By Karen Charlton
After growing up on a diet of Police Academy and Chevy Chase films in the 1980s, it’s any wonder my generation has approached womanhood with the expectation that our bodies would unravel sensuously like long blonde hair tumbling from beneath a police hat. Standard issue lady bits was exactly how our culture rendered our bodies come ladyhood, like those bouncy lasses from the Big M ads. Because big breasts and milk go together like car washes and wet t-shirts.
Yet puberty saw my body fall open clumsily and doing things it shouldn’t. Surely no one else’s body is as ill-behaved as mine? No one else on earth is being delivered into adulthood as awkwardly as me, she said to no one. Mad Men’s Sally Draper runs from New York City the moment she discovers she’s reached menarche, and her mother Betty receives her with open arms. The wordless embrace speaks volumes; I know, the disappointment. Our bodies are like poorly wrapped gifts.
Jane Sullivan wrote an article in The Age last year about books that hold almost universal appeal to women. She was responding to a casual listing in The Huffington Post entitled “Good books every woman should read”, and while Sullivan objected to the insinuation that women were incapable of finding these titles themselves, the lists were telling.
The common theme in both the US and UK lists was that the majority were coming of age stories. The common chord these books struck with women can be heard in Susan Vega’s reading of Jane Eyre,
“It was one of the first books where I read it and said, ‘This is me, in some deep way.’”
And yet, in television and film, we rarely get to enjoy these moments. It’s no wonder that when someone like Lena Dunham and her break out hit Girls arrives on the scene, women from age 16 to 45 are collectively sighing. Finally, a coming of age story rendered in the full colour of television, broadcast to millions, but through the lens of a woman – and a young one, at that.
The series shares the electric New York City backdrop of Sex in the City, but apart from having four protagonists at its centre, this is where the similarities stop. These girls are younger, and represent a generation coming to terms with their own privilege in stark contrast to the dire economic straits their country finds itself in. It’s best described as an awkward comedy, and the way in which it challenges viewers has attracted as much criticism as praise.
Girls success speaks to something deeper within our entertainment culture. As Emily Nussbaum points out in The New Yorker, “there’s a tiny aperture for women’s stories … when almost no women are Hollywood directors, when few women write TV shows …” With women forming such a large part of television and film audiences, it’s a wonder we’re not more tuned in to the poor rendering of our stories on screen, or more put out by the large void created by their absence. It’s jarring to discover that the first female to win an Oscar for Film Direction was in 2010. This is how male dominated the film industry is; television slightly less so, and yet, we’ve never seen a writer/director like Lena Dunham before. And never seen so much of her.
Dunham spends a large portion of screen time semi-naked, and often in unflattering, clumsy positions, having bad sex. Richard Brody (also in The New Yorker) argues “Few performers are as daring in making their bodies crucial subjects of their work … In her self-assertive, defiant, daring, and vulnerable self-revelations, Dunham takes her place in the cinematic circus with its sacred taboos, its ridicule, and its nobility.” The appeal of Girls is in making our private horror and humiliation public; owning our bodies and sexuality, owning the space we inhabit and coming to terms with the way other people see us is territory we all must cross. Girls never suggests we should arrive at womanhood complete, with the goal (as designed by the media) being to perfect the art of beauty and sex. Instead it offers womanhood as a clumsy tapestry of mistrials and mistakes; it’s something you grow into and learn to wear with unashamed pride.
There is a certain presumption in television and film that men won’t watch women’s stories, and this has long held women back from being able to tell their stories. My husband and I hired season one of Girls from our local video store on a 10 day loan. Despite cringing loudly at the awkward sex, we watched the entire series in 3 consecutive nights. And although we both bristled at Dunham’s love interest Adam in episode one, by the finale, we grew to love him.
Love/hate: it’s that kind of show. And one can only hope Dunham’s success breeds a greater number and diversity of stories told by whip-smart women, young or old.