There is a a debate raging among American feminists about whether theshow Girls on HBO is good or bad for the cause. Girls depicts four white young women and their romantic and sexual partners in New York City. Even though some members of the media have pointed out the lack of ethnic diversity on the show, the debate surrounding it has mostly focused on issues of gender and class in America.
But it is important to discuss Girls in the context of international politics and culture today.
Girls is a sensationalist comedy, which, on HBO, implies lots of sex, foul language, and nudity. This in itself is not a problem. What is a problem for some people is the show’s descent to new lows of female subjugation. I must confess that at first I found Girls entertaining and clever. But, somewhere along the show’s second season, which is currently airing, I found myself squirming.
There is something about the main character’s thoughtless immersion into sexual subjugation that evokes an earlier era, of concubines, geishas, and polygamists. A friend who has two daughters the same age as Girls, cannot watch the show because of a suspicion that her daughters are having adventures similar to those depicted on it.
Lena Dunham, the writer and creator of the show, belongs to a certain artistic milieu in Brooklyn. Therefore, she can safely depict her TV character as a desperate girl who, to get attention, will do anything, like having one-night stands, exposing her chubby body, and serving men sexually.
But the reason so many women feel squeamish about the show is that, at its core, it depicts how desperate young women are today. It hits a nerve because it tells a profound truth about the status of women in the contemporary world.
The show, of course, ignores colored women; to show them in such situations would evoke this country’s history of slavery and discrimination against immigrants, so it keeps well away from all that.
But Girls’ covert message is unmistakable; women still lack power in the boardroom and the bedroom. It is clear that with their submissive, self-effacing behavior, women are not demanding men to recognize and respect them, but rather, giving them license to treat them badly.
Sexual degradation and humiliation is only a step away from rape and violence. What is notable about TV and film today is that even though we allegedly live in the post-feminist era, sexual encounters, however rampant, are rarely depicted as being centered around the pleasure of the female.
Then there are the Fifty Shades of Grey books—a movie is on the way—which I haven’t read, but which perhaps only prove my point.
Why is sexual power important? Why should women assert themselves in bed? Oscar Wilde’s words come to mind. He said, “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.”
Truer words were never spoken. If you look at a scene in Girls in which the Lena Dunham character lets a young man degrade her in bed from this lens, you will find it troubling. When you consider that the right wing today claims rights over a woman’s sexual life and womb—Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke a slut because she lobbied for free contraceptives—the scene will take on troubling overtones for you. If you are a woman who has recently been dumped by a man in a way that made you feel as if you were nothing more than a sex toy, the scene will hit you in the solar plexus.
And if you are a South Asian young woman who has been marching against the recent gang rape in Delhi, Girls’ depiction of a sex scene involving the character named Marnie, who is sexually dominated by an artist whom she worships, might make you angry. The fact that she continues to adore him afterwards is nothing short of nauseating.
Feminists today write long articles about subsidized childcare and sharing housework but by and large stay away from a discussion of power politics in bed. Having fought for sexual liberation in the ‘60s, they are perhaps loathe to comment on what lack of sexual power does to women’s psyches
. But the truth is that a larger proportion of women than men find it difficult to engage in sex without emotional attachment. This creates an imbalance of power between the genders. Sexual liberation for some women has come at a cost of loneliness and abandonment.
Like Rush Limbaugh and the right wing, the Catholic Church is responsible for the suffering of millions of women around the world because of unwanted pregnancies and disease. Journalists commenting on Pope Benedict’s recent resignation pointed out that he chose to remain blind to the rise in global population and the need for women to have access to contraception and healthcare.
Ironically, Lena Dunham and Girls in many ways have shown equal disregard for women’s health by depicting reckless sexual encounters that seemingly involve no contraceptives or concerns about safety. In one episode, the Dunham character does have an STD scare, but subsequently, she seems not to worry about it. The question for me, therefore, remains, how do women, young or old, claim power in work, in art, in love, and in sex?
Feminists have compared Girls to Mary McCarthy’s The Group. I read the novel with the voyeuristic awe of an inexperienced young woman long ago, in India; the main characters’ plight of lack of recognition at work and at home did not resonate with me then; I envied instead her freedom from a constrained life I predicted for myself. But now I see the book as a tirade against male domination. When a woman got out of control back then, she was either subjugated or branded crazy. And today? Perhaps she is just humiliated or ignored or both. Is this progress?
Sexual politics is as important as employment politics or real politics. After all, love, romance, and sex are what give humanity hope and inspiration. In this so-called post-feminist era then, why are intelligent and talented women like Dunham not depicting women who are claiming such power? Why are young women not setting a higher standard for their treatment in the bedroom and the boardroom? But then again Dunham is an artist. She is in the business of portraying reality, not necessarily changing it. Perhaps young women will see themselves mirrored in the main character and realize how pathetic they seem. Or perhaps, as the show continues, the main character will claim sexual autonomy and respect as her right. I sure hope so.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. Visit www.saritasarvate.com