Daily on the Internet, thousands of fans profess undying love for Broad City‘s jolly fuckup stoners, Abbi and Ilana. Needless to say, the show’s newfound worshipers who see themselves in its hard-luck heroines aren’t actually all dedicated potheads, nor do they struggle in basic life functions as adorably as those two do. In fact, some of them probably wouldn’t know a joint if it hit them in the face. Similarly, for humanity’s sake, let us hope that the fans who claim self-recognition in other hot comedies about women are not all as narcissistic, incompetent, and cruelty-prone as the girls on Girls or Transparent.
Yet they love these new, rougher female characters because patriarchy means having an acute consciousness of your own flaws, deviations from the gender norm, failures with respect to delicate mascara application or proper tone when talking to bosses and boyfriends. You also become hyper-aware of the transgressions you make on purpose; refusing to shave, or show up, or make nice. The creators of these shows revel in the flaws and fuck-yous of their characters. They focus in on these chipped and cracked aspects, not their cuteness or perkiness, as what makes them human, funny, and relatable. This choice has meant the liberation of an entire segment of viewers (and future art creators). Viewers see their fractured, difficult female selves reflected broadly for the first time.
When Girls first aired, I expected to hate it because of all the negative press about its lack of diversity. Yet what I saw in the show, against my will and immediately, was a version of the intimacy I’ve had with various groups of friends, both all-female and mixed gender, in earlier stages of my existence. Everyone in the group has a role both comforting and confining, there’s a mix of adoration and envy between the friends, and there are mistakes, endless mistakes.
In fact, the most compelling race-based critique of Girls, and of Dunham, hasn’t been that her white characters aren’t relatable to people of color, but that young women of color in a big city do relate to them, and that makes it even harder to see the show struggle to bring a friend of color into the mix.
As Jenna Wortham wrote in her essay about the show’s race problem, so much of its mining of its characters’ fuck-ups is what makes it good, and “relatable” — and that makes its whiteness worse:
Getting involved with the wrong guys, saying the wrong thing to your boss at work, trying — and failing — to relate to your parents, flinging your arms around your best friend when Rihanna comes on in the club, pressing your lips into her sweaty cheek and feeling triumphant, thinking we’re going to make it through this year if it kills us. … But which girls? If this show succeeds, what other shows will get made because of it? Probably a half dozen just like it. Who wins, then? And who loses?
True to Wortham’s prediction, Girls has begun to open at least a small floodgate. For instance, Jill Soloway also saw something new in Girls, and she said it led to her breakthrough in creating Transparent:
Watching Girls, it was really angering for me at first, because I really had spent decades hiding unlikable, unattractive Jewish girls in likable, attractive, non-Jewish actors and characters. Really trying to tamp down the otherness of my experience so that I could sell it and so that I could monetize it. And in watching Tiny Furniture and watching Girls and seeing what Lena Dunham didn’t do — she didn’t apologize, she didn’t stress to create an imaginary persona, she just was. The ease with which she just showed herself, it made me so jealous. It was like, Oh, all you ever had to do was nothing. All I ever had to do was stop pretending.
Let 2015, then, be the year all women comedy creators (and drama creators too) can let all the curtain drop, and just stop pretending. Let it be the year that all kinds of women, not just white ones, get to share the honor and burden of making us laugh and cry when they mess up, big time.
I watched the parade of big screen bromance comedies that dominated my post-college years with the same mix of identification and envy that Wortham describes: they were relatable in their immaturity and their comraderie, but unrelatable in their gender exclusivity. Why were all the women in these films either put-together scolds or put-together sweethearts? I imagined putting my own former anecdotes and rituals into a movie like that. I thought about how when I was young, one of my self-styled “artsy” roommates came home from a trip abroad with an elaborate and tall glass hookah, an offering which we all made liberal use of for at least a year, packing it with flavored tobacco and various green substances, setting off fire alarms, plastic bagging the fire alarms irresponsibly, and essentially being the kind of ritualistic, dedicated girl stoners you saw on the screen in 2014 on shows like Girls, Broad City, and Transparent — and in films like Obvious Child.
Then one day, my roommate, who was definitely the Jessa of our group, decided she wanted to paint a portrait of our hookah, possibly solo, possibly to add it to a still life she was working on. She and I weren’t sober, but she insisted we carry the large hookah down four steep flights of stairs, through various fire doors, deep into the recesses of our pre-war, neo-colonial residence so we could find an empty studio for the portrait session. Needless to say, the hookah didn’t survive its journey into the bowels of the earth. Instead, there was a slamming door, and billions of shards of glass, and giggles (at least on my part) and fleeing the scene of the crime.
In retrospect, I always think of that absurd hookah anecdote as the moment I’d like to begin with, embellished of course, for whatever art I choose to make about that intense, short-lived circle of female friends. We were overachievers who came together for a small period of time to rebel. We accomplished this mostly by being silly and angry members of a smoking, white wine-drinking, and takeout-eating society.
My roommates and I resembled the girls I’ve seen onscreen this year in every respect but one: we were far from all white and straight. This explains why, despite my thrill that “the female fuckup” or the “flawed, seeking young woman,” to be more precise and generous, has arrived as a major cultural figure, I believe she needs to get get democratized, diversified, and solidified in the culture. She’s not a trend but an essential part of the female experience.