While the presidential candidates dither on about anachronistic issues such as access to contraception, women on television are boldly facing the challenges of feminism 3.0.
A new generation of women has something to say. And it's not, "Does this skirt make me look fat?"
A certain slice of the 20-something demo is ready to reframe the discussion. For this rarefied collection of youthful, privileged, post-grad New York women, the bar is set high. They've come so far, they feel free to dump on themselves.
They're not interested in expensive shoes so much as artfully expressing the pain of their lives.
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What do women want now? Ask the Girls.
Lena Dunham's astonishingly frank, semi-autobiographical HBO comedy about 20-something sex and STDs in the new millennium is an intentionally mortifying snapshot of modern life. It's also an unflattering portrait of our memoirist culture, in which every moment, every move is documented in digital bursts. Girls nails a generation pondering big thoughts and little disappointments, yet unable to break from parents and pursue adult life.
This is Failure to Launch, femme edition.
Girls might be construed as tragic by old-school feminists. If you aren't intrigued by a story in which overeducated, underemployed young women seek rude sex with slacker guys who treat them poorly, you might be offended. Really, though, Girls is just the latest in a long TV tradition of efforts to pin down the feminine perspective.
This time it's not penned by paternalistic male writers — or gay male writers a la Sex and the City — with a skewed view of the subject. It's created, written by and starring a self-aware and self-deprecatingly funny young woman who lets us in on the process of mining her mistakes.
Dunham, who became a critically acclaimed filmmaker at age 23 (Tiny Furniture), turns the lens on a thinly veiled version of herself as a representative of her generation, noting rules of modern etiquette along the way.
She teaches, for instance, that face-to-face communication is "ideal, but it's not of this time."
Dunham taps a strain of self-loathing beneath the boldness. Ancient feminists might wonder how she can be ruthless about the humiliations and failures of herself as Hannah, the main character, and still be proudly female-centric? It's not post-feminist or anti-feminist, it's a kind of neo-feminist in which women are so sure of their standing, they don't mind slumming.
Lately, Hannah has been dating a guy "who treats my heart like monkey meat." Her friends tell her she deserves more. But she's not ready to claim something better. And there are tweetable, memoir-ready lessons to be learned.
From Marlo Thomas in That Girl (Ann Marie living alone, virginal and dating, circa 1966) to The Mary Tyler Moore Show (Mary Richards, single 30-something who famously announced that she was on The Pill, 1970) to Sex and the City (bawdy, sexually active, 2008) to Zooey Deschanel's current New Girl (quirky little sex object?), TV has long sought the latest female POV. Gentle mocking was allowed, but glamour outweighed humiliation.
Now comes Girls, executive-produced by Judd Apatow (Bridesmaids), in which the roommates fall asleep to Mary Tyler Moore reruns on TV beneath a Sex and the City poster: touchstones, representative of where women have been as they push on to where they're going.
They have shaken off the lust for husbands and expensive heels and seek instead a larger truth. Or at least an artsy status.
They float through casual hookups, talking about STDs and abortion, sharing pot and a disdain for entry-level jobs. They work mainly at self- awareness.
Emblematic of their generation, these young women have no use for discretion. "TMI" is a way of life for them. Oversharing is like breathing. "I am busy, trying to become who I am," Hannah declares. She resents that her parents are (finally) cutting her off.
Dunham acknowledges the meshing of her work and self on her Twitter page: "My life is my art and therapy is my palette."
Every frustration and unfulfilling hookup is grist; Hannah, like her creator, takes mental notes while being snubbed, smacked, used and generally degraded. "Let's play the quiet game," her sometime sex partner says, mid-act, to shut her up.
There's a hint of sadness in every joke: What's funnier, Hannah's presumptuous claim of being an important writer, a voice of a generation? Or her parents' too-late attempt to withhold financial aid and instill a sense of responsibility? Together they form an endearing mess.
Dunham succeeds in making viewers uncomfortable while proffering a new (sharp, slightly bitter) flavor of introspective female comedy. Women might eventually want the same things they've always wanted — self-respect, something approaching love/affection and sexual adventure — but first they want to analyze and make art of their personal humiliations.
Maybe Goldilocks knew best what women are after: not too much, not too little, but just right. In Girls, the devoted, puppylike boyfriend is ridiculous; the abusive, dismissive boyfriend is obnoxious. With luck, Just Right won't show up for several seasons.