Lena Dunham's new comedy series, Girls, co-produced by Judd Apatow, won't premiere on HBO for another two weeks but, following a single screening of three episodes at SXSW, it's already landed her a cover story in New York. Today, in the wake of a conversation with Dunham for his blog, Frank Bruni tells us in an Op-Ed for the New York Times that Girls has got him wondering, if not outright worried, about the state of feminism: "Gloria Steinem went to the barricades for this? Salaries may be better than in decades past and the cabinet and Congress less choked with testosterone. But in the bedroom? What's happening there remains something of a muddle, if not something of a mess."
Girls, he notes, "is drawing inevitable — and apt — comparisons to Sex and the City, in whose long shadow it blooms. Girls, too, is a half-hour comedy (of sorts) about four women finding themselves and fortifying one another in the daunting, libidinous wilds of New York City. But it's a recession-era adjustment. The gloss of Manhattan is traded for the mild grit of Brooklyn's more affordable neighborhoods. The anxieties are as much economic as erotic. The colors are duller, the mood is dourer and the clothes aren't much. It's Sex and the City in a charcoal gray Salvation Army overcoat." Further, Girls "amplifies a growing chorus of laments over what's happening on the sexual frontier, a state of befuddlement reflective in part of post-feminist power dynamics and in part of our digital culture and virtual fixations."
Well. Either Lena Dunham really is the voice of her generation (or "a voice of a generation") or she's simply having a moment. If the latter's the case, it's a long one and, given that Dunham is only 25, we can be sure that more will follow. Tiny Furniture (2010), which Criterion released on DVD and Blu-ray last month, has just opened in the UK. The score? 4 out of 5 stars from Nigel Andrews in the Financial Times ("superb"), 4/5 from Henry Barnes in the Guardian ("often funny and very touching"), 3/5 from Tim Robey in the Telegraph ("promisingly tangy and archly amusing") and 4/5 from Emma Simmonds at the Arts Desk ("perfectly peculiar and cute as can be").
When Tiny Furniture premiered, "it was hailed as a remarkably assured debut," recalls Phillip Lopate in an essay for Criterion. "Actually, the [then 24-year-old] filmmaker had been honing her sensibility, during college, via a dozen inventive shorts and a first feature, Creative Nonfiction, which is both poignantly hilarious and excruciatingly painful. Playing her own protagonists, in narratives that dwell on humiliation, sexual rejection, immaturity, and general floundering, Dunham has put herself out there, defiantly and without the usual safeguards that male comics employ. Her only protection is her self-aware artistry, which is formidable."
On to Emily Nussbaum and that New York cover: "Tiny Furniture was, as Paul Schrader says on the Criterion disc, 'a good film that pretends to be an amateur film,' an affecting and peculiar self-portrait that made the case for Dunham's composed mode of intimate self-exposure. It won Dunham [SXSW's] prize for best narrative feature — along with an unstable blend of worship, envy, and disdain, particularly from her peers, some of whom resented her 'voice of a generation' press." As for Girls, Nussbaum finds it impossible to remain neutral and explains why:
Because from the moment I saw the pilot…, I was a goner, a convert. In an office at HBO, my heart sped up. I laughed out loud; I "got" the characters — four friends, adrift in a modern New York of unpaid internships and bad sex on dirty sofas. But the show also spoke to me in another way. As a person who has followed, for more than twenty years, recurrent, maddening debates about the lives of young women, the series felt to me like a gift. Girls was a bold defense (and a searing critique) of the so-called Millennial Generation by a person still in her twenties. It was a sex comedy from the female POV, taking on subjects like STDs and abortion with a radical savoir-faire as well as a visual grubbiness that was a statement in itself. It embraced digital culture, and daily confession, as a default setting. Even before the Republican candidates adopted The Handmaid's Tale as a platform, Dunham's sly, brazen, graphic comedy, with its stress on female friendships, its pleasure in the sick punch line, its compassion for the necessity of making mistakes, felt like a retort to a culture that pathologizes feminine adventure. As my younger colleague Willa Paskin put it, the show felt, to her peers, FUBU: "for us by us."
Drew Taylor at the Playlist: "Hannah (Dunham)'s parents inform her that they will no longer be offering their financial support. And before you can type #firstworldproblems, she's delivering an awkward spiel about the importance of her unpaid job as a publishing intern and the progress she's making on her first collection of personal essays." Hannah's three friends are played by "Alison Williams (Brian Williams's daughter, cast in the part because of the YouTube video where she sings along to the Mad Men theme tune) plays Marnie, Hannah's more put-together roommate, who's struggling with her relationship to a too-nice boyfriend; Jemima Kirke plays Jessa, a loosey-goosey free spirit who, in an early episode deals with her unexpected pregnancy; and Zosia Mamet playing Jessa's cousin (she has a reduced capacity in the group, her big hang up is that she's still a virgin and she knowingly deconstructs Sex and the City in her introductory scene). All of the actresses are aces, and each of the characters so complex and layered that they could warrant their own show." Taylor's grade overall: A.
"Girls is a savvy, snappy half-hour pay-cable sitcom that happens to be based out of a demographically resonant place," writes the L's Mark Asch. "Aside from gratifyingly articulate characters and light social-mortification slapstick, much of the comedy here derives from the fact that its characters are, after all, the ones who hear the stupid things guys say in the sack. (The title’s diminutive take on young adulthood applies equally to both genders.)"
"The youthful sex of educated, family-funded drifters that Dunham puts on the screen is mostly heartless and degrading, and not remotely exuberant, which is her point," suggests Lorrie Moore at the New Yorker's Culture Desk. "One imagines that Dunham is hoping that you'll also find it funny, but in middle-aged viewers a protective, parental feeling toward these young people might make this impossible. In the pages of this magazine, Rebecca Mead referred to the sex scenes in Tiny Furniture as 'dispiriting,' which seems to be only the tip of Dunham's psychosexual iceberg. It looks like careless cruelty between nudists…. Are Lena Dunham and her world as preciously interesting as she hopes? Strangely, yes."
"Dunham's relationship with her parents underscores everything," writes Emma Brockes in a profile for the Guardian. "They are successful artists — her mother, Laurie Simmons, is a photographer; Carroll Dunham, her father, a painter — and Dunham grew up with her sister in an environment of such achingly 'sharey' liberalism that, she says wryly, they could have done with a little more repression." As for what's next, "Dunham is working on another film script, and waiting to see what happens to the adaptation of a young adult novel she did for Apatow. And she is starting to write the second season of Girls — it hasn't been green-lit yet, but there is money for development."
Dunham has also curated Hey, Girlfriend!, "a smart, idiosyncratic week-long series at BAM showcasing nine films about female relationships that inspired the young talent," in Melissa Anderson's words in the Voice. The series opens tomorrow and Anderson previews the highlights.
Updates, 4/8: The New Yorker's Richard Brody: "Like her feature film, Tiny Furniture, Lena Dunham's TV series is instantly a classic modern bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story that has the distinction of being made by someone who hasn't quite come of age. It's precisely this sense of a view caught on the wing that lends it both its modernity and its classicism."
For Artforum, Piper Marshall reports on the conversation Dunham had with Nora Ephron at BAM last week. "Everyone lampoons female drama. No one in the industry says, 'We've done our three dude shows — sorry brah, we've met our quota.'"
Updates, 4/12: "In popular culture, women's friendships are often foregrounded at times when there's less of an organized feminist movement in the background," writes Margaret Talbot in the New Yorker: "it's a DIY, cultivate-your-own-garden vision of female solidarity. The pioneering TV shows about young women in the big city, during the women's-liberated 1960s and 70s, featured heroines who focussed most on their relationships with their boyfriends (That Girl) and co-workers (The Mary Tyler Moore Show). These women were independent types with dating lives but without a rich array of female friends. The women on Sex and the City, on the other hand, were a tight sisterhood. So were those in the gold-digger movies of the 1930s: the crafty chorus girls who shared digs and often beds (it was the Depression, after all), loved one another best, and took advantage of men. Like them, the girls of Girls are the center of one another's emotional lives, and they work around the boys, from whom they expect a certain amount of lame behavior. Over all, it's a show that reminds you that the sexual revolution is a done deal, that few women today see sex as a bargaining chip in a bid for commitment, and that gender parity tends to go along with more sex."
Updates, 4/14: Girls "is worth all the fuss, even though it invites comparisons to Carrie Bradshaw and friends, and even though it incites a lot of dreary debate about the demise of feminism," writes Alessandra Stanley in the NYT. "There are obvious parallels between Girls and that earlier HBO series, but the theme of female friendship and romantic disappointment stretches back long before, all the way to the early 1940s and Mary McCarthy's first novel, The Company She Keeps. One reason that Girls is unsettling is that it is an acerbic, deadpan reminder that human nature doesn't change."
Troy Patterson at the top of a long, long piece for Slate: "Girls is an exceptional piece of American art, as witty as The Women, richer in raunch than Portnoy's Complaint, charismatic like Sleater-Kinney. A lot of people are writing about it, some of them even literately, and that is generally a cheerful development."
More on the critical reception of Girls from Judy Berman (Flavorwire) and Richard Brody (New Yorker). And more on Girls itself from Ryan Lattanzio (Evening Class), Paul Rice (Slant, 3/4) and Amy Taubin (indieWIRE).
Updates, 4/16: "If Girls has been heralded as game-changing television," writes Heather Havrilesky in the NYT, "there's a reason for that: the stuttered confessions, half-smiles, hissed warnings and quiet shared confidences between Hannah and her friends make the empty sassing and high-fiving of existing girlie comedies look like the spasms of a bygone era. But what's most riveting about Hannah and her friends is not their wisdom, their righteousness or their backbone — as we might imagine would be the antidote to the frothy pap of other girlie comedies — but their confusion, their vulnerability and their ambivalence."
More from Laura Bennett (New Republic) and Elizabeth L (Alternative Chronicle). Dialogues: Rebecca Mead and Emily Nussbaum (New Yorker) and Meredith Blake and Todd VanDerWerff (AV Club).