An Actual Essay on HBO's "Girl's"
The name itself of “Home Box Office” indicates the production company’s ambition to differentiate itself from the traditional television industry and the associated clichés of genre.
Indeed, the company’s achievements in elevating the humble television series to a new level
of artistry, worthy of cultural and academic discussion are an homage to the grandeur and creativity of western (and specifically Hollywood) cinema. This need to diversify and improve quality of content is largely due to the changing landscape of how we view visual media. In this essay, I will discuss why this evolution of televisual consumption has led Home Box Office to diversify it’s content and create ‘critique-worthy’ television using the example of the series ‘Girls’ produced by Lena Dunham.
Because the United Kingdom and United States are the countries where television studies have become an autonomous discipline it was logical to chose a series originating from one of these production lines. Furthermore, with Dunham being a relatively young producer at the age of 23, her take on women’s lives in the 21st century is invariably more realistic and relevant to it’s audience than more seasoned directors.
By definition, television is an activity that takes place within the context of our daily activities unlike cinematic viewings that are singled out due to their unique context. When one goes to the cinema, one takes time out of one’s schedule to go to a designated screening spot and pays for the privilege. When television was first introduced to households, viewing was a group activity. People from the community would gather around one set and watch whatever seminal event that was being televised at the time (Huston, 1992: p8) From the noughties onwards, the influence of satellite television, the internet and cheaper technology have changed this model.
The rise of mass visual culture that comes with capitalism and technology that is increasingly pervasive has lowered our tolerance to visual engagement. Being bombarded by thousands of advertisements every day makes us a progressively impermeable to interaction and active interest. A larger variety of channels, the opportunity to record how in advance and with cheap televisions coupled with the ability to access television show from around the world online (whether legally or not) means that consuming television is now almost a non-activity.
The television stays on for hours while other tasks are undertaken, or watched alone in the comfort of one’s own room on a computer. In this essay, I will discuss why this evolution of televisual consumption has led Home Box Office to diversify it’s content and create ‘critique-worthy’ television using the 2012 series Girls as my main point of reference.
The first framework that ought to be used when considering the artistic merit of an essentially commercial television series is the auteur theory. The auteur theory was pioneered by French academics from the 1940s onwards and states that the medium of cinema is a form of artistic personal expression (Buscombe, 2013, p1) which reflects the creative vision of a single person, though it might have been produced via collaborative process. Despite not being a consistent paradigm, with many adapting it’s definition to suit their writing, this theory has been central to the development of film studies in academia, as it places films in the same category as artworks.
The distinction french filmmaker Francois Truffaut made between an auteur who has a distinctive creative style and vision and a ‘metteur-en-scene’ who is merely an instrument in the production of a programme to a brief dictated to him is the basis for film/television critique (Truffaut in Baecque, 2001) . More recently, from the 1970s onwards, the auteur theory has become synonymous with the notion that the director is predominantly responsible for the visual style of pieces, though the production method is collaborative. Directors today are marketed as ‘brands’ that we become familiar with and ‘trust’ to entertain us. This is relevant to Home Box Office as the presence of a recognised ‘auteur’ with a background in creative writing, such as Dunham, adds a certain artistic credibility to their series.
When Home Box Office initially recruited Dunham to product a series for them, people were astounded. At 24,she was extremely young to be producing for a network that usually attracts bigger, established names in the industry. Taylor Nygaard suggests that this ‘shock tactic’ was yet another way for Home Box Office to live up to it’s tagline of ‘not being television’ (Nygaard, 2013).
Lena Dunham is the writer, producer, director and protagonist of Girls. Having a recognised and/or accredited auteur contributes a measure of cultural legitimacy to a television series as it assumes an individual creative vision realised with the input of many yet singly conceived by the ‘auteur’ in question.The Weekend TV Review article on Girls refers to Dunham as unequivocally, the writer-director-star/auteur behind this series (Roush, 2012.) It could be that Dunham’s auteurial flair can be put down to her youth coupled with her relative inexperience in the world of TV production. Furthermore, the concept of art as a medium of personal expression comes to the fore in Girls which is a semi-autobiographical piece. One could even argue that following this theory, Girls is a work of art as intimate and poignant as any confessional poem or self portrait.
She describes the show in an interview on Conan as reflecting the lifestyle that girls coming to New York expecting to relive Sex & The City often are faced with. ‘No manolos, but wearing mismatched sneakers on the subway’ she says, confirming that Girls is not about romanticising life in the big city but rather exposing it’s flaws and the difficult balance between finding a job that is fulfilling (Hannah’s writing) and a job that pays the bills shown by all of her various sabotaged and failed employment opportunities. (Dunham on Conan, 2012)
Secondly, to look at the genres implied in Girls is to provide an idea of why the show has been overarchingly a success with critics who churn out articles and reviews 365 days a year and are presumably quite used to seeing a generic kind of television show produced for a wide-scale and often transnational audience. In the film journal of the University of British Columbia Colin Tait explains the impact Home Box Office has had on ‘genre’ in contemporary television.
“Starting in 1999, television genres – and as a result, film genres – underwent a radical transformation primarily at the hands of the HBO (Home Box Office) pay television network. With the release of the groundbreaking series The Sopranos, Deadwood, and The Wire, the network is singlehandedly responsible for shifting the narrative, syntactical and iconographic features of genre while at the same time riding a wave of unparalleled critical and commercial success.” (Tait, 2012)
The Oxford dictionary defines genre as a ‘style or category of art, music or literature’* and comes from the French word meaning literally ‘a kind.’ Genre in terms of media study refers to the practise of creating works with a common vein of iconography, convention and practise that subconsciously craft the expectations of the audience. Although Girls is often labelled as a comedy, most academics would label it a ‘dramedy’ (DeCarvalho, 2013 p. 1) a term coined by it’s predecessor Sex and The City.
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Girls’ hybridity of genres accounts for much of its popularity both with audiences and critics. Through the casting of London-born Jemima Kirke as Jessa Johansson, the cross fertilisation of American and British television to form a new hybrid of series with transatlantic appeal is both apparent and intentional. The lack of an overarching genre means mass appeal both demographically and internationally. Home Box Office has been careful to avoid genre cliches so as to differentiate itself from more mainstream televisual media and thus retain it’s reputation of artistic integrity and groundbreaking content.
Critics have lauded Girls since it was first aired in 2011, hailing it as ‘sex comedy from the female point-of-view’ and a ‘searing critique’ of the millennial generation. This departure from traditional ‘chick lit’ inspired television to a more critical and unsettlingly real representation of recession-era post-adolescent life and relationships. A postmodern approach, with individualistic themes and characters who are as aware of their own narratives as the viewer is has helped Girls to be immediately endearing to the audience. In the pilot episode, the opening scene shows Hannah Horvath’s parents cutting her off financially. She panics and claims she is too busy ‘trying to become who I am.’ This self-awareness on Hannah’s behalf of the expectations imposed on her is a trait many can relate to in an epoch of financial uncertainty
It is also pertinent to examine feminist ideals expressed (or suppressed) in the show, as this can also explain why it is being set apart from other series that have preceded it. Girls is, from many angles, a generic series with archetypal characterisation (‘the uptight one’ being marnie, the ‘free spirit’ being Jessa, ‘the neurotic one being Hannah’ etc.) set in the greater New York area. It’s predecessor Sex and The City essentially allowed for this platform where women were no longer accessories to the male protagonists in series, but heroines in themselves.
Some critics have accused Girls of promoting a “man-centric” view of the world, with the characters only able to define themselves in relation to the men in their lives. It could be argued that this is simply an accurate representation of the ‘quarter life crisis’ many go through in their early to mid twenties when relationships become complex and more than simply a case of sexual adventure and personal exploration.
Third Wave feminism (also referred to as post-feminist) is a cultural movement characterised by the rejection of a grand narrative of feminism goals (Snyder, 2008) focusing instead on aspects of individualism and expression without fear of judgement. Post-feminism is often referred to as the belief that society has moved past the need for activism with regards to the inequality of the sexes, but in this essay I am referring to post-feminism as a point at which the idea of ‘feminism’ has been so widely interpreted and fragmented that there is no longer a common thread involved. This definition of post-feminism runs alongside post-modernism with an insistence of individualism (Gamble, 2001, p. 1). Post-feminist themes in television are indicative of an auteur with a certain message or agenda to transmit to it’s audience, reinforcing the importance of their creative vision.
Girls occasionally plays on the conventions of woman-oriented dramas by discarding the generic archetypes of feminine protagonists. Dunham actively displays her feminist philosophy in many interviews, even saying at a conference for Fortune Magazine that she ‘hates American Apparel adverts [for their sexualisation of women], they’re disgusting.’ It could thus be said that Dunham’s nudity and approach to sex in the show is not for titillation, but instead to expose the paradox of women who at once want to be strong and self-loving, but at the same time crave male acceptance. In addition to this, Girls has full frontal male nudity - something that is not often seen and refreshingly brings male representation of the nude body on a par with the female one.
Post Feminist rhetoric runs throughout the show, embodied mainly by the free spirited but extremely unstable and inconsistent character of Jessa. When Shoshanna declares a romantic self help book as the authority on dating, Jessa challenges her. ‘What if I want it from behind? What if I want to feel like I have udders? This woman doesn’t care about what I want.’
This rejection of a ‘grand narrative’ of chivalry and gender roles when it comes to dating outlines the show’s broader overview of partly rejecting traditional expectations of representations of femininity. In this episode Hannah then goes on to ruin her chances in a job interview by making a joke about rape. The fact that she feels able to initiate a rape joke around a stranger also speaks volumes for the awareness Dunham has of the fact that women too can be offensive (whether deliberately or not) by issues that concern them. In the episode ‘The Returned’ of season one, Hannah’s high school friend performs an overtly sexual dance routine at the fundraising event of a classmate who had gone missing on holiday, once again revealing a pessimistic yet realistic tendency for some women to be misinformed or inappropriate.
This feminist angle adds to the artistic credibility of the series as it demonstrates that the television show has an overriding socio-political message to communicate, and is not simply a narrative piece with no further aim than entertainment and no further substance than what it visually presents.
Furthermore, we are ever-more aware of the cliches of genre, having been brought up by television and cinema and formed our expectations of genre conventions and iconography from an early age. The hybridisation of genres is a technique that proves popular with audiences as they are not able to immediately recognise and predict the narrative and aesthetic of the show. This is one of the main reasons that Girls has been worthy of discussion and even appreciating by television critics and even feminist academics; not fitting into the ‘cookie-cutter’ mould of a female drama allows for debate on how to categorise this show in line with the themes explored, the characterisation and the views expressed within it.
Not having to bow to the pressures of commercial advertisers’ means that Home Box Office has more leverage when tackling taboo or “offensive” subjects. Furthermore, subscription services are not affected by Federal Communications Commission’s guidelines on obscenity. (Leverette, 2008, p 124) Journalists have described Girl’s aesthetic as ‘raw and bruised, not aspirational.’ Critics have picked up on Girl’s bluntness in approaching sexual themes but differentiated it from Sex & The City for it’s lack of ‘self-congratulation’ when it came to confronting taboo subject matter. CNN journalist Porochista Khakpour sums up in an article about why Girls is a very different type of programme to Sex & The City, and commends it for this very reason:
“Because what is most delightful about "Girls" is not the premise, but rather, the smart writing and the surface details. Behold the spectacle of everyday pimples and bad tattoos and unshaven skin and some fat and really awkward sex — what you see in your real life but rarely mirrored back in any pop cultural depiction. The "ugly," the "grit" and "dirt" give the show its aesthetic realism and provide a public service by being an antidote to The Hills and various other disturbingly surreal "reality" shows.” (Khakpour, 2012)
Intrinsically, Hannah Horvath’s character challenges the ‘body beautiful’ with her smaller breasts and sizeable stomach, and is frequently exposed in scenes that are perceived as almost shocking or distasteful to an audience that is used to seeing a very specific type of female body disrobed on-screen. The girls are preoccupied with their sex appeal but equally critical of the “pornified” (Valenti, 2013) world they live in and the body image dilemma.
The sex scenes are not for the easily offended, either. The episode entitled ‘Vagina Panic’ from the first season opens with two graphic sex scenes in a row. Specifically explicit is the scene between Hannah and ‘hook up partner’ Adam in which he tries to engage her in a narrative of ‘taking her home to her parents covered in his cum because she’s a dirty little whore.’ This disregard of decency with regards to language and also the cultural norms of respect for women shows just how far Home Box Office allows it’s script-writers to go.It also mirrors a sexual scenario many women will increasingly find themselves in, as pornography and it’s narratives and disciplines become ever-more mainstream and commonplace (Corsianos, 2007).
Workplace harassment is shown in the episode’ Hannah’s Diary’ when she starts a new job and her boss massages her shoulders and breasts because she ‘looks tense.’ More daring than this depiction is perhaps the fact that her female colleagues accept the touching as part of their work routine, counteracting her concern with arguments such as ‘but he bought me and iPod for my birthday,’ and ‘but he’s a really nice guy otherwise.’ This exposes both the sexism that can occur in an office environment but also the superficiality of some who are willing to accept it in order to not hinder their careers and enjoy ‘perks’ of the job.
Critics, journalists and the viewing public have also been critical of the series for varying reasons. James Franco in an article for the Huffington Post suggested that the non-white population had been under-represented on the show (Franco, 2013). The fact that the characters constantly complain about money problems yet live in affluent neighbourhoods and seem to survive in a bohemian but thriving and well-to-do underground arts scene. One article even branded the series ‘the most talked about comedy of 2012’ (Fletcher, 2012). This evidence of debate, critique and heated social discussion is merely a reflection of the true success of the series - as the well known cultural proverb goes; there is no such thing as bad publicity.
Given the recent shift in the way we consume and view television in an increasingly portable and disposable way, production companies rely on ever-more compelling shows to draw us in and make us single out television series as worth waiting for, and worth watching. Home Box Office has created more creative and visually interesting content to captivate audiences afresh in an era of passive visual consumption.
Dunham’s auteurial flair can be put down to her youth coupled with her relative inexperience in the world of TV production. She is dedicated to expressing herself, instead of being motivated by purely financial incentives. Her unique brand of self deprecating confessional comedy (Guthrie, 2013) once again showcases Home Box Office’s versatility as a viewing platform.
As Home Box Office does not rely on commercial advertisers for its’ revenue, it is liberated from the pressures this entails with regards to content. This freedom allows for cutting edge productions that are not too prudent in their representations of their characters or their political correctness. Girls capitalises on this to produce humorous television without restraint. As business analyst Nicholas Wyatt states in MarketLine.com’s ‘blog’ section:
“This flexibility and ability to move with the times, coupled with its continued investment in high-quality television means that HBO is in prime position to improve on an already-established reputation for excellence and to continue to be a growth driver for its parent company.” (Wyatt, 2012)
Thus, having used the television show Girls as a current example to demonstrate how Home Box Office has changed the perception of commercial serial television both amongst critics and academics alike by shunning the often rigid conventions of popular television and variegating character types, thought-provoking narratives and an artistic aesthetic, borrowed from film. By broadcasting these shows that escape the boundaries of generic conventions, with cleverly shot footage and an acclaimed and recognised auteur behind them, the television critic has a newly appreciated and respected voice in the world of visual culture.
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