Many people may squirm in discomfort while watching the recurring sex- and nudity-filled scenes on Lena Dunham’s show Girls. As frustratingly self-indulgent as the characters of Girls can be, somehow their struggles—whether realistic or not—have proven to be endearing and entertaining to a large and diverse audience. The show seems to have popularized the trope of the broke 20-something woman, perpetuating the view that the postgraduate struggle defines our generation.
And Girls isn’t the only show portraying and popularizing the lives of underemployed young women. CBS’s 2 Broke Girls entered its third season this winter. Broad City, a YouTube series turned Comedy Central primetime show, just announced that it would be producing a second season. Both shows are premised on the same scenario as Girls is. But why does the experience of the broke, female liberal-arts-college graduate, perpetually in crisis, and usually living in Brooklyn, have such broad appeal? Oddly, the largest portion of dedicated viewers of Girls is men over 50, according to the Nielsen Company. These numbers reject the theory that the emerging female protagonists on TV are merely a result of the demands of female viewers. It seems instead that TV viewers in general are craving what Girls successfully presents: complex individuals and the ways that they relate to one another.
Broad City, a show by Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer—alumnae of one of New York’s renowned improv groups, the Upright Citizens Brigade—draws on a similar theme, but has its own spin. Katherine Brooks of the Huffington Post calls Broad City the “stoner heroine tale you’ve been waiting for.” Sariel Frankfurter, a sophomore at Columbia College, says she likes the show because it does not “try to hide the ‘unattractive’ parts of girls. They have poop jokes. They have ridiculous sex scenes. It feels like a very feminist sense of humor.”
Broad City, as Frankfurter notes, is also fighting the misconception that crude comedy is “strictly a male sense of humor,” and offers a refreshing break from the male-dominated field of comedy in general. According to Brooks, “These women can be filthy—goofy humor and disheveled appearances—but they’re also super sexual. ... Male characters played by the likes of Paul Rudd and Jason Segel get away with this all the time, but it’s only recently becoming an aspect of female characters like Leslie Knope,” Amy Poehler’s character on Parks and Recreation.
The girls of Broad City are allowed to be multi-dimensional. Much like the characters of Girls, they have depth and contradict themselves in ways that most female characters in television do not (or are not allowed to). For this reason, Broad City has been deemed “sneak attack feminism” by by pop culture and comedy critic Megan Angelo. Jacobson herself claims, “If you watch one of our episodes, there’s not a big message; but if you watch all of them, I think, they’re empowering to women.” Girls too has been hailed for its empowering—even feminist—message.
Sex and the City, often noted as Girls’ predecessor, is an example of how professional women portrayed in the media can be denied the depth that is granted to Lena Dunham’s aimless and struggling female protagonists. The characters of Sex and the City were described by Sarah Nardi as “cartoonish archetypes,” whose “identities could be summed up in two adjectives or less.” The complex, successful, professional woman is hard to swallow—even for a modern audience. While each of the characters on Sex and the City is incredibly accomplished, we never see their professional endeavors; what we see instead are their sexual failures, which inevitably links female ambition with flailing romantic lives.
Unlike those of the characters on Sex and the City, the struggles of characters on Girls and Broad City are universalized. According to Pazia Miller, who graduated from Barnard College last semester and has made the famous move to Brooklyn, “For a lot of 20-somethings, who are white, liberal arts college, post-college 20-somethings, watching Girls can either be disgusting or like this weird guilty pleasure because it speaks to your life, but it doesn’t speak to your life.” This reaction of simultaneous disgust and attraction is a shared feeling for many who watch Girls. But the romanticization of this struggle doesn’t come without costs.
Some of the most notable and substantial criticisms of Girls have taken issue with its lack of racial diversity. In a Salon article, Katrina Richardson argues that the true problem with the “whiteness” of Girls is that it reinforces the belief that the white experience is “The Default,” universal, or “normal” experience. The acceptance of the struggle of the white characters in Girls or Broad City as universal renders invisible the narratives of women of color in this demographic. It denies the truth that postgraduate women of color on the one hand exist, and on the other, face a unique set of challenges. Women of color experience sexism differently, and have a different experience living in gentrified areas of Brooklyn. Sadly, due to deeply ingrained racism, their aimlessness or struggle is unlikely to be read as charming.
The argument can be made that both Girls and Broad City, as products of writers who are white and college-educated, are reflections of personal experience. However, the problem with this interpretation, as Richardson argues, is that writers such as Dunham have been “duped into believing that her whiteness is background, that it is just ‘regular,’ that it’s default.” By contributing to “a system where the same stories are told from the same points of view,” Richardson continues, these writers continue to support “The Default” and benefit from it.
It is important to recognize the strides both Girls and Broad City have made, but it is equally important to recognize that the experiences that they portray and romanticize are ultimately narrow experiences. They are those of the college-educated white women who often have parents who can afford to bail them out. The ubiquity of broke 20-somethings in pop culture has caused their struggle come to be seen as a welcome fact of post-liberal arts school life. As Miller says, college students see Girls and think this struggle—moving to a “grungy” neighborhood, working in a café—“this could be my life.”
But the romanticization of the “broke” and struggling woman downplays the real-world political, social, and economic problems associated with trends such as gentrification and privileges the white, upper-middle class experience.
We all know that television and film are not real life; yet it is undeniable that the things we watch on TV are a part of us. They are a testament to our times, and both reflect our views of the world and inform them. This is what makes the lack of diversity, the lack of depth in television portrayals so very scary.
The emerging trend of young female protagonists in television offers hope that the tide may be turning for women in television. The portrayal of women in Girls and Broad City does important work to expand the ways in which women can be portrayed on TV; but it also represents a limited experience that silences and ignores minority voices and experiences. In other words, the hipster girl slumming it in Brooklyn who smokes weed and makes crude jokes may have been accepted as mainstream; but she’s become yet another female stereotype that we’ll have to combat.