I was a huge Sex and the City fan. A clear-cut Carrie with a hint of Miranda and splash of Samantha. I screamed, “Oh my God, me too” at the endless similarities to my own sexual misadventures, and rejoiced that women on TV were being unapologetically and uncontrollably horny. At last, women like me and my friends were being represented. Sex and the City gave women the confidence to own their sexuality; it was the voice of a generation, a movement that helped us take a huge feminist leap forward and say, “I’m up for it” without being judged. But somewhere among the glitz and sexual glamour is a false picture of how life can really be.
I watch it now and their “have a cupcake and get over it” attitude doesn’t represent real life at all. Carrie’s bottomless pay packet, off the back of a writing career that reached no further than Manhattan, is ludicrous. In retrospect, this “accurate” portrayal of the modern woman wasn’t accurate at all. They were caricatures, four women so obsessed with finding men that life beyond their sex lives was more of a Disney adventure than real life. It now feels outdated, fixed, often mythical. But you know what? That’s OK. It’s OK because now we have Girls.
Girls is a new comedy series about four 20-something females with four very different attitudes. Hannah, Jessa, Marnie and Shoshanna are all trying to work through the dramas of life and love while living in New York. Sound familiar? Of course it does, but the difference is that Brooklyn provides a backdrop far more reminiscent of anywhere else in the world than the unsurpassable streets of Manhattan. The script is gritty, the sex is grubby, and matching shoes to dresses is just a lucky mistake.
Sex and the City served its purpose as every woman’s aspiration, but Girls is our grim reality. Watching smart young women in a recession struggling to get work and pay the bills is a position many of the viewers will be in. How gratifying to watch a TV show and think, “Me too” rather than be left feeling inadequate because the characters only remind you what you will probably never have.
Hannah, played by Lena Dunham, 26, who also wrote, directed and produced the series, is an often unlikeable but utterly captivating lead. Financially dumped by her parents in the first episode, she is left to fend for herself. A seemingly terrifying and impossible task that she wholly believes she shouldn’t have to do. Calling herself a writer and insisting that her book of short stories is the key to her millions, she’s convinced that she is “the voice of her generation”. And however loath I am to admit it, she is.
Closely based on Dunham’s own experiences, Girls is the most honest portrayal of women I have ever seen on TV. I don’t want to turn my back on SATC but it’s hard not to scoff at the ridiculous way that these women had to be glamorised, pruned to perfection, stylish beyond what most women could ever achieve and basically wrapped up in pretty paper to make what they were talking about palatable. Watching it now, the packaging offends me a little. Was the only way women could be accepted as sexual predators to have them talk about it fully made-up over a slice of cake?
That’s where Girls smashes SATC out of the park. There’s no fancy packaging. Hannah turns up at her sort-of boyfriend’s apartment, feeling unsure and embarrassed the minute she gets in the door. He offers her the chance to embark in some achingly awkward sex and she obliges. There’s no fake empowerment, there are just willing mistakes that sometimes pay off and sometimes don’t. Hannah knows she wants an exciting life, but life isn’t offering much. So she launches herself into a wild sexual adventure that as a viewer makes you want to reach into the TV and drag her out. The lack of comedic and irritating kookiness never has you presuming that things will be OK for her.
One episode sees Hannah discover that she has the sexually transmitted HPV virus, something she has picked up from one of her few lovers. After accusing them all, she finally accepts the blame, and in a gorgeously modern moment where she sits on her bed wondering what her Twitter update of the day will be, she simply writes: “All adventurous women do”. I think at this point I may have punched the air.
Of course she isn’t suggesting that all adventurous girls get STDs, or even brushing off her situation as trivial, she is simply saying that if you take risks in life, you may suffer some consequences, and that’s just that. It didn’t make me fear consequences, it made me want to go out and face some. This was the moment that I realised Girls is about real empowerment, and taking responsibility for who we are. It’s your attitude towards yourself that will get you by, not going shopping with your friends.
Watching Samantha rip her clothes off in SATC, I used to think, “Yay, nudity. Look at that, she is owning it.” But then Dunham stripped off and I realised that I had never seen such brazen confidence from a woman like that on TV before.
Samantha and co’s beauty and body perfection wasn’t inspiring me to get naked, it was inspiring me to go to the gym. Hannah had no obvious hangups about her body shape, and made no apologies for it. Seeing Dunham naked on TV was more comfortable than watching Samantha spread herself across a bedroom wall ever was, and Lena’s “everygirl” shape allows you to sit back and enjoy without worrying about the dimples on your thighs. If nudity in Sex and the City felt like progress, then in Girls we have achieved the goal. Those tiny, unapologetic moments give Girls a voice that speaks louder than any portrayal of women on TV before.
Lena Dunham has not only been brave enough to expose herself physically, but emotionally too. Girls is written from the heart, honestly, from experience. Watching these four work out who they are is as inspiring as it is reassuring. They find their way out of their problems and work stuff out for themselves, like all adventurous women do.
Disclaimer: you may notice that my husband Chris O’Dowd plays a small part towards the end of the series. I assure you this has no influence on how much I love Girls. I closed my eyes for that bit.