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. 

No comments:

Post a Comment