“Girls,” “Anger Management”, and The Illusion of Biography

 “I’m a lady. She’s a lady. You’re a lady. We’re the ladies.”“Girls”

“Actor. Icon. Winner.” –From the new FX promo for “Anger Management”

I know, I know: for the last week or so, you’ve been searching in vain for something, ANYTHING, about Lena Dunham, creator of the new HBO series “Girls.” And yet, it’s impossible. Try finding the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, or Atlantis and you’ll have better luck than finding out thoughts about Dunham or her show in the last seven days on the interwebs. Oh wait: all of the words on the internet over the last quarter of the month have been dedicated to her, it seems. If I forgot, it’s only because I’ve struck my head enough times on the wall to forget about them.

Why? It’s not because Dunham or “Girls” isn’t worth writing about or reading about. But we have reached an increasingly overflowing saturation point in the week leading up to and after the premiere of the program that it was no longer possible to carry zero baggage into the viewing of the show itself. Think it was hard to find a juror in the O.J. Simpson case? Try finding someone tuning into the show that hadn’t already absorbed several of the eight billion words written about it. It’s the kind of exposure HBO will kill for, even if not something that the network actively sought out. Rather, “Girls” clearly touched a lot of nerves with critics, who all sought out Dunham. In term, Dunham was more than gracious with her time, offering up stellar quotes and interesting observations.

In fact, they were so stellar and interesting that many brought them into their viewing experience, which has caused a curious phenomenon in which opinions about Dunham’s biography have seeped into criticisms of the show. It’s apparently not enough to view the show as a piece of television that doesn’t save the world as we know it. (Spoiler alert: it is actually OK to say that. Honestly. It’s still allowed!) Rather, any faults in the show were either identified with or exacerbated by the supposed knowledge of Dunham herself and the journey she took towards the creation of “Girls”. Such vitriol took such annoying yet ultimately benevolent forms such as…

  • “She’s just writing herself!” More than likely untrue on the whole, but if so, so what? Things get murkier when it comes to the world around her (whiter than the Red Sox pre-Jackie Robinson…and well, for a long time after Jackie Robinson). But while it’s perfectly possible to write beyond one’s own experiences, no one seemed to shit on David Milch for writing about horses, and he sure knew a lot about them. They may have said the result was a boring, navel-gazing experience, but few piled on the topic itself.
  • “She’s just a child of nepotism!” This extends to the entire cast, as shown here, although you could level that charge at many beloved writers such as Joss Whedon, and we all love bashing him for not making it into the industry himself. Oh, wait…

0415_girls_jpg_627×325_crop_upscale_q85.jpgTo be fair, I think the Dunham/Whedon thing falls apart on one level since he paid a lot of dues before getting to create “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Also, at SOME point, talent has to win out, despite any doors being opened for you. (Otherwise, Tori Spelling and Rockwell would rule the TV and music landscapes, respectively.) But is Dunham’s meteoric rise somehow a slam on Whedon? Is she better than him? Or did she simply come along at a time when television was fragmented enough to allow more opportunities for more people? And here’s another question: if so many opportunities now exist, why are so few going to young people, females and people of color? If anything we should be celebrating Dunham’s presence, even if we’re not celebrating the show. It is possible to make that distinction, even if Al Gore created the Internet for the sole purpose of obliterating nuance.

That’s my current stance, though I have only seen the pilot. And the pilot is pretty much “Girl,” not “Girls,” with Dunham’s Hannah dominating the proceedings. It didn’t grab me, but it didn’t repel me either. But what seemed to repel so many was just the idea of the show filtered through the sheer volume of verbiage written about the program in the two weeks surrounding its premiere. Would there have been a backlash against “Girls” via Dunham’s real life story had the press not written so much about it? If critics and journalists treated this like, say, “The Life and Times of Tim,” would there be any embers for anyone to create a fire? I doubt it. That’s not to say that this is a media-created sensation through which they get to maximize hits and revenue by building something up and then cashing in on its downfall. People in the industry genuinely loved this show. And they loved it so goddamn much that they turned a majority of potential viewers off of it before a single minute of the show aired.

Is this fair? Probably not. But it also shouldn’t be unexpected or surprising. The amount of vitriol is perhaps surprising. And it’s certainly both excessive and often depressing. (Good GOD, the sexism. People seem to be really fucking interested in minority representation when a female is in the creator chair, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t see a host of African-Americans in “Luck.) But a lot of the audience that heavily reads entertainment/pop culture websites, follow those writers on Twitter, and generally engage actively in this virtual community were sometimes sick and tired of hearing about how this show was the greatest things since sliced bread. And when the pilot failed to live up to those impossible expectations, they immediately vocalized their distaste. But while they often expressed said distaste at the television, they also expressed it either subtly or explicitly at the critic/journalist who had been talking up the screeners for weeks and months.

At the heart of all of this hubbub lies a fundamental conundrum. It’s not “Does biography affect one’s interpretation of art?” The answer that seems to be a “yes,” whether we like it or not, as expressed by The A.V. Club’s Tasha Robinson already. The issue rather lies in whether or not we can ever truly trust the biographies being offered up online, in trade papers, in magazines, in newspapers. It’s hard enough trusting representations of people you encounter on a regular basis in real-life. And while it’s tempting to think you know more about Dunham than your own grandmother after reading the Bible-sized tome of articles about her in recent weeks, you really don’t. You know a part of her. But you don’t know which part. Therefore, assigning a 1-to-1 relationship between something in her life to something in this show is a fallacy, just as it’s an equal fallacy in any case. You can make deductions. You can reach reasonable conclusions. You can probably get close. But you’ll never get all the way.

I brought up the Twitter feeds not to conflate TV critics with Dunham in terms of being hopelessly and tragically misunderstood. (We critics are fine. We all play in a Scrooge McDuck-like pool of gold coins and have sex with supermodels every single day. It’s glorious and you all wish you were us, clearly.) Rather, the issues surrounding Dunham’s biography do point to the way in which closeness is falsified in the digital age. It’s not necessarily falsified in everyday life: My mom pretty much has a good sense of what I am doing everyday thanks to Facebook, even if none of those things adequately explain why I don’t call her more often. Rather, there’s a false sense of familiarity that arises through reading an article or subscribing to a Twitter feed, or even engaging with other fans that creates this perception of a person that can’t possibly live up to the real thing. And when reality comes crashing in, batten down the freaking hatches.

charlie-sheen-anger-management-teaser-coffin-youtube.jpgNone of this is to say that Dunham has falsified anything in any interview. But unfortunately, truth isn’t some unequivocal thing that can’t be spun, manipulated, and tweaked to fit the particular mindset of someone willing to view it from a particular perspective. But what’s so fascinating to me is exactly what people are willing to tolerate when it comes to these sorts of things. People want to hang Lena Dunham for apparently recreating her life on HBO. But people are willing to give Charlie Sheen a comeback chance with FX’s “Anger Management.” I’d argue we know about as much as these two people as can be known, while allowing for the fact that there’s still plenty we don’t. But we know as a FACT that Sheen has a history of alleged domestic abuse with women, and that Dunham committed the major crime of having parents who were artists and supported her work.

See? I just stated two facts, and neither encompasses the totality of their experience. But certain facts probably should matter more than others, even if you can’t get into the exact mindset/psychology around them. People tend to have sympathy for drug users that try to make themselves better. People tend to have less sympathy for those that hurt others while under the influence, and moreover show little to no remorse over it. When speaking with Alyssa Rosenberg, FX President John Landgraf had this to say about what makes someone unemployable: “I can’t tell you what that is. But the answer’s clearly yes. You can certainly imagine a performer doing something that renders them unemployable. Again, what is that? I don’t know.” He’s somewhat hinting at what I’ve outlined above: that it’s impossible to judge someone from the outside of their own experience. But while that’s true on a wide variety of topics, I’m not sure Sheen’s criminal history is one of those things.

But it’s very hard to argue that people shouldn’t watch a show based on his or her biography, especially when FX makes light of Sheen’s personal/professional problems in their promos for “Anger Management.” In the first, they show him in a coffin, an allusion to both his character’s death on “Two And A Half Men” as well as his own career. In the most recent one, Sheen talks directly to the camera and states, “Come on, everyone deserves a 24th chance!” It’s a slippery slope, to be sure, especially when all the vitriol hurled against the Grammys for featuring Chris Brown every five minutes in this year’s show was dulled the moment Rihanna started collaborating with him on new material. If she doesn’t care, then why the hell should we?

That’s a bullshit question, of course, especially in light of that notorious Buzzfeed article that showed how many young women were offering themselves up as the victim of domestic abuse. If Sheen has screwed up his own physiology twenty-three times, he could perhaps ask for more forgiveness. It would still be a silly request, but there wouldn’t be any harm above and beyond his own reach. Clearly that’s not the case, as his problems have affected people on an emotional and/or economic scale. Putting aside the bad taste FX risks putting in the mouths of viewers used to strong, complicated male characters on his network with Sheen, they also risk spending a lot of money on a person that could single-handedly hurt their bottom line. The former should matter more than the latter, but that latter should makes that taste much easier to swallow. If “Anger Management” gets “Terriers”-like numbers, things will pretty much decide themselves, irrespective of the moral component this supposed comeback.

But there I go again, putting thoughts into people’s brains. Still, while things can get pretty deconstruction-y pretty quick when dealing with analyzing people’s true intents, there are ways to do so that don’t involve attacking people we don’t know in real life. Moreover, if we’re going to hurl pointed criticisms at people, it should be 1) at the right people and 2) for the right reasons. There are a dozen ways to say that “Girls” isn’t a quality show without resorting to Dunham’s past to do so, especially in an age when people will let actual crimes slide just because they just like the actor in question, darnit. Rosenberg’s reflections on the lack of female anti-heroes may be the key to unlocking all of this. We’re willing to tolerate “complexity” in our male stars that we simply don’t in female stars, and this has translated into television. Some, like “Weeds”’ Nancy Botwin, have come close, but there’s still the assumption that men can fall and pick themselves up while women need to always stand. Someone like Sheen can fuck up twenty-three times and have people primed for a twenty-fourth. But anything less than perfection for Dunham leads to an outcry. It’s always interesting to see what things people will dismiss to fit their worldview, and those things they will invent to maintain it.

One Comment

  1. Posted April 23, 2012 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

    I heard about this blog post from Anne Moore. Thank you so much for this thoughtful commentary. I’ve certainly been skeptical of the show for a lot of the reasons you cite (nepotism, class issues, lack of diverse cast, etc), but at the same time, I’ve been wondering if the show would be criticized so much if it had been created by a man. I really appreciate your putting into words what I couldn’t quite pinpoint and tackling the complexity of this issue. (Also, despite everything, I thought the pilot was funny.)