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HBO’s Accidental Feminism

by Julia Chasman

With last night’s finale of the second season of Girls, and the Enlightened season finale still resonating in my mind, I’ve been thinking more and more about the characters from both shows. The upcoming new season of Veep is only a few weeks away, too, and, even though it’s a more stylized comedy half-hour, it’s another example of what I’ve come to think of as HBO’s inadvertent nod to feminist sensibilities; these three shows have female protagonists who are far from lovable — but we love them. What’s going on here?

The title The Accidental Feminist was used by M.G. Lord for her recent biography of Elizabeth Taylor, and I liked it a lot, and think it’s apropos to this situation too.

I’ve been thinking about this for awhile, and reading with great interest the tsunami of over-excited journalism that Girls in particular has generated. That’s one thing that HBO has got to be happy about — if there’s no bad publicity, then Girls is doing great! And lately, the public has been talking about the characters on the show as if they were real people, criticizing the behavior of Hannah and her “sisters” as though they were disappointed in them, on occasion, like friends who let them down. Girls has also stirred a passionate sometimes divisive debate among its critics, with as many people hating these women as loving them, sometimes throwing stones without even having seen the target (a lot of posts start out, “I haven’t actually watched the show, because I don’t want to waste my time…”).

One of my favorite Hannah-watchers is the wonderful New Yorker writer and TV critic Emily Nussbaum, whose defense of Lena Dunham has so far been unflagging, and whose reminder to us of Girls‘s literary and cinematic forebears — Mary McCarthy and Rona Jaffe, etc — was entirely on the money. Ms. Nussbaum came up with a new moniker for the type of character which I am obsessing over; she has named these women characters “Hummingbirds,” and announced them as a new television archetype. At first I thought she had simply preempted what I wanted to say, but as I have thought about the “Hummingbird” theory….I’m not sure we’re on the same page exactly. (Click here to read Nussbaum’s piece)

I feel like a Hummingbird is meant to be an agent of change. They are characters who ARE leading ladies — or important secondary characters — who are NOT necessarily likable. For me, that is the key here. But Nussbaum loses me in widening her theory so much that I am no longer sure what she’s identifying. In particular when she says there can be male Hummingbirds….I’m lost.

We’re talking about WOMEN here — aren’t we? The list of male series stars of different types, just as in films and books, and history in general — is done! There’s no need for further male prototype identification! Nussbaum includes so many kinds of women characters on so many different shows on different networks — somewhere I lost the thread of what a Hummingbird actually is. Asking for feedback from the blogosphere (which I hope I am providing too), she elicited an excited suggestion from one reader of — Mary Tyler Moore! Now if MTM herself is a new kind of female series character, then…..I’m really confused. I think she is the very definition of the old kind of heroine — the little ray of sunshine around whom all the quirky, less perfect (and much funnier) characters revolve.

On the other hand, Lena Dunham referred to Mary as a go-to source for advice for Hannah, in her recent interview with Playboy:

Mary Tyler Moore. Even though she’s perpetually single, she has a positive attitude about it and doesn’t psycho out on people. She believes she’s gonna make it after all. She’s a pretty good example of chipper, appropriate single-woman attitude.

So — I’m going to reserve Hummingbirds for now, and just enjoy the fact that Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Veep is no Mary Tyler Moore, though she is at the center of a revolving group of hangers-on. She’s unlikable enough to have a weird little smile creep onto her face on the news that the President is having severe chest pains. She blames her staff for everything, even as she is helpless without them, and has no problem hiring a new staffer to be “HER asshole,” as opposed to his working for anyone else. She is definitely not likable in a traditional sense. But we do love her — for her vulnerability, and for her (all too human) flaws.

And so it is with Amy Jellicoe, Laura Dern’s character on Enlightened, the single most annoying series lead in recent memory. I do admire Emily Nussbaum’s likening her to Larry David — an equally transparent failure at presenting himself as an unselfish do-gooder, in Curb Your Enthusiasm. But Larry always had the tables turned on him, and was usually left at the end of each episode having been hoisted by his own petard — the butt of his own joke in one way or another. I’m not criticizing that brilliant show, or the amazing self-knowledge that allowed Larry David to mine his own personal depths of self-loathing for more gold than you would have thought possible, if you count Seinfeld too. But those two shows, though Curb did break some barriers, still stayed within their own self-defined limits. They never took us somewhere unexpected, the way Enlightened does, every week.

It’s also a joy to watch Laura Dern (one of the show’s creators, too) depicting a woman’s epic struggle with her mother (played by her real-life mother Diane Ladd) who fears for every misguided thing that her daughter does, and ends up proudly reading about her on the front page of the L.A. Times along with all the other doubters. I especially love that mother/daughter storyline for speaking to the difficulty of breaking out of your mother’s expectations for you; you’re never a hero at home. I do agree with Nussbaum that it has been a perfect show this season.

But Girls retains a special place in my heart, all the more for its lack of cohesion and perfection. I don’t think I have to list too many of Hannah Horvath’s actions here to remind people of her unlikable qualities; she is a clear challenge to the audience, even if you started out loving her. And this season of Girls has been more uneven than the previous one, with the various storylines moving in and out of clarity, and some bearing no relation to the others in any given episode. This is clearly a work in progress, but in terms of breaking new ground — my hat remains off to Lena Dunham, and her fearlessness in presenting every conceivable view of a contemporary young woman’s state of mind, and body. And the reactions she has provoked!

It was fascinating to see how many people objected to the episode of Hannah’s brief affair with the handsome doctor — on the basis that it was “unrealistic,” when Carrie Bradshaw’s collection of Manolo Blahniks was always considered artistic license! The finale seemed hell-bent on tying things up, but there is a bravery in Lena Dunham’s willingness to have Hannah leave Season 2 at her lowest ebb, even if she does have her true love break down the door to save her.

Here’s what Dunham herself said about her feminist intentions in the Playboy interview:

On Girls I like being a mouthpiece for the issues I think young females face today. It’s always shocking when people question whether it’s a feminist show. How could a show about women exploring women not be? Feminism isn’t a dirty word. It’s not like we’re a deranged group who think women should take over the planet, raise our young on our own and eliminate men from the picture. Feminism is about women having all the rights that men have.

Click here to read the article in its entirety

I know that HBO never intended to leave a mark in the feminist history pages, but history has a way of making strange bedfellows, and I feel that unwittingly, and inadvertently, this network has become part of a new movement of Accidental Feminism. All I can say is — don’t stop now! And welcome to the Sisterhood!

Julia Chasman

About Julia Chasman

Julia Chasman is a veteran film producer, with more than a dozen features to her credit. A resident of Downtown LA's Arts District, she heads her own production company, RubberTreePlant, and travels as much as she can to her other two hometowns -- New York City, and London, England, where she went to high school. A graduate of UCLA's Film of Theater, Film and TV, she's a secret cinema studies nerd, and hopes to complete a masters in Italian one day. Julia is a member of AMPAS, BAFTA, the PGA, and Film Independent. Her favorite film is THE APARTMENT by Billy Wilder. Her proudest accomplishments are her two daughters -- singer/songwriter Johanna Samuels, and Becky Samuels, a junior at Bard College. IMDB

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