitlement sounds a lot like Petersen's description of Marnie's:

Walt's justifications for why he should have what he wants stem almost entirely from believing that he's owed in some way, that the universe has screwed him over. Yet when the series begins, he has a pretty good life. He has a beautiful wife, a loving son, a baby on the way, and a house with a swimming pool. Maybe he doesn't like either of his jobs, but who does? And when he gets cancer, old friends who feel a debt to him offer to pay for the treatments. Yet all Walt needs is the slightest provocation to look around himself, reach out for anything within reach, and cry out, "I want that!" like a spoiled toddler. 

Since writing my last post it occurred to me that a white girl defending white girls (“We're not all upper middle class! And even those who are have problems too!”) was as hypocritical and ludicrous as the white guys who whine about the bad name they seem to have with women and non-whites. And yet although it should be the same thing, in the context of premium cable TV viewing, bizarrely, it's not, because no one is hate-watching Breaking Bad, or any other TV show, in order to seethe and rail at the examples of white male privilege on display and to wait for those moments when the women call the men on their bullshit. On the contrary, the seething and railing going on are against any criticism of the show, or not the show (because VanDerWerff thinks it's self-aware), but rather Walter White himself, by fans, as one can see in the comments on the piece. It's hysterical hero-worship of Kurt Cobain intensity – and every Cobain, or stricken king, needs a Courtney/Yoko/Skyler. The show may be self-aware, but at the mythic level it's structurally misogynous.

White male privilege, as Walter White shows, involves thinking you're owed a fortune for your super-competence, while white female privilege (as we'd call it if we weren't stuck on that quasi-reclaimed pejorative “girl”), as demonstrated by Marnie, involves thinking you're owed the perfect life for your attractive appearance. Hannah Horvath (yay for TV protagonists with same-consonant-initials!), on the other hand, does think she's potentially a genius, but of course that's just more privilege and “self-absorption.” White women also, one notes, do not, as a trope, react to not getting what they think they're owed in life with a rage rampage, presumably because until recently, women had to get what they wanted in life through a husband or lovers. In noir, the trope is that if she couldn't get what she wants through her husband, she has to use her lover to get rid of the husband for her. She can't act directly but must always act by proxy. Even Scarlett O'Hara, the most direct and action-oriented of all the privileged white girls of fiction (she even get to shoot a man to protect her household), is forced to marry her sister's beau in order to save Tara since she can't just go into business for herself.

Up to this point, most TV, like most European and American fiction, has been about white privilege. Auteur TV seems to be calling attention to this in a new way, maybe because educated people are taking it seriously enough to analyze it, and maybe because it reflects the fantasies of a mostly affluent viewership more directly and visibly/audibly (through vivid cultural discussion and colourful internet commentary) than contemporary fiction does. These fantasies at the moment revolve around the idea of a broken-down economy and the sun setting on America and the American promise: the heirs and heiresses of all the ages growing up to discover that the fortune they thought would be theirs has been lost. And yet, somehow, we only get mad at the girls for their expectations. I do understand that this hatred of “bratty” white girls is the flip side of our purely symbolic overvaluation of them, which has been critically investigated, and simultaneously promulgated, in Anglo-American literature, movies, and TV from Clarissa Harlowe to Daisy Buchanan to Melanie Daniels to Laura Palmer.

Girls is a more subtle a show than it sometimes seems, and “Beach House” was very much the answer to “One Man's Trash” from last season, this time focused on Marnie and her fantasies instead of Hannah and hers. In both cases, a beautiful house that does not belong to the Girls, whose material splendour is emotionally reassuring (like the manor houses in Austen), plays a central role in the episode. But while Hannah gets her perfect couple of days, isolated from the rest of the world and her concerns, with one perfect man entirely focused on her, and only punctures the fantasy towards the end, Marnie isn't allowed the private “healing time” that she wants to her friends, largely due to Hannah's resistance. Hannah's fantasy is to be taken care of, even to the point, in the words of Jane Bowles, where “everything is taken off your hands and you flop around like a baby.” Marnie's fantasy is to be surrounded by friends who love her, or, failing that, to convey the image of it on Instagram. Although I wouldn't go as far as Chuck Bowen, who, in a lovely review on the Slant blog, calls Marnie “the center of Girls's empathetic imagination,” there's no doubt that the episode imbues her with a certain pathos: she's a latter-day Mrs. Dalloway whose recalcitrantly real friends (in a strain of Dunham's imagination that's been with the show from the beginning) just won't get on board with her aesthetic vision of the perfect moment.

I suggested in my V. C. Andrews post that very young women who are still in the process of forming their own opinions pick up the cultural signals that tell them to devalue women and obey them with the ferocity of zealots. I hear that same voice in comments and on blog posts in which female viewers criticize the characters on Girls for their narcissism, self-absorption, selfishness, privilege, and so on and so forth. Again, I just don't see young men watching shows about young men who do not live up to the cultural ideal of what men should be in order to berate the characters for their non-compliance, although maybe that's happening in some corner of popular culture that I'm not aware of. If Marnie and Hannah are two sides of one woman, they're Superego and Id, or the woman you're supposed to be and the woman who rebels (to the point of spending an entire episode/day in a green bikini that exhibits her ample cellulite to the world) against being that woman. And here's one genuine point of connection between Breaking Bad and Girls besides all of the white privilege: they're locked in a love-hate combat as brutal as Walt and Jesse's. 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Vogue-Jezebel Lena Dunham Dust Up

So we all know by now that the popular feminist site Jezebel offered $10, 000 for the unretouched photos from Lena Dunham's shoot for this month's issue of Vogue. If you cared about that, you will also have learned that Jezebel's readership did not take kindly to what they interpreted as mean-girling, concern-trolling, anti-woman click bait. It may have been a sad day for pop feminism when Jezebel posted that article, but it became a happy day when the readership decided they wouldn't put up with it. And surely it's the least we can ask from feminism that it not do anything that can be interpreted as bullying and shaming a woman who's in the public eye. Or at any rate, isn't it kind of sweet that we develop these protective feelings towards female celebrities when we think they've taken too much shit – from men and women, critics and internet trolls? It almost seems like there's a wave of girl-bashing every few months, followed by the backlash. And I've jumped to the defense of them all over the years: Courtney, Britney, Amy, Lana, Miley. I even watched The Simple Life, and thought it was pretty funny.

There's always an “it” girl, someone we can't stop talking about, that we're obsessed with as a culture. We ogle, we nitpick, attack her appearance, laugh at her if she's supposed to be dumb, dismiss her as a “hipster” if she's smart. She's not the girl that everyone can agree to like, who's often presented as her opposite, like Lorde and Miley Cyrus, as if all women come in contrasting pairs, a Good Example and a Bad Example. The “it” girl phenomenon is perhaps partly the result of pop culture being pretty much wall-to-wall men (with eye candy hanging on the walls*), so that we can only think about one woman at a time, and partly the result of the general public (or mostly women?) projecting soap opera narratives onto the private lives and psyches of female celebrities in a way we just don't for men. The backlash is the result of men and women needing to decide on what represents acceptable femininity. If I say “I like this girl” or “I don't like this girl,” it is momentous, because I'm deciding on the kind of woman I want to be; and whatever side I choose, you can be sure I think I'm righteous, because of how, you know, civilization itself is at stake.

This is sort of a companion piece to my post on the David Gilmour PR fiasco. Anyway, I've pulled out the numbered list again. 

I'm Thinking of a Woman Called Jezebel, Who Did Evil in the Sight of God...”

1. Lena Dunham is an ordinary-looking woman, say some. Or, is she a hideous beast? According to others. Or is she in fact a better-than-average-looking woman? Which, I'd contend (like Bette Davis before her – or is Judy Garland the better comparison?), in some ways she is. She has celebrity charisma and an appealing clown face, excellent (as well as her slumped clown body) for comedy, that reminds me above all of Giulietta Masina.

2. Jezebel was trying to humiliate her by scrutinizing the appearance flaws in her unretouched photos. Or – Jezebel didn't think they're flaws. They thought that Vogue thought they were flaws. Jezebel thinks she looks fine without retouching! Only none of the commenters believe that. But does that mean that they think Dunham is a hideous beast, or that they think that Jezebel thinks that, whereas they think that Dunham looks fine? Is it possible for anybody to come out of this without admitting that they don't think Dunham looks fine?

3. Is it different to compare before-and-after photos of models or sex symbols and to do it with Dunham? Is is ever valiant to educate the public by showing the unrealistic standards to which the media holds women's appearance? Relatedly, in the episode of Girls where Hannah finds out her e-book editor died, I got the fullest view of Dunham's body in a while, standing up in nothing but panties, with nothing obscuring it, and I was surprised to see that she's bigger than I remembered, or thought she was from viewing her clothed figure. BUT. Take a look at Catherine Deneueve in Belle de Jour (1967), when she was considered one of the most beautiful women in the world. By today's toned, retouched, and implanted standards, she's chunky and small-breasted. THEN AGAIN. Check out Cary Grant in his shirtless scene in North by Northwest (1959). Half a century ago, that was fan service for the ladies, but by today's cruel standards, he looks skinny, saggy-breasted, and undefined. (He's also got a real Dunhamesque case of slope-shoulders.)

Not good enough!

4. Also, please note, people, that even the greatest beauties in history have facial flaws that were removed from sight so that their beauty could enter the realm of art and fantasy, where it rightfully belonged. Did you want to see Vivien Leigh play Scarlett O'Hara with a moustache? Even if it would make you feel better about your own femmestache? (Saw the before and afters in a book on Gone With the Wind. Also removed: eyebags. That was a long and stressful shoot.)

5. Why this idea by both Jezebel and some of Dunham's defenders in the comments that the unretouched photos show what she “really” looks like? There's no “really looks like” to a photo. A photo can be flattering or unflattering, depending on lighting and angles. On top of which some people are photogenic and some are not despite being attractive in person. I sure hope my worst “somebody tagged you” Facebook photos aren't what I “really look like.” On the other hand, there is such a thing as retouching beyond recognition, or to the point of inhuman flawlessness.

6. It's not exactly that male celebrities are allowed to be more flawed. Things like wrinkles aren't considered flaws on men; they lend gravitas, which is considered attractive in men, whereas women are supposed to always look like they did at peak baby-making time. I'm sure that nevertheless magazines retouch the hell out of pictures of male celebrities, they just get to leave certain things in. And we're used to seeing a greater variety in men's appearance in the media, from exceptionally handsome to average to sloppy, because the role of women in the media is still largely to be eye candy for men, and if they are also actors, or singer-songwriters, or comedians, they are still expected to be eye candy on top of that.

7. Is Dunham a hypocrite? Is she's all for body positivity, why appear in evil Vogue, which conspires to hold women to an impossible ideal? Well, I hope it's because Lena Dunham loves Vogue. I certainly did as a teenager and in my early 20s, back when I emulated current high fashion on a budget by shopping in thrift stores. After I stopped expressing my creativity through my clothing, I also stopped buying fashion magazines; the Dunham cover is the first time I've picked one up in maybe a decade. I was more interested in the clothes than in the models, although I loved Kate Moss like everyone else. But there's nothing wrong with beauty. And while it would be great to see Vogue expand its notion of beauty a little (beyond “anorexic 19-year-old”), photo retouching has not become oppressive for women because of the fashion magazines, but because everywhere in the media women are held to that standard.

8. Speaking of Kate Moss, unleashed photo retouching has allowed supermodels to have careers that go on forever and ever. This is good for the models, but not so good for women in general, since the effect is that, more than ever, we're not allowed to age.

9. The effect of all of this is that we have actually forgotten what real women look like. And I don't mean some ideal “real woman,” who is somehow more “essentially womanly” because she's heavier-set, say. I mean “real woman” as opposed to a made-up media ideal. And a lot of the Dunham hate coming from men on the internet is because men, too, have been brainwashed into thinking that women ought to look like women on TV, in movies, in magazines, and in ads... oh and porn. And yes, that has to stop, and on her show, Dunham is trying to help put a stop to it. We, men and women, have to be able to look at a physically imperfect woman in the media without freaking out and thinking she's a monster.

10. Carol Burnett was a funny-looking comedian. Did she take this much crap, or was there a time when women didn't have to be hawt to be on TV? What about Mayim Bialik over on The Big Bang Theory? My impression is that she's a very popular character, and while the show sometimes calls attention to the fact that she's less hawt than the two other main female characters, it never makes her the butt of jokes based on her looks, and she is definitely presented as sexually viable (albeit also frustrated because she's dating the asexual Sheldon). Why does she get away with playing a female nerd, and Dunham doesn't? Conversely, why don't we hear about everything that Bialik is doing for female body image?

Rocking the cardie for comedy

11. I understand that by confronting us with her naked body a lot on Girls, Dunham is desensitizing us to what a real woman's body looks like, and that's a good thing. That said, I don't necessarily want to see imperfect naked male bodies on TV, either. For example, I have a big crush on Jason Schwartzman which I'm pretty sure would only be negatively impacted by constantly seeing him undressed on a TV show. Yes, we're used to seeing a lot of average-looking men on TV, but then again, George Costanza kept his clothes on**. Well, mostly.

Ilu, and because ilu, I will try to forget I saw this

Naked for comedy. I can never forget I saw this

12. This idea we have, by the way, that you can't say or imply that a woman is less than lovely without causing irreparable psychological damage and being a brute – where does that come from? It seems to have been behind the irate reaction of Dunham's producers to a reporter who questioned her about her nudity on Girls, another Dunham story that was all over the internet recently. Dunham goes out of her way to look awful on Girls, while cleaning up nicely in her (public) private life and making an effort to look pretty, because, some women (obviously not Hannah Horvath) like to do that sometimes. It's a sad day for a comedian when your fans and even your producers feel that they have to jump in and reassure you that you're beautiful all of the time. Pretty sure Jason Alexander does not inspire, or require, this reaction, or Woody Allen. And all it does is reinforce the idea that appearance and desirability are a woman's most important attributes.

13. Likewise, every time someone reacts to criticism of Dunham's appearance by objecting, “But Lena Dunham isn't ugly – she's cute!” or “But Lena Dunham isn't fat – she's average!”, my immediate thought is, “Well then, what about the women who are ugly and are fat. Do they not deserve to be represented in the media? And would they deserve the hateful attacks that you are saying Dunham does not because she's not?” The media is always going to be a place where pretty people thrive, but when a female entertainer isn't permitted to look any other way, even if the departure is as minor as it is in the case of “Hollywood Homely” Dunham, that's a problem.

Internalization and Defiance

Incessant criticism of one's appearance can be psychologically damaging to a female celebrity, however. Look at Judy Garland. Look at Courtney Love, although her examination of cultural expectations of female beauty was so intense and personal that her plastic surgery just seems like an extension of it. Look at Amy Winehouse. Bette Davis weathered it out and took advantage of the acting opportunities it gave her, and the opportunity to be taken seriously as an actor, but she so frequently made herself appear grotesque that you know she took it to heart. Katharine Hepburn, however, an actress criticized by the Hollywood moguls for her “sexlessness” and the general public for her privilege and the confidence and eccentricity that went with it, came equipped with enough narcissism that she seemed impervious to the first kind of criticism, at least. I strongly advise any Hepburn fans to check out the fascinating, prickly Dick Cavett interview, where, early on, the elderly Hepburn repeatedly insists that he check out a picture of her taken for a play as a half-naked teenage hottie, a picture so smouldering that, she claims, it launched her in Hollywood.

I assume it's this one.

However, Hepburn did seem to internalize the public's criticism of her personality, to the extent that she commissioned a play from Philip Barry that would humble her persona and therefore, she hoped, finally make her a popular actress. The self-abasement worked, but this aspect of The Philadelphia Story still makes fans of the original, uncompromised Hepburn cringe. To judge by the new season of Girls, Dunham seems to be internalizing the criticism directed at her in a different way: instead of trying to appease her critics, she defiantly keeps making Hannah Horvath more and more unlikable. Which I find a bit of a shame, because I never understood why Hannah was supposed to be unlikable in the first place. In her cadences, her irony, her articulate, paragraph-long observations and reports on her inner life, Hannah reminded me of girls I knew in university, fellow English students – the kind of girl I'd want to be friends with the moment I heard her and took in her wonderful, awful fashion sense. The kind of girl I was. 

I'm so predisposed to empathize with this character type that Hannah's flashes of unmistakable sociopathy still feel OOC to me, and when the other characters gang up on her, as in "Dead Inside," and try to browbeat her into conforming to social norms, I side with her the way I used to side with Oscar the Grouch against the sanctimonious adults on Sesame Street when I was three. "Adults" on this show are often the regular male characters, Adam and Ray (who is in fact significantly older than the girls); they, in any case, see themselves as adults, and talk like adults, although Ray can't pull his own life together and Adam is capable of egregious interpersonal misjudgments, to say the least. In that respect they serve a killjoy role a little bit like the Skyler one (a very little bit) on Breaking Bad, scolding the girls for their bad behaviour; as men, however, they also represent the norm that the girls are passively-aggressively rebelling against. 

"Very Little to Distress or Vex Her"

Dunham's not just any other “it” girl, or controversial, Courtney-like hate-magnet. Her genealogy traces back through Hepburn to Jane Austen's Emma Woodhouse, the seminal privileged white girl of Anglo-American fiction, who irritates readers because of the confidence and narcissism that her sheltered life has given her. That confidence, however, is the reason that, to use Lionel Trilling's sexist phrasing, she is one of the rare heroines of fiction who “has a moral life like a man”; which is to say that she sees herself as the protagonist of her life, and she has enough power that her morally incorrect decisions have consequences for others. Dunham, however, isn't pretty enough to be an Emma – but she'd make a great Elizabeth Bennet, who's not supposed to have much going for her in the looks department except “a fine pair of eyes.” Maybe Patrick Wilson would like to play Darcy?

Bizarrely, some of the hatred directed at Girls by some media commentators seems to derive from the archaic idea that privileged white girls are the most useless human beings on the planet, parasites (because this idea was born in a world where women could do nothing with their lives except marry) who nevertheless think of themselves as the height of human perfection because they've been raised to believe that the world revolves around them. It can't possibly be that the girls of Girls are self-absorbed, petty sitcom characters like any other self- absorbed, petty sitcom characters – like the Seinfeld characters, say, or the central characters on any number of British sitcoms, like Peep Show, or for that matter, Absolutely Fabulous. (Joanna Lumley's Patsy is surely what Jessa is going to grow up to be.) 

No, because they're young girls from privileged upbringings, they must be “princesses,” towards whom we must direct a special hatred to compensate for all of the undeserved love we think they must have been given. Including all of that undeserved love from critics, since depending who you ask, Girls is either the most hated or the most overrated show on television.

Besides, if shows that ask the viewer to sympathize with the trials of privileged white people are the problem, go complain about Downton Abbey. Seriously.

* The argument can also be made that the relative lack of celebration of male beauty and the male body in our male-gaze-assuming, heteronormative culture is bad for men in all kinds of ways, while "metrosexuality" is in some ways a gain for men. Of course it can, and if you want to see how it can, check out the fascinating writings of my friend Mark Simpson

**On the other hand, if you want to know what male privilege was like in the bad old days, when it was assumed without question that the only value a woman had was her desirability to men, a while back on the Facebook Film Forum, someone posted a link to some "off the record" interviews with Orson Welles from which the press had pulled his remark about Bette Davis that he couldn't watch her movies because he couldn't stand to look at her. To which I replied, "I wonder how she felt about looking at Orson Welles."