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Why 'Girls' Season 1 Was Terrific And Why It's A Hit With Guys Too

I absolutely love that "Girls" does well among guys in Kansas City and Rhode Island. I am thrilled that men over 50 are among the show's biggest fans. But there's a tone of mild incredulity when discussing the show's male viewers.
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I've enjoyed the first season of "Girls" for a lot of reasons, but one of the things I've come to appreciate most is how the HBO show demonstrates the ways in which the TV industry underestimates us.

There have been a few stories -- including this Vulture one -- discussing how many men are in the show's audience. There's a tone of mild incredulity when discussing the male viewers of "Girls," as if they were unicorns or magical sprites.

But why is this audience breakdown so surprising? Of course, for a while now, the television dramas that are considered the gold standard have had conflicted men at the center of them, something Todd VanDerWerff pointed out in this astute article. As Amanda Marcotte said in this 2011 Jezebel piece, "If you want to make a critically acclaimed drama, you need to build up a patriarch, preferably in a highly masculine environment, and then start to peel away his certainty about the way the world works and what it means to be a man in this world." Yep, that's how TV has worked in the post-"Sopranos" era (and even before we met that New Jersey mobster).

For a long time, female viewers have been used to this paradigm, because we've had to be (even though, as I noted in my original "Girls" review, that accommodation has become a little tiresome). As TV writer Jill Soloway put it in an email to me a while back, "Women are used to 'becoming' a man for the purpose of aligning with the protagonist, as we've been doing it for centuries."

Isn't it insulting for television to assume that guys can't do the reverse?

And to me, that's been one of the revelations of "Girls" -- that men aren't just able to put themselves in the place of female protagonists, that they've enjoyed doing so. They've found aspects of themselves in the painfully awkward and funny lives of Hannah and her friends, just as I see the best and worst parts of myself in Vic Mackey, Don Draper, Walter White and the TV version of Louis C.K. that appears on his FX show.

I absolutely love that "Girls" does well among guys in Kansas City and Rhode Island. I am thrilled that men over 50 are apparently among the show's biggest fans. I love that, as someone nearly twice Hannah's age, I can completely relate to her struggle to treat herself better and her desire to find a level of narcissism that isn't completely self-destructive.

Doesn't this kind of transference happen all the time? Whoever they are, whatever age or race they are, people all over the world have become strongly attached to African-American drug slingers in Baltimore, to a high school football coach in Texas and to a teenage vampire killer. This is one of the main purposes of great storytelling: Very specific characters and artfully constructed stories help us experience the struggles of others and realize that their concerns, mistakes and insecurities are not all that different from ours.

Relating to people who aren't exactly like us isn't a new thing. But to know that the healthy "Girls" audience is sticking with this kind of character -- a woman who behaves in unlikable ways at times -- is incredibly heartening. It upends a lot of conventional thinking that the television industry takes as a given.

Some of those givens: Women will never fight with each other on TV the way they do in real life, which last week's episode of "Girls" masterfully disproved (I've been watching TV for decades now, and that's the first time I've seen the kind of awful, probing-for-the-weak-spot fights I've occasionally had with my sister or best friends). Another deeply ingrained given: Women on TV can be quirky or occasionally sad, but they can't actually be deeply flawed. As Michael Arbeiter pointed out, most female characters on television are somehow representative of Women as a whole, which is a pretty restrictive state of affairs. The great leap forward of "Girls" is that it's "hardly a statement about gender at all. It's a statement about humanity," Arbeiter wrote.

People aren't used to female characters being every bit as unlikeable, selfish and confused as male characters, but that's exactly what makes "Girls" relatable: This is a story about complicated people about whom its possible to feel ambivalent. We are not getting the usual likable but quirky gal, the token bitch, or the lazy, predictable Strong Female Character that Shana Mlawski expertly dissected. Nor is "Girls" is a Statement about Women Today.

"Girls" unsettles some viewers off for those very reasons; it blithely ignores six decades of what television has done with an entire gender. It's worth pointing out here that "Girls" simply doesn't work for some viewers for any number of reasons, and that's fine, but the heartening thing is, the gender of Hannah and her posse apparently doesn't matter to the show's committed viewers. But it's a shock to be reminded that many who create products for commercial popular culture don't want to fully acknowledge that people are able to relate to a wide variety of characters and situations.

If you're a male between the ages of, say, 13 and 35, or even 18 and 49, the pop-culture machinery assumes you only want to see versions of yourself, hence the endless array of bro movies at the cineplex, male-driven dramas on TV and game makers who assume that gamers will unthinkingly accept a sexual assault on Lara Croft as a necessary motivation in a videogame. Ye gods. (Many gamers, by the way, were not fans of that last assumption.)

In my experience, men aren't as emotionally limited and unwilling to venture outside their comfort zones as timid entertainment executives think they are, but the various culture industries constantly assume men are unable to relate to anything outside own their dudely experiences. Don't we all lose ourselves in games, movies, books and TV shows in order to become someone else and escape into lives that aren't like our own? Don't we all want to be Iron Man or Coach Taylor? Millions of "Game of Thrones" fans would cry tears of despair if anything ever happened to Arya Stark, and that's not because the show's audience is composed of 11-year-old girls.

Let's face it: The assumptions that media (and advertising) executives make about what and who consumers of different genders relate to and want to see are incredibly condescending. I hope that the success of "Girls," the loyal and large audience for the web series "The Guild" and the super-smash status of "Bridesmaids" -- three successful properties centered on female self-sabotage and flawed women's realistic relationships -- herald a new age in which the old assumptions about what's "relatable" go by the wayside.

Yes, there's been a huge "Girls" backlash, and that is as dispiriting as the attacks on gaming commentator Anita Sarkeesian, the attacks on "Guild" creator Felicia Day for a harmless video, this preposterous Catwoman comic-book cover and the online abuse Aisha Tyler was subjected when she hosted a presentation at E3. Put all those recent events together with the undeniably sexist and boorish attacks on "Girls" creator Lena Dunham, and it's hard to resist the desire to put your head in your hands and just sigh for about a week.

But there are two things worth noting about all of these situations: First, a lot of people (male and female) called out the sexism on display for what it was in these situations; I know about these occurrences because the outrage about them spread far and wide on the Internet and the contempt for the attackers was visceral and plentiful. Second, it's hard not to see these attacks on these women as frantic attempts to assert privilege and status within a power structure that is no longer as stable and solid as it once was. The viciousness of the attacks is in direct proportion to the perceived (and actual) evolution of the culture industry's status quo.

What had been the norm -- mainly male protagonists on "serious" shows, mostly males occupying the gaming space, predominantly men at E3 and San Diego Comic-Con (aside from "booth babes"), comics fans tolerating preposterous images of female characters -- well, that isn't the norm anymore and hasn't been, in some cases, for a while. I think most men and women are fine with this. Some people who liked things the way they were complain when their assumptions and attitudes are questioned or criticized, but, well, that's too bad. What's heartening is that the behavior of trolls and the assumptions of clueless people aren't being silently tolerated in all these different arenas (and in many cases, men are leading the charge against the mean-spirited and the ill-informed).

So, these conversations are being had, tools to fight back are being assembled and a wave of wonderfully articulate people (including the Incredible Hulk) are elegantly dismembering a huge array of arguments in favor of pop culture's wobbly status quo. And as VanDerWerff pointed out, the paradigm of "good TV" is changing and isn't merely restricted to a certain style of single-camera comedies or cable dramas "that probe the darkest limits of the human experience and [have] a bad-boy protagonist."

"Sometimes I watch 'Louie,' which, for my money, is one of the best shows I have ever seen on television, and wonder if it could ever be that a network would air a show where a woman was talking about masturbating and farting (in an awesomely deep way, mind you)," Soloway ("Six Feet Under," "The United States of Tara") said in that email, which she sent while I was researching a story on women's underrepresentation on television writing staffs. "The answer is no -- not because networks hate women, not because studios refuse to hire women creators, but because there is no brand that would be willing to be associated with the idea of such an anti-heroic woman."

HBO is. Maybe I'm being overly optimistic in this piece, but isn't that something? I mean, a network associated with so many great dramas created by so many white dudes over 50 gave the keys to the car to Dunham, who forcefully made a realistically shaped and believably complex woman the center of her show. Along the way, it's worth noting, she created the almost iconic character of Adam, who is, if anything more polarizing and contradictory and ultimately even lovable than Hannah herself. "Girls" just isn't about girls; it's about a whole generation fumbling toward some kind of self-knowledge, and it's done it in a distinctive way that doesn't feel like anything else on TV.

It's been a rollercoaster ride to watch Hannah and Adam's relationship unfold, because they've both been jackasses at times, and they both display the unearned and endearing confidence of youth. Their relationship as a whole subtly and amusingly depicts the joy of finding someone who fascinates you and terror of what it's like to be a young person who doesn't easily trust others. But aside from the Hannah-Adam insanity, there's been so much to enjoy about the show -- the very funny throwaway lines, the unforced pace yet the sense of halting forward movement, the unshowy performances and heartbreaking moments that allowed even the perfect-seeming Marnie to come off as flawed and even broken.

The first season of "Girls" wasn't perfect -- there was sometimes an obvious strain to make a broad joke (i.e., Hannah's drawn-on eyebrows), the show couldn't quite decide if Ray was a jerk or an OK guy, and Shoshanna wasn't particularly well developed for much of the season. And sure, if "Girls" wants to broaden its cultural palette to include other races in Season 2 (as apparently it will), all the better.

Still, "Girls" was remarkably assured and compelling in its first season, and one of its finest accomplishments is recognizing that sometimes silence speaks most eloquently (that's something it takes other creators a long time to learn.) And there was definitely an arc to the season: In the wonderful season finale (which ended, as the first episode began, with Hannah shoving food in her mouth), we saw all the characters making tentative steps toward adulthood, or aping behaviors they thought might lead to some kind of maturity.

Dunham's female characters may display traits that skew female (there's a certain sort of insecure self-hatred that, mixed with a healthy dose of body issues, I see as very female, but maybe that's just me). That sense that you haven't quite figured things out and being confused, at times, about what constitutes appropriate adult behavior -- well, I can tell you as someone who is about to turn 46 that that feeling never completely goes away. Being confused by daily life and yet convinced that a special fate awaits you, not fully knowing how autonomy and dependence work on a day-to-day basis -- these are dilemmas that Dunham has wonderfully, hilariously brought to life this season.

Purely on a storytelling level, Dunham and fellow executive producer Jenni Konner did a fine job all season of building tension and stakes into almost every situation. Relationships and decisions could blow up in people's face, and did so regularly. The wedding of Jessa and Thomas John was shot through with tension, because the entire affair was poised on a razor's edge: It was either a disastrous decision or a not-disastrous one, but only time would tell (and as Adam told us, "Time is a rubber band," one of his typically loony bits of wisdom). Characters made a believable mixture of good decisions and bad decisions, and Marnie, Hannah and Adam's fluctuating levels of self-awareness and self-absorption seemed just right -- and painfully funny -- as the season came to a clsose.

As for Hannah, she got to have her cake and eat it too, but other than that, she was flat broke and alone, abandoned not by her parents this time, but by her boyfriend. Yet nothing about the end of the first season felt like a defeat.

Maybe "Girls" is for people who like things that vibrate "on a very strange frequency." The good news is, there are more of them than the TV industry thinks there are.

Watch a supercut of the guys of "Girls":

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