By Darri Farr
From the very first episode, GIRLS promised us an abortion. An early evasion of the topic takes place in “Vagina Panic,” when Jessa skips her own abortion to hook up with a stranger in a bar bathroom–and conveniently miscarries. This avoidance is emblematic of how the show would, throughout its six seasons, deal with capital-I Issues: in a spirit of self-righteousness, it identifies difficult topics without truly engaging them, without forcing its characters to live through the realities of their decisions. Lena Dunham demands credit for identifying feminist issues like abortion, single motherhood, sexual harassment, and objectification, but she never wades through the muck that surrounds them. Taken as a whole, the show’s Girl Squad Feminism is never deeper than shallow, a branding tool meant first and foremost to say something about Lena Dunham, more so than the female experience, her characters, or the patriarchal culture at large.
The first season of GIRLS, it should be said, was not the cringeworthy, oblivious mess that the show morphed into by season six. This isn’t to say that it didn’t deserve criticism for its total whitewashing of New York City, only that its myopia occasionally felt purposeful, and there were moments that spoke to being a 22-year-old woman in Brooklyn: when Marnie laments how she must be barren, since her sexual irresponsibility has never resulted in a pregnancy; Hannah’s HPV diagnosis; jealousy over a classmate’s literary success; all the times the women date losers in beanies. GIRLS took itself a lot less seriously early on, its humor balancing out the heaviness. But by the second season premiere, you could see Dunham internalizing the internet’s escalating criticism of the show, addressing it the best way she knew how: by mounting Donald Glover.
In her book Digital Participatory Culture and the TV Audience, Sandra M. Falero talks about the influence viewers with internet access now have on TV writers, citing Aaron Sorkin’s infamous penchant for lurking on West Wing message boards, compiling every last scrap of amateur criticism, and writing an episode in which his proxy characters tear into proxy trolls. Falero writes, “[W]e can see how the unprecedented access to television authors via social media has challenged a long-established cultural hierarchy that positions authors above audiences, with critics acting as cultural gate keeping intermediaries.” The downfall of GIRLS is predicated on this development, on Dunham’s need to tackle the criticism of her show in the most facile, dismissive way possible, shushing the simpletons who don’t understand her, her politics, or her art.
Here is where it becomes difficult to distinguish Lena Dunham from Hannah Horvath. In an interview conducted by NPR, in 2012, Dunham said, “I take that criticism very seriously… for me to ignore [it] and not to take it in would really go against my beliefs and my education in so many things.” Dunham insists that she doesn’t want GIRLS to “feel exclusionary,” but she is equally concerned with how criticism reflects on her personally, a wealthy liberal feminist who was raised by artists and attended Oberlin. As seen throughout the show, the more Lena Dunham tried to protect her personal brand by addressing criticism—a black friend at a birthday party, doubling down on the characters’ “unlikeability,” a minor character’s off-screen abortion (more on this in a moment)—the more hackneyed GIRLS became.
There is no denying it: In the last seven years, Lena Dunham has become a brand. She launched her bid to be “a voice of a generation” with the film Tiny Furniture; GIRLS arrived two years later; followed by an essay collection, Not That Kind of Girl; then Lenny Letter, the self-described newsletter about “feminism, style, health, politics, friendship and everything else;” a podcast, “Women of the Hour with Lena Dunham;” the Lenny imprint at Random House; and last but not least, Lenny Shorts, a series of short films produced by “female-identifying people based on short stories by female-identifying people,” which will debut on HBO this fall. Across all mediums, feminism and the female experience are integral to Dunham’s brand: half of her properties explicitly evoke “women” or “girls,” while the other half echoes Dunham’s name and image alongside slogans of female empowerment. Lena Dunham surely believes in her own credo, but it’s important to note that that faith is making her millions of dollars, which isn’t offensive until you consider what feminism as defined by Lena Dunham looks like.
Admittedly, Lena Dunham is reticent to dramatize any experiences that she hasn’t herself undergone, but that hasn’t stopped her from circling the subjects of pregnancy and abortion in the name of feminism. In the fourth season of GIRLS, Mimi Rose, Adam’s new girlfriend, nonchalantly informs him that she can’t go jogging because she’d had an abortion the day before. Now, instead of offering a realistic and empathetic portrayal of abortion (see, for one example, Obvious Child), GIRLS skips the hard stuff—the pregnancy test, the decision making, the awkward procedure—and makes it all about whether or not Adam had a right to know. The show effectively centers an abortion storyline on the man’s feelings, not the woman’s choice.
To contrast, compare this “abortion episode” to Sex and the City’s. In “Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda,” Miranda discovers that she’s pregnant, despite her one working ovary. We soon learn that Samantha has had two abortions, Carrie one. Neither regret it, but Carrie realizes that she harbors some lingering shame after lying to her boyfriend about it. The question of whether the father deserves to know is also posed, but it’s tertiary to Carrie and Miranda’s personal and ethical concerns. Despite showing up for her abortion appointment, Miranda decides to keep the baby; however, her decision is explicitly framed as pro-choice, with Miranda weighing every other option before resolving to become a mother. Not only does the episode take care to foreground the female body and perspective, it refuses to shy away from the complicated realities of abortion, pregnancy, and motherhood; experiences that are sometimes messy, sometimes neat, sometimes easy, sometimes uncomfortable.
After Hannah gets knocked up by impossible catch Riz Ahmed (the parallels between Lena Dunham and Woody Allen are many) most GIRLS viewers anticipated an actual abortion storyline. But, shockingly, Hannah decides to keep the baby. GIRLS had always been offensive in a banal way, but the moment Hannah announces to OG impossible catch Patrick Wilson that she would not have an abortion, the show becomes indecent. Outside of writing a flippant “Reasons It’s Insane to Have a Baby” pros & cons list, there is no episode in which Hannah explores her options, considers the frightful logistics of pregnancy and single motherhood, or why it would make any sense for a narcissistic 27-year-old freelancer living in one of the most expensive cities in the world to have a child.
A feminist praxis calls for dialogue and representation, showing up on behalf of the marginalized; GIRLS barely engages in this, dealing instead in hollow symbols, the most egregious being Grover The Brown Baby. His birth is the result of six years’ worth of criticism regarding GIRLS‘s lack of diversity, Lena Dunham shutting the rest of us up, once and for all, by endowing her surrogate character with a Pakistani baby. Even if Hannah has not always been a proxy for Dunham in terms of behavior, Hannah’s body is Dunham’s body, and from the beginning of the show, it is on constant display. Dunham has been very forthcoming about her mission to normalize “imperfect” female bodies: Whenever Hannah is naked, that is Lena Dunham trying to make a political statement. But if the show is so canny about the depictions and perceptions of bodies, why cast a child this brown as Hannah Horvath’s progeny?
When Louis CK cast Susan Kelechi Watson, a black woman, to play the mother of his character’s undoubtedly white daughters on Louie, the show’s casting director explained that they chose the actress who best embodied the character, arguing that the limits show creators impose on themselves for the sake of believability and continuity are kind of bullshit. Intentionally or not, Louie made a statement about the sly racism inherent to Hollywood casting. Lena Dunham, however, is not making that case; her connection to The Brown Baby is pure provocation, a childish way of throwing all of the internet’s accusations back in its face. Because if Hannah decides to give birth to the fruit of Riz Ahmed, how could she–and by extension Lena Dunham–be racist?
The one potentially interesting facet of this whole pregnancy storyline was how having The Brown Baby would force Hannah/Dunham to confront her problematic attitude towards race. It was a final opportunity for Dunham to respond to the justifiable criticism of her show in a thoughtful, compassionate way. What would Hannah have to realize about herself, her worldview, her community, in order to negotiate raising The Brown Baby among such blinding whiteness? How would she have to change in order to be an ally to her own son, especially with his non-white father out of the picture? All of these are worthwhile questions for the show to ask, yet none of them were even posed. So The Brown Baby’s brownness is reduced to a false signifier of wokeness, and nothing about the final season of GIRLS would be different if Hannah had been impregnated by a white surf instructor instead of a South Asian one. If avoiding an abortion storyline was a cop-out, the Brown Baby was a moral failure.
In Why I Am Not A Feminist, Jessa Crispin nicely synthesizes Dunham Feminism© as such: “Everything you do is brave and important and you don’t have to think about what it is that you’re doing and you don’t have to think about the consequences of your actions and you don’t have to make yourself uncomfortable and you don’t have to do the hard work of understanding our history. Just do whatever makes you feel good, whatever makes you money, etc, etc.” GIRLS could have been a fascinating portrayal of the growth of a young woman in New York; sadly, it serves as a record of Dunham’s transition from clueless, earnest dilettante to an icon of marketplace feminism. She didn’t do anything especially brave, or important, and yet we’ve had to think about her for the past six years. Looking at Dunham Feminism© (and if we want to get real, Roxane Gay Feminism©), it isn’t hard to figure out why. Feminism has never cost less than it does today, but true empowerment will only emerge out of denying that cheap appeal.
Darri Farr is a fiction writer from Philadelphia. She tweets at @hellnodarri.