“Girls” and the politics of the remote control
In case you were wondering, yes, I do have opinions on the show “Girls” and all the press it’s been getting. I wrote a piece that I definitely hope you check out at The American Prospect on the whole thing, were I lament how much ink is being spilled about how it’s scary and upsetting to see women performing the same kind of comic tropes that men have done for roughly forever. Now, most critics don’t see it that way. They didn’t stop for a second to wonder if they’d issue the same criticisms if it was a male-centric show. For instance, I highly doubt Madeline Davis of Jezebel would write a piece where she lambasted a sitcom about a man because the comic main character made a bunch of stupid choices she feels are irresponsible and she hopes that young women out there don’t make. Like I said in my Prospect piece, the double standard is staggering. Men in comedy get to be stupid, get to make mistakes, get to make bad decisions and have comically exagerrated bad sex, and we all laugh because we know it’s a comedy, not a symposium on How To Act Right. That so many feminist-minded women don’t notice what they’re doing here is distressing to me. The only critique that I really felt was something other than an excuse not to watch the “girl show” was Jenna Wortham’s at The Hairpin, mostly because she isn’t interested in that narrative at all, but using the intense media scrutiny of this show to anchor a larger discussion about lack of racial diversity on TV.
The great unspoken issue here is what I like to call the politics of the remote control. It’s one thing to get men to agree that women should have equality in the workplace and the doctor’s office, but the great taboo in our culture is really delving into the inequalities that persist in the home. Point out that women still do domestic labor more than men, after all, and expect to be buried under a sea of rationalizations and “nuh-uhs!” in comments. As I note in the piece, “Girls” is an extremely rare thing—a show about women where there’s no male authority to calm anxieties—which means it’s going to make a lot of men uncomfortable. They’re going to look for reasons to get out of having to do what women are used to, which is watch a show where none of the important characters are the same gender as you. Let’s be honest; most men wouldn’t watch this unprovoked by a woman.
And that’s where this gets interesting. Women by and large get to avoid having to deal with men’s unquestioned sexism around what’s acceptable on TV because there’s not really any completely lady-dominated shows that they might want to watch and then have to go through the ordeal of listening to their partners come up with a bunch of rationalizations for why this show somehow doesn’t seem quite like all those other shows that he likes that are very much like it. The issue basically doesn’t have to be dealt with. Now “Girls” has come along, and it basically cuts off many objections by being obviously influenced by “Louie” without being a rip-off, and so it’s basically forcing the issue. Finding a reason that it’s not quite perfect and therefore not even giving it a shot keeps things where they’re at, where women watch shows with prominent or even exclusively male characters, men don’t have to watch shows where men aren’t in charge, and no one has to discuss if possibly there’s sexism emanating from the couch and not just from Hollywood. I’m acutely aware of this dynamic because in past relationships, I’ve experimented with standing my ground on lady stuff I like, mostly in the way of music, and it’s been pretty upsetting to see how much bullshit a man who identifies as liberal can come up with for suggesting your otherwise excellent taste failed you, in a truly remarkable coincidence, when the product you like is being made by women. In fact, the terror of this is so ingrained that a lot of women just sort of generally avoid being too femme-y in their tastes, even when it comes to the good stuff, for fear that it’s threatening to potential boyfriends and not just actual ones. I’m just saying, I bet even avid straight female fans of “Girls” won’t be putting it on their OK Cupid profiles.
This kind of pressure, I think, helps explain why the strange belief that female characters on TV need to be paragons of virtue and excellent choice-making for their very existence to be defensible. You know, even though that’s boring. The heightened emotional stakes around women watching women have created this sense that women need to be getting something important and useful out of this, because if it’s just about having a good time, why not just stick to the guy shows and make it easier on everyone? There’s other reasons that women on TV have unfair expectations that they abandon being entertaining and instead be educational for their female audiences (which is just so…..paternalistic), but I suspect couch politics don’t make it any better. At this point, the belief that a female character’s job is to be a Good Example for her apparently child-like female audience members is so ingrained that it’s beginning to go unquestioned. Thus, arguments that “Girls” is troubling because the main character makes stupid decisions. Well, look, people who always make good decisions are boring as characters. TV relies on drama to work, and good decisions are often ones that minimize drama. (Except when smoking out unexamined prejudices, then it’s necessary drama that good decision-makers sometimes provoke.) Young women who have men and sex all figured out, who don’t struggle to know what they want out of their careers, and who know better than to experiment with drugs are great role models, but watching a show about them sounds about as interesting as watching paint dry. Comedy especially is interested in the foibles of human beings, and women are half of human beings. For fuck’s sake, they should be able to have foibles. I don’t see why this is such a hard concept to grasp.