HBO’s Girls…Pseudo Feminism?

Recently I’ve taken up an interest in HBO’s Girls and have found myself both intrigued and confounded by its categorization by many as a “feminist” show. Though, admittedly, I have yet to make it through a season of the show in its entirety, I’m starting to wonder if that categorization might require a little more nuance.


Still from Girls, “Beach House” ( Season 3, Episode 7, 2014.) Image from

In Feminist Research Practice Sharlene Hesse-Biber argues that one of the ultimate aims of feminist media is “to place central focus on the lives of women and members of other groups who have not traditionally held cultural and political power” (2014). As such, for a work to be considered truly feminist (at least by these standards), it would follow that the content of said work would primarily focus on individuals who fall into this category.

In this sense, perhaps we can understand Girls as partially feminist in that it creates a space in which four young women construct and participate in uninhibited discourse regarding sex, sexuality, abortion, dating, etc. The show itself- created by feminists- is significant in its ability to promote and further the kind of narrative in which the sexual experiences and desires of women, as opposed to men, are placed at the forefront. However, this particular narrative is one that relies solely upon the lived experiences of straight white women and ignores those of women of color and members of the LGBTQ community (which is ironic to me, given that the show is set in what is considered to be one of the most diverse boroughs of New York City…).

Lena Dunham has acknowledged the validity of such a criticism, and it might be helpful to listen to her interview with NPR’s “Fresh Air” (or at least skim the transcript) as she discusses the challenges of mitigating this response to the show. Though Dunham and Girls should certainly be lauded for providing a more multifaceted portrayal of sexuality and women’s experiences, their choice to leave out a significant chunk of the population while doing so highlights the problems with and limitations of white/Western feminism, a decision that could potentially prove more counterproductive than helpful in igniting social chance.

I particularly want to acknowledge and applaud the work that the show’s writers have done to create multidimensional female characters instead of defaulting to the use of Sex and the City-like caricatures, but it also feels problematic to me that the majority of the characters are upper to middle-class. There’s no doubt that shows like Girls (those that appear to be dedicated to social justice as well as entertainment) have real potential to impact young audience members in both a constructive and positive way, but at times it feels like Girls does a fairly mediocre job. I suppose I say all of this at the risk of sounding nit-picky or unappreciative of the work that Lena Dunham and her collaborators have done, so I want to emphasize that I would much rather raise daughters in a world where more people tune in to watch Girls as opposed to, say, The Big Bang Theory or Two Broke Girls. But if I learned anything from the interviews with Jen Braeden and her discussion of LGBTQ characters, it’s that representation matters. I really want to be able to say the same thing about Girls, but I think there is work yet to be done.

-Callie Sartain

REFERENCES: Hesse-Biber, Sharlene Nagy., ed. Feminist Research Practice: A Primer. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2014. Print.


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5 Responses to HBO’s Girls…Pseudo Feminism?

  1. mediaphiles says:

    This rocks. Pseudo-feminism is an interesting way to put it, and you’re right – there are so many problematic things about “Girls.” I’m excited to hear about the rest of your experience with it! – Corey

  2. mediaphiles says:

    I think you make some great points about the problematic aspects of Girls. I think the show is definitely a step in the right direction in terms of having multidimensional characters but does lack in some aspects. I’ve watched the show and thought it was interesting how Lena Dunham’s character has such a hard time finding/keeping a job but never really suffers from money issues, even though her parents have “cut her off”. I think having all the characters come from middle/upper class backgrounds does not do the show any favors. – Katie Thevenow

  3. marymdalton says:

    Excellent post and comments! I am so very deeply ambivalent about this show. Can’t wait to follow the progress of your project.

  4. mediaphiles says:

    Not to attack Lena in any way here, but outside of Girls it seems like she’s had an openly difficult time grasping the concept of a feminism that is not white – though she finally apologized for the incident, I’m sure many people have heard about her outlandish and somewhat racist statements about Odell Beckham Jr. at the Met Gala ( Though not every show is able to cater to every feminist’s identity, as it would be certainly impossible to do so, I think the creators of a show that caters to a very specific feminist identity have to be prepared for the backlash. – Kristina Kokkonos

  5. mediaphiles says:

    I think this is such an important thing to be aware of when watching shows like Girls. It is so often celebrated as a feminist show that encompasses all aspects of being a woman but is a very marginalized picture. It is also important to note that these women are all college educated and from (semi) stable families. They have the opportunity to find the careers they want and do not face the same challenges that women who are not in their position experience.

    Arianna Gershon

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