Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 19, 2012


Filed under: television — louisproyect @ 6:09 pm

One of the most heavily hyped HBO shows in ages premiered last Sunday night. Written and directed by, and starring the 25-year old Lena Dunham, “Girls” is an obvious bid to reap the kind of fortunes generated by the network’s highly successful “Sex and the City” by appealing to a certain demographic: urban, well-educated, female and white. The main difference is that this show is about struggling young people living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn whereas the female protagonists of “Sex and the City” were rich and living in the fabulous Upper East Side. It is the difference between the Cosmopolitan cocktail that the women in “Sex and the City” favored and a $1.99 bottle of Charles Shaw wine from Trader Joe’s.

If I had known nothing in advance about Lena Dunham, I would have looked forward to it with great anticipation. But having seen her “Tiny Furniture” and knowing what to expect (the HBO show is obviously based on the mumblecore feature), I watched it warily, all the more so since it was produced by the execrable Jude Apatow.

In a bid to build the buzz around the show, HBO took the fairly unprecedented step of putting the premiere episode on Youtube that is worth watching, at least as a cultural biopsy:

Dunham plays Hannah, the daughter of college professors, who learns in the opening scene that they will no longer be providing financial support. Since Hannah works as an intern at a small publishing house, this means that she will have to find a paying job. When she tells her boss that she needs a salary, he replies that he will be sorry to see her leave. Obviously Dunham is informed enough to know that the exploitation of interns is a major problem facing recent college graduates like her. She might have even had a look at Ross Perlin’s new book from Verso titled “Intern Nation” that decries the unpaid jobs that so many are forced to take during the ongoing financial collapse. Or at least a book review—undoubtedly not in the sort of newspaper that has been giving the show rave reviews.

But “Girls” is not really about economics, politics or society. By her own admission, Dunham has very little inkling about such matters:

I am woefully unread in the areas of history and politics and have a grand plan to read “A People’s History of the United States,”  “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York” and some other books that might hack away at my ignorance.

It is much more about sex but in the spirit of a depressed economy handled in a rather depressing fashion. After leaving the publisher’s office, she stops off at a boy friend’s apartment to give him the news. Within five minutes of her arrival, they decide to have sex on his sofa which involves him mounting her from behind. Neither one of them seem to be enjoying themselves particularly. By contrast, the hedonistic approach to sex in “Sex in the City” was what made the show work. The character Samantha, played by Kim Cattrall, was a female Lothario who bedded any man she had the hots for, including plumbers and delivery boys.

Now if Lena Dunham had considered trying to convey the joie de vivre of Samantha and her pals in a situation shaped by dire economic circumstances, “Girls” might have worked. After all, Puccini’s La bohème is a delight to watch, even as the main character dies from poverty-related illness in the third act. But Dunham’s mumblecore aesthetic precludes such an approach.

Rule number one of mumblecore is that the characters must be undramatic, which is a contradiction in terms. If one of the chief dictates of theater, including screenplays, is the creation of memorable characters with larger than life personalities, then mumblecore fails right from the starting line. That possibility never occurred to the men and women who work in this genre. Their primary goal is rather narcissistic, namely to show anybody who’s interested how they and their pals live. Personally I don’t find the prospects of sitting through a 2 hour movie or a half-hour TV show featuring a bunch of 23 year olds talking about nothing that inviting. Of course, Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld arguably were up the same thing but they knew how to write jokes.

This leads me to the next problem with “Girls”. It is not funny at all. For Dunham, a typical attempt at humor is fat jokes taken at her own expense. One does not know how long it will take for this sort of thing to become tiresome but for this viewer it was just 10 minutes after the show started.

Teaming up with Judd Apatow must have seemed a no-brainer to the suits at HBO since this producer’s films, often starring the talentless Seth Rogen, have generated mega-millions based on sophomoric plots, dialogue and performances. In a dinner party hosted by Hannah’s friends in the premiere episode, they are discussing getting high. When cocaine is mentioned, one of her girlfriends says that she never touches the stuff. When asked why, she replies because it makes her shit in her pants. This is pure Judd Apatow, but mercifully we are spared the spectacle of one of the character’s mishaps through flashback. The essence of an Apatow or a Dunham comedy is the character being degraded. Why this is so typical of contemporary comedy is a question that I have explored in the past, but will only state at this point that it reflects a decline of humanism in Hollywood. Charlie Chaplin’s movies embodied humanistic values to the highest degree while Apatow serves as their nadir.

In a half-hour filled with such cringe-inducing elements, you might be surprised to learn that all the leading characters come from privileged backgrounds and likely shared none of their character’s misfortunes—starting with Lena Dunham. In my review of “Tiny Furniture”, I noted:

Laurie Simmons [Lena Dunham’s mother] is married to Carroll Dunham, a painter whose work is in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. Would their daughter’s movie, the first she ever made, have gotten the financing and attention it has if she was not born into this family? The answer is obvious.

A story about “Girls” appearing in Gentleman’s Quarterly lets us know that the other actors were also born with silver spoons in their mouths:

Lena Dunham’s new HBO show, Girls, is centered on—you guessed it— four girls. Each is trying to find herself and, more pressingly, gainful employment, in New York. The comedy was created by Lena Dunham, who stars in it along with Zosia Mamet, Allison Williams, and real-life friend Jemima Kirke, all daughters of famous New Yorkers. (Dunham’s parents are artists; Kirke’s dad was the drummer for Bad Company; Zosia’s dad is playwright David Mamet; Allison’s father is NBC’s Brian Williams). As one friend put it, the cast is like “a graduating class of Yale.”

In other words, the show is a kind of exercise in going “slumming”. In the 1920s, rich white people used to go to Harlem to see how the other half lived. For Dunham and company, this show offers a chance for them to pretend that they are like most college graduates nowadays– forced to live at home, take jobs as interns, or eat at McDonald’s to make ends meet. In the dinner party, one of the male characters riffs about how wonderful McDonald’s is. Anywhere you go in the world, the food tastes uniformly great—as if any of these people ever stepped foot in a restaurant that was not rated at least 2 stars in the NY Times.

There’s been a backlash brewing against “Girls” brewing, especially from the Black community. An unnamed contributor to the Womanist Musings blog (as might be expected, the blogosphere has bought into the show’s hype much less than the bourgeois media) has this to say:

I missed the Sex & The City phenomenon and so I decided to tune into HBO’s Girls. It was not high on my priority list, so I didn’t actually watch it until yesterday. It can best be described as 35 minutes of my life that I will never get back. As a thirty something, Black, disabled mother of two, I am not the target audience for Girls, but if I were to wait from something to actually appear on television to be marketed specifically to me, I wouldn’t need to own a television. Being marginalized means having to deal with dominant bodies being universalized as typifying the human experience, no matter how ridiculous the roles they take on are.

As she leaves the hotel you finally see the first Black person. A homeless Black man in New York after just being inundated with thirty-five minutes of the most navel gazing, spoiled nonsense I have seen in a long time. According to Huffpo, in an HBO live chat, Dunham has the nerve to claim that “the racially homogenous cast was a “complete accident.” Is anyone buying that? Ooops, they did it again. It’s yet another all White show, but because they didn’t mean for that to happen it’s okay. Why am I even complaining, when they did after all find a Black man to act as a homeless person in New York City, one of the most diverse cities on the planet? I suppose I should feel thankful that they managed to scare up a Black man ’cause they most certainly didn’t find a single GLBT person.

Frances Latour, an African-American reporter who blogs at the Boston Globe, had an identical reaction:

With Girls, Dunham has been catapulted from indie-film darling to Hollywood It-girl, heralded by culture critics as a fearless visionary capturing the zeitgeist of young cosmopolitan womanhood in a post-Carrie-Bradshaw age. But the problem I have with Dunham is that the vision of New York City she’s offering us in 2012 — like Sex and the City in 1998 and for that matter Friends in 1994 — is almost entirely devoid of the people who make up the large majority of New Yorkers, and have for some time now: Latinos, Asians and blacks.

It’s a zeitgeist so glaring and grounded in statistical reality that Hollywood has to will itself not to see it: America is transforming into a majority-minority nation faster than experts could have predicted, yet the most racially and ethnically diverse metropolis in America is delivered to us again and again on the small screen as a virtual sea of white. The census may tell us that blacks, Latinos and Asians together make up 64.4 percent of New York City’s population. But if you watch CSI: NY on a regular basis, you’d think the only person of color you’re likely to meet in Manhattan is a forensic scientist who works in a high-tech basement. (God bless you, Harper Hill).

Much of Girls is actually set in Brooklyn, a borough where just one-third of the population is white. Yet as Dunham’s character, 24-year-old unemployed writer Hannah Horvath, and her friends fumble through life with cutting wit and low self-esteem, they do it in a virtually all-white bubble.

Now none of this would matter so much if the show was even slightly entertaining. After all, I used to enjoy an occasional Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger movie from time to time even if it embodied a xenophobic machismo ethic.

The biggest problem with “Girls” is that is dull. But that’s what happens when you live a life of privilege. You really can’t absorb what it means to be the classic underdog, who knows best how to make other people laugh in the spirit of tears of a clown. From the wiki on Charlie Chaplin:

Chaplin’s childhood was beleaguered by poverty and hardship, prompting biographer David Robinson to describe his eventual trajectory as “the most dramatic of all the rags to riches stories ever told.” His early years were spent with his mother and brother in the London district of Kennington; Hannah had no means of income, other than occasional nursing and dressmaking, and Chaplin Sr. provided no support for his sons. Because of this poverty, Chaplin was sent to a workhouse at seven years old. The council housed him at the Central London District School for paupers, which Chaplin remembered as “a forlorn existence”. He was briefly reunited with his mother at nine years old, before Hannah was forced to readmit her family to the workhouse in July 1898. The boys were promptly sent to Norwood Schools, another charity institution.

In September 1898, Hannah Chaplin was committed to Cane Hill mental asylum—she had developed a psychosis seemingly brought on by malnutrition and an infection of syphilis. Chaplin recalled his anguish at the news: “Why had she done this? Mother, so light-hearted and gay, how could she go insane?” For the two months she was there, Chaplin and his brother were sent to live with their father, whom the young boy scarcely knew. Charles Chaplin Sr. was by then a severe alcoholic, and life with the man was bad enough to provoke a visit from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. He died two years later, at 37 years old, from cirrhosis of the liver. Hannah Chaplin entered a period of remission, but in May 1903 became ill again. Chaplin, then 14, had the task of taking his mother to the infirmary. He lived alone for several days, searching for food and occasionally sleeping rough, until his brother Sydney returned from the navy. Hannah Chaplin was released from the asylum eight months later, but in March 1905 her madness returned, this time permanently. “There was nothing we could do but accept poor mother’s fate”, Chaplin later wrote, and she remained in care until her death in 1928.


  1. “Girls is a show about a racist who doesn’t hate black people, she just doesn’t see them, and when she does, she looks at her shoes. The shot is in such a significant place in the episode because it is absolutely crucial that the viewer see her not looking.”


    Comment by KJ — April 19, 2012 @ 8:36 pm

  2. Oh, I get it. The show is actually a subtle critique of racism written by a very advanced thinker. One can imagine the impact it will have on American society now that we have a postmodernist Harriet Beecher Stowe using HBO as a bully pulpit..

    Comment by louisproyect — April 19, 2012 @ 9:10 pm

  3. Just one more point on the ridiculous article that was linked to above. It is not just Blacks that get short shrift. The Asian woman who has a job at the place where Hanna is interning gets paid because she knows Photoshop. If this is not stereotyping, I do not know what is.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 19, 2012 @ 9:22 pm

  4. Worst of all is Dunham’s self-serving comment concerning her second season (if HBO decrees, and whom are we kidding?) and being allowed the chance to address this absence of diversity. I’m certainly not the audience for this show, but it can’t possibly be better than the writing it’s engendered.

    Comment by KJ — April 19, 2012 @ 9:47 pm

  5. Great another show that portrays women as sex crazed nymphs who seem to use all their free time humping. Intern is just a dignified word to describe an exploited slave laborer generally young and not hip to the ways of the real world where you get PAID MONEY to perform a service that benefits the company.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — April 19, 2012 @ 10:29 pm

  6. Ten years ago my daughter received a scholarship to go to one of Milwaukee’s more exclusive private schools. I’ve unfortunately become very familiar with the sort of spoiled, self-centered twits depicted in this show.

    Comment by David Altman — April 20, 2012 @ 12:52 am

  7. P.S. I agree that a little Seth Rogan goes a long way, but Judd Apatow’s show Freaks and Geeks was pretty good. Have you seen it?

    Comment by David Altman — April 20, 2012 @ 12:54 am

  8. Am I the only person on this website who enjoyed The 40 Year Old VIrgin and Knocked Up?

    Comment by Pandora — April 20, 2012 @ 1:11 am

  9. OMG Pandora I can tolerate the 40 Year Old Virgin but Knocked Up? My bf forced me to watch that movie and I hated it because it was so cliche with a reasonably intelligent young woman having a one night stand with an airhead, pot head frat party boy with nothing to offer that fathers a kid. So cliche and making irresponsibility funny when it’s not IMHO.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — April 20, 2012 @ 2:31 am

  10. No disrespect but a movie like Knocked Up makes recklessness look funny. Too many children have no father in their lives and unsafe sex not only can result in pregnancy, but can lead to AIDS infection and many STDS. There’s nothing funny about it. I know four people with AIDS. They of course thought it was turning dangerous behavior into humor and were not amused.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — April 20, 2012 @ 2:49 am

  11. Great review Lou my sentiments exactly. The movie was bad, had a storyline that was far fetched with a smart young woman hooking up with an airhead, pothead imbecile and made the dangers of unsafe sex have no importance. I don’t understand why anyone would find this movie amusing.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — April 20, 2012 @ 3:13 am

  12. I think that the entertainment industry in America promotes and glorifies unsafe sex. In movies (like Knocked Up), TV shows and soap operas. I feel strongly in this day and age of rampant AIDS infection, it’s irresponsible of Hollywood. It takes just one time to get infected.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — April 20, 2012 @ 3:46 am

  13. I see: an artist or actor (or a philosopher, presumably) can only legitimately write about social reality if he or she comes from an impecunious background. That’s a good rule of thumb. I’ll keep it in mind.

    Comment by Friedrich Engels — April 20, 2012 @ 4:52 pm

  14. Correction: “portray social reality”

    Comment by Friedrich Engels — April 20, 2012 @ 4:55 pm

  15. It is not just that they must have endured suffering. Their comedy must incorporate socially uplifting messages like in Vitaly Zhdanovsky’s glorious 1936 comedy “The tractor goes missing”.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 20, 2012 @ 4:58 pm

  16. I wouldn’t go that far – that smacks of “vulgar Marxism.”

    Comment by Friedrich Engels — April 20, 2012 @ 5:13 pm

  17. It was also–ahem–a joke.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 20, 2012 @ 5:17 pm

  18. Yes, but so was my original comment.

    Comment by Friedrich Engels — April 20, 2012 @ 5:25 pm

  19. Good to know the communists have a sense of humor?

    Comment by Pandora — April 20, 2012 @ 6:39 pm

  20. Oh yes Pandora we do have a sense of humor. My preference was always Benny Hill. I love Brits. My grandmum was one what can I say?

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — April 21, 2012 @ 1:38 am

  21. I hope that wasn’t sarcasm. Top Gear anyone? I expect to be booed for that too. I imagine Jeremy Clarkson has said some stupid things and there was that one episode in some near eastern country where they make some joke about the communist architecture or some such.

    Comment by Pandora — April 21, 2012 @ 2:30 am

  22. I tried to make it to the end of the first episode of “Girls” but had to quit halfway through. God, what a depressing show!

    Comment by David Altman — April 21, 2012 @ 12:15 pm

  23. Girls is just another cliche and tasteless TV show which is why I spend my TV time playing trivia games or educational programs that are brain stimulating. Watch enough of this garbage we call TV in America, and your brain will eventually turn into an Idaho potato.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — April 22, 2012 @ 6:29 pm

  24. Mad Men? Breaking Bad?

    Comment by Pandora — April 22, 2012 @ 9:52 pm

  25. Well I gave it one more shot and there was a gem of a line amidst all the dross where the doctor at the women’s clinic replies to our protagonist’s near incoherent and ludicrous musings on aids with: “You couldn’t pay me enough to be 24 yrs old again.”

    Not enough to sustain so over and out for me.

    Comment by meltr — April 23, 2012 @ 4:18 pm

  26. So are we supposed to be judging every actor’s or artist’s background when watching their work? I did not know that had anything to do with their art. Everyone has different backgrounds and upbringings; if these were 4 women that were rich African American women.. would this conversation be happening? I think this show portrays what life is like for mid twenty somethings and oh my, it features Caucasian straight women? How dare HBO have a show about straight white girls? And how dare those girls not have a friend that is black, Indian, or of Asian descent? And where is the lesbian friend or transgender mother? How can this be allowed to happen? Oh wait.. because these are real life scenarios! How do I know this? I’m a straight white woman in my 20’s and have a similar group of girl friends. I never realized my lifestyle was so cliche

    Comment by Katie — May 8, 2012 @ 9:59 pm

  27. I think this show portrays what life is like for mid twenty somethings and oh my, it features Caucasian straight women?


    Didn’t you catch my comment that I was a huge fan of “Sex and the City”? The problem with “Girls” is that it is shitty television.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 8, 2012 @ 10:14 pm

  28. I realize you were a fan of sex and the city..however your blog stated more than the show just being “shitty” television, even if some comments made were excerpts from others that you used to get your points across.

    Comment by Katie — May 9, 2012 @ 1:39 am

  29. “Oh, I get it. The show is actually a subtle critique of racism written by a very advanced thinker.”

    I wouldn’t dismiss this idea so quickly – especially after the last episode (episode 4). Sometimes young middle-class white girls are silly and annoying and not very hip when it comes to race and not very smooth when it comes to boys and sex. I sympathize with the characters – I don’t always like them or respect them, but I do think they seem human. They have privilege but they’re also proletarianized – living on the outskirts of a glamorous life, getting by on internships and temp jobs and realizing the limits of their creative value under capitalism. And they’re not dealing with minorities as an interesting/diverse aspects of their own white culture. There are real others – others who keep their otherness around the awkward and oblivious white people. It may be uncomfortable to watch, but I’m tempted to see that as progress.

    “For the record” – I’m a 20 something girl, and I’m aware that a lot of people would be quick to dismiss my thoughts and experiences as dull/stupid/not funny, etc. When I’m older people will probably dismiss me as unattractive/gross.

    Comment by Lizzie — May 9, 2012 @ 1:46 am

  30. They have privilege but they’re also proletarianized – living on the outskirts of a glamorous life, getting by on internships and temp jobs and realizing the limits of their creative value under capitalism.

    It might surprise you considering the title of this blog, but the fact that they are “proletarianized” means less to me than if they are funny. I simply don’t think that Lena Dunham knows how to write comedy. And Judd Apatow is even lamer. A lot of these “hip” comedy shows on HBO really suck, especially those that are self-consciously geared to the youth, like “Bored to Death”. That’s actually how the show made me feel.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 9, 2012 @ 2:05 am

  31. Yeah – you just don’t appreciate that particular brand of comedy – which is fair. I often don’t like it either. I thought Bored to Death was vaguely sexist and that was more irritating to me than all the outright sexist shows (I liked Entourage). Hipster comedy often sucks because it has this “don’t criticize us because we’re sensitive” kind of defense built into it and that’s weak and shameful. I agree that Judd Apatow is lamer than Lena Dunham. They both deal in degradation, awkwardness and soft white people, but Dunham doesn’t try to make it cute and lovable. She’s more shameless. She invites criticism in a way Apatow can’t and I think that’s a huge improvement on this kind of comedy. I was disappointed by Bridesmaids but I’m optimistic about Girls.

    Comment by Lizzie — May 10, 2012 @ 2:46 am

  32. […] made some comments on Louis Proyect’s blog post about that show Girls (he’s not a […]

    Pingback by e-lizalinks — August 11, 2012 @ 4:25 am

  33. I know this is late to the conversation…
    After the blog post, I watched the YouTube video of the first show and more or less agreed with Louis. That was it for watching.
    But recently was talking to my daughter about the show and she was vociferously defensive of the show in the face of my (obviously limited viewing) criticism. Well, that left me no option but to download the now completed first season and give it a view.
    Post viewing it all, I am both more appalled by the characters and their behavior, and more appreciative of it’s entertainment value.
    Not got a lot more to add at this point, but I intend to think about what I’ve seen, and discuss it with my daughter. With her assertion that it does indeed represent her and her friends (they’re actually younger), I don’t feel like I have the luxury of an easy (or angry) dismissal.
    I don’t like it, but there is something to be garnered here.

    Comment by eastendleo — August 17, 2012 @ 7:49 pm

  34. I had a little taste of “girls”, and just think life is too short to spend waiting for insipid writing to get better. I know lots of playwrights and poets who could write circles around the producers of this program; people who strive for grants and whatever support they can get for their work from year to year. and believe you me, I’m not talking about political artists, either. I just believe it is ridiculous that people who work hard at their craft very often get nowhere fast, while tiny handfuls of people who have absolutely nothing new to say artistically get paraded or have their growing curve indulged by a national audience. It is the growing victory of commodity over discipline, and it’s tiresome. I will not watch “girls”. It’s a waste of what little time I have, and it disrespects the memory of the many serious comics, poets, artists I’ve known who lived their lives working and waiting for a break while mediocrity got every chance to dominate. I will not watch “girls”, it makes me sick to the stomach, like much else in late capitalist film, theater, and music.

    Comment by Michael Hureauxs — March 21, 2013 @ 1:49 pm

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