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27 January 2014updated 07 Sep 2021 11:03am

Why Lena Dunham’s Girls can’t speak for all women – and shouldn’t have to

By Laurie Penny

Hey, girls, we’re all the same, aren’t we? At least, that’s what they’d like us to think. We are living through a time of unprecedented narrative richness, when people from an enormous range of backgrounds, including women and people of colour, are at last beginning to share stories about their lives across boundaries of class and distance. But you wouldn’t know it from the mainstream press, which still reserves very few places for female creators, who are expected to represent all womankind, and then excoriated when inevitably they fail to do so.

Take the three-year storm of publicity around the HBO series Girls, which follows the lives of four young, white twentysomethings living in Brooklyn. I am often asked if I relate to Girls. Well. I’m a white, middle-class media professional in my mid-twenties living and dating in a major western metropolis. Of course I relate to Girls. But what’s more important is whether or not any piece of art to which some women relate – particularly women from a certain privileged demographic – can be considered definitive.

The vivisection of Girls and of its creator, Lena Dunham, has become a cultural project involving hundreds of writers, critics, blogs and TV pundits worldwide. Besides talk of more serious issues of race and representation, there have been articles obsessing over such matters as whether Dunham’s jawline was tightened in her photo shoot for Vogue. There have been interminable debates over the nudity in the show. There has been barely disguised rage that a woman who isn’t a standard Hollywood beauty is allowed to display her body in public.

The American website Jezebel offered $10,000 for un-airbrushed images of the Vogue photos, as if having one’s hips narrowed in post-production were hard evidence of betraying the sisterhood – of not being a perfect poster girl for global feminism. As Dunham told the Huffington Post in 2012: “The idea that I could speak for everyone is so absurd.” But the reactionary trend of taking any rich, young, white girl’s story and making it a totem for young womanhood everywhere is bigger than Dunham, and it’s a brutal beast to battle.

Nobody is saying Lena Dunham doesn’t deserve critique. Debate and discussion are part of the life of a piece of art. But no male showrunner ever gets subjected to quite this sort of intense scrutiny, this who-are-you-and-how-dare-you. No male showrunner ever gets asked to speak to a universal male experience in the same way, because “man” is still a synonym for “human being” in a way that “woman” is not. When men direct honest, funny television shows about young men living their lives, it’s not “television that defines the young male experience”, it’s just television. When men write “confessional literature”, it’s just called “literature”.

Forbidding any woman simply to be an artist, forbidding us from speaking about our experience without having it universalised and trivialised, is the sort of broad-brush benevolent sexism that undermines the threat that a multitude of female voices might otherwise pose. It comes from a culture that puts up endless barriers to prevent women and girls from expressing ourselves honestly in public and treats us like fascinating freaks when somehow we do.

It is still so rare, so unbelievably, fist-clenchingly rare, to see young women depicted in the mainstream media with anything like accuracy – as human beings rather than pretty punctuation in somebody else’s story – that as soon as it happens we want it to be more than it is. So Girls is asked to speak for every young woman everywhere but torn apart when it doesn’t, because nobody can and nobody ever could.

In 2012 Kendra James, a black writer with a social and educational background similar to Dunham’s, asked: “Why are the only lives that can be mined for ‘universal experiences’ the lives of white women?” In mainstream culture white, straight, middle-class women don’t get to speak about their experience without having it universalised and made meaningless in the process. Meanwhile, black women, poor women and queer women usually don’t get to speak about their experience at all (in 2013, only one black female director released a major film). Essentialism is as racist and classist as it is sexist. It is always reactionary. The idea of girlhood as a universal story is a great way to stop individual stories being heard.

The politics of cultural representation is riven by resentment, and for good reason. This is a society that reserves a very limited number of places for female writers and artists – fewer still for women who are not white, straight and middle-class – and then demands that they speak as women first and as human beings second.

Those who by chance or privilege manage to attain these totemic positions become lightning rods for the rage of those who were not chosen, who do not see big-budget dramas made about their lives, who are called on only, if at all, to describe what it is like to live as the “other”. Only white girls get to be Everygirl. That’s why the idea of Everygirl is bullshit.

Feminism will have achieved something huge when it is no longer expected that one artist will stand in for every young woman everywhere. If there’s one thing about the phenomenon of Girls that does speak to a universal female experience, it is the spectacle of being crushed by impossibly high expectations.

It is the telling of many diverse stories, rather than the search for the perfect arche­type, that will challenge the narrative of patriarchy. To paraphrase Mikhail Bakunin, there’s no such thing as a perfect poster girl for feminism – and if there was, we’d have to destroy her.

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