Monday, March 25, 2013

Slate's ultimately sexist "Guys on Girls" column fails to validate its existence

     Lena Dunham and Patrick Wilson on "Girls".
     Photo Credit: HBO

This essay was originally submitted as a web feature assignment for my "Journalism and Social Change" class on February 28. That piece was capped at 1,000 words, but the version I've included here is slightly longer (I excised some unnecessary critical blather that made it extremely obvious how badly I was getting away with writing about a TV show for a school assignment). I also got some excellent quotes from Mo Ryan at The Huffington Post that unfortunately came too late to be included in the piece (my fault for leaving it so late, as well as making the piece so long that I wouldn't have been able to fit her quotes in anyway). Probably fair to point out that Emily Nussbaum did have something nice to say about the guys' discussion of Adam and Natalia's bad thing in the "On All Fours" episode on March 10. As for the others, who knows if they have had a change of heart re: the "Guys on Girls" feature, or whether they've kept up with at all. I know Jaime Weinman said he wasn't reading it regularly when I asked about it.

General disgust after the jump...

When HBO announced in January 2011 they were picking up Lena Dunham’s comedy series “Girls,” odds are nobody at the network asked this question: “Did we just put into motion a series of events designed to break the Internet?”

Yet two years and 17 episodes later, having a rational conversation online about the show void of intruding comments by misogynist ignoramuses is nearly impossible.

The Internet is full of diverse opinions. Some of them come from men, some from women. Some come from white people, and some don’ get the idea. If it exists, someone’s written about it. And if it’s something popular, divisive, or both, there will be a lot of people writing about it.

There’s been a trend online lately in which commentators are drafted not because of abilities, opinions, or writing style, but solely because they represent a different viewpoint. What makes an interesting viewpoint is not necessarily the text of the analysis. If the gimmick of a piece of writing is the gender of the writer, that’s not interesting – what’s interesting is the subtext of why a writer feels a certain way, whether or not it’s related to gender. ThinkProgress doesn’t promote culture reporter Alyssa Rosenberg as a feminist critic or even as coming from a woman. She’s a critic who has feminist viewpoints, and sometimes that influences her opinions and to ponder why and how is what’s fascinating.

The point is: “Here’s a man/woman, what does he/she think?” is not interesting – “Here’s a person: what do they think, why do they think that, and what makes them see this differently than somebody else?” is.

Some criticism is built on a foundation of artistic discussion, which can be influenced by issues of gender among several other topics. Others are built on a foundation of gender, and artistic discussion can only be extrapolated from that lens. The latter resulted in two dudes discussing one of the medium’s most intensely personal creative expressions and boiling it down to whether the main character is hot enough for them to buy the story.

The website Slate offers a weekly roundtable discussion called “Guys on Girls”. It’s a column in which guys talk about the show “Girls”...and that’s about it. Do these guys have anything insightful to say about the show? Only occasionally, but who cares? “Guys on Girls”! It’s clever, no? (No.) The term “gimmick,” used earlier to describe this sort of writing, is being extremely generous. The sum total paid to the person who came up with the idea hopefully amounted to nothing more than a high five, or somebody yelling “Quick, before someone else does it!”

But no one was clamouring to jump on board this bandwagon after the guys’ discussion of the episode “One Man’s Trash,” in which Dunham’s Hannah has a weekend fling with an older man played by Patrick Wilson, caught the attention of the Internet. In addition to a number of articles that appeared online at this time, with condescending titles like “Lena Dunham WouldNever Score With Patrick Wilson, But She Deserves Him,” came this “Guys on Girls” discussion between David Haglund and Daniel Engber:

Haglund: [...] Presumably there are things that Hannah would not, in any world that resembled our own, get. Such as Patrick Wilson, for instance. want to suspend my disbelief—just as viewers have, for generations, imagined that Al could get Peggy and Homer could get Marge and Jim Belushi could snag Courtney Thorne-Smith. But the show needs to work harder to make that seem feasible. And not pile implausibility upon implausibility.

Engber: I felt trapped by my unwillingness to buy into the central premise. Narcissistic, childish men sleep with beautiful women all the time in movies and on TV, so why should this coupling be so difficult to fathom? I think it’s because Hannah is especially and assertively ugly in this episode. She’s rude (“what did you do?” she asks Joshua, referring to his broken marriage), self-centered (“I’m too smart and too sensitive”), sexually ungenerous (“no, make me come”), and defiantly ungraceful (naked ping-pong). In sum, the episode felt like a finger poked in my guys-on-Girls eyeball, or a double-dog dare for me to ask, How can a girl like that get a guy like this? Am I small-minded if I’m stuck on how this fantasy is too much of a fantasy and remembering what Patrick Wilson’s real-life partner looks like?”

(Haglund and Engber did themselves no favours by originally linking to a photo that was not actually of Wilson’s wife Dagmara Domincyzk.)

First off, has Haglund actually watched any of the shows whose central couples he’s referencing? “Married...with Children” went out of its way to paint Peggy Bundy as a ridiculous parody, with her big hair and outdated fashions always being played for laughs. If anything, that was a show about two unapologetically unpleasant people who couldn’t possibly deserve each other more. No one ever said, “Wow, that Peggy Bundy is so hot, a lazy slob like Al would never get her, this is completely unbelievable,” and even if they had, they would have been drowned out by the countless more who were criticizing the show’s racy content. The reason that Marge Bouvier loves Homer Simpson wasn’t because of the way he looked – it was because he was a nice guy who cared about her, which she realized when her prom date Artie Ziff turned out to be a creep who was only after her for sex.

Readers were taken aback by the conversation. 19-year-old McMaster student Hayley Newton counts “Girls” among her favourite shows and says Haglund and Engber “sounded like idiots.”

“You didn't buy it because Hannah would never get a guy like him? Have you ever met real humans?” Newton says. “We don't pick partners purely based entirely on looks, and even when we evaluate attractiveness, it's subjective. Case in point: I think Lena Dunham is really gorgeous. The Internet does not.”

Some fellow critics were similarly unimpressed. Maclean's entertainment writer Jaime Weinman called the “gimmick” “a bit silly.” He cites a Vulture piece that found the small audience for “Girls” was actually comprised of more men than women, with men making up 56% of the audience.

“The method might make more sense for something like “Grey’s Anatomy” that relatively few men watch,” Weinman says. “But the idea of "Guys on Girls" seems to imply that because the show is about women, men are somehow viewing the whole thing from the outside. I just don't think that's how we experience entertainment.”

Emily Nussbaum, TV critic for The New Yorker, says the discussion was “moronic” but not just because men were critiquing the show. “Some of the better reviews I've read of ‘Girls’ have been by male critics, although they weren't marked as ‘A Man's Opinion on a Show About Women’ – that seems like a strange lens to view any kind of art,” Nussbaum says.

Mo Ryan of The Huffington Post says she’s read a couple of Haglund and Engber’s discussions, and they’re “not for her”.

“I love that ‘Girls’ engages both men and women and starts so many conversations. But people who write about or talk about it without thinking much about the show before they do -- that's the least interesting conversation to have,” says Ryan. “I think in a really general sense, women respond to it more deeply and personally and thus writing from women sometimes resonates more for me, but there are all kinds of people writing smart things about the show. And then there are a few (male and female) who write in the most superficial manner, and that stuff is pretty skippable.”

Weinman says the views of these men couldn’t be seen as representative of men at large “only because most people have never seen ‘Girls’”. While it’s true the series only draws about 700,000 viewers a week, most men would hopefully be dismayed to see that Slate’s analysis was being branded, or at least could be interpreted, as the representative opinion of men everywhere.

“Guys on Girls” contributes very little to an already overcrowded and hostile discourse about the show online. When it does attract attention, it’s due to outrage rather than substance. The old adage “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” obviously doesn’t align with any sort of ideology of artistic criticism. But perhaps Slate would be better off realizing that “If you don’t have anything to contribute to a dialogue, don’t force it.”

Can't let this go up without once again thanking Nussbaum, Weinman, and Ryan for all getting back to me very quickly, considering I wrote to them at around midnight with only a couple days until the paper was due. I've attached Mo Ryan's full answers to my questions (in purple) below since she's the best for taking the time to write all of that to me, and I still feel bad for failing to better represent her in the piece. Also worth mentioning is the response Haglund wrote afterwards. It doesn't change or invalidate what I've written above, but if you want his follow up to the whole debacle...there ya go.

Do you agree with their analysis/criticisms? 

I must admit, I've only read a couple of their takes on the show and it's not for me. Here's the basic thing about Girls that really matters when it comes to writing about the show: Girls really forces you to think about things that we normally take for granted, as critics and viewers. We're used to certain kinds of plots, stories and characters, and certain kinds of likability. Especially when it comes to female characters on TV, we're generally used to certain kinds of personalities, and none of the Girls characters neatly fit into those categories. Girls asks you to ask yourself: Why am I having this reaction? Why do I approve of or disapprove of this story or that action? What's causing me to have this reaction? So you really have to interrogate yourself as a viewer, and dig into all these kinds of unsettled reactions, before you can sit down and write about it. You may just be writing about your unsettled feelings, but I think you have to marshal your thoughts in a disciplined way before writing about it. What I'm trying to say is, those who write well about Girls go beyond the surface, and that particular Slate analysis stays stubbornly on the surface, which is frustrating and not particularly entertaining, in my opinion. 

Do you think their opinions are representative of men at large? 

Not at all. Clearly there are a lot of men watching Girls, based on ratings and anecdotal evidence, and there are quite a few male critics writing perceptive and interesting things about the show. I love that Girls engages both men and women and starts so many conversations. But people who write about or talk about it without thinking much about the show before they do -- that's the least interesting conversation to have. I think in a really general sense, women respond to it more deeply and personally and thus writing from women sometimes resonates more for me, but there are all kinds of people writing smart things about the show. And then there are a few (male and female) who write in the most superficial manner, and that stuff is pretty skippable. 

Do you think this is an interesting approach for Slate to take in reviewing the show? 

I can understand why they're doing it -- Girls is so popular that it'd be crazy not to try to think up new ways to come at it -- but I just wish it was more thoughtful. There's nothing wrong with an approach that is kind of lighter and funnier, but that particular column is just kind of a regurgitation of a bunch of biases and off-putting interpretations. From what I've read, these guys are often surprised that these female characters don't act a certain way, that they're not ashamed of themselves or their bodies, there's a problem with them being too assertive, etc. It's as if, by not conforming to other TV tropes and stereotypes, these women are "wrong" or offensive on some level. If that's where they're starting from, it can only go downhill. And I should add that Slate does a lot of smart, interesting TV coverage, but I wouldn't put that column in the "smart" or "interesting" category. 

And could this start a trend of "show targeted at specific gender is critiqued by opposite gender," such as a "Girls on Spike TV Bro Shows" feature?

That could be kind of fun, done right, I guess. But the shows in question would have to be popular enough to rate that kind of treatment. And you could argue that since so many shows these days are about male protagonists or male worlds, that any time a woman writes about those kinds of shows, a similar dynamic is taking place. I think it's really cool that people are willing to think about gender when they're writing about TV, but I wouldn't want to see that becoming a huge or overwhelming focus of TV coverage. It's not the only lens through which I see TV, though it's one important facet of what I watch and how I approach my work, for sure. But I can't see myself sitting through much Spike TV any time soon, heh.