As the second season of the popular HBO sitcom Girls (2012–ongoing) draws to a close, it seems like a good moment to look at some of the girls on television today. Because there are quite a few of them. About a year ago, the only one was Gossip Girl (2007–12). Today, I can think of at least five shows whose title includes the word ‘girl’: besides Girls there are 2 Broke Girls (2011–ongoing), Bomb Girls (2012–ongoing), New Girl (2011–ongoing) and Lost Girl (2010–ongoing). By contrast, there are no shows about boys. So what’s going on? Are we in the midst of a full-blown, fourth-wave feminist revolution at the hands of teenagers? Or are we witnessing the mass infantilization of women? Because, for all the girls, there are no contemporary television programmes about women – wives, yes, but women, no. (In comparison, men feature in the titles of three current TV shows.)
The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘girls’ as ‘female children’. The term can also designate young women who have not yet fully matured. I realize it is slightly disingenuous to introduce this definition here, as colloquial language also uses ‘girl’ in other ways – ‘one of the girls’, ‘girlfriend’ etc. – but it serves to show the difference from ‘women’, which connotes ‘adult females’. None of the main characters in the above programmes are children. Arguably, some of them are young women – Hannah and her friends in Girls, the 2 Broke Girls – but the question remains: why not call them women? Calling these characters ‘girls’ suggests that they are not yet independent or self-reliant. Indeed, the period drama Bomb Girls uses the term to hint at the derogatory ways working women were talked about in the 1940s: not strong-minded, responsible adults but helpless, naive children.
As the Norwegian television scholar Gry Cecilie Rustad has pointed out, this nomenclature is most problematic in New Girl, a FOX sitcom in which a young woman, Jess, tries to find love, get a job and set up home. Heavy stuff. But not so for this ‘girl’. She celebrates unemployment by baking cupcakes; she plays with dolls and literally has trouble dressing herself. I often find myself waiting for her to start lisping like a toddler. Uncomfortably, the camera frames her as an object of desire, singling her out, gazing at her lips and legs. In New Girl, ‘girl’ appears to mean both childlike and sexually attractive. There are other genres that correlate to that combination – but they, of course, are illegal.
Cupcakes also form an important part of the identity of the CBS comedy 2 Broke Girls. Here, however, they have little to do with clumsy cutesiness and everything to do with serious business. Down-and-out 20-somethings Max and Caroline try to escape poverty by starting a bakery. Slowly but surely, they manage to make a life for themselves. The cupcake is not what draws them back into childhood (or makes them attractive to certain kinds of men and women), but precisely what pulls them out of it. I personally find 2 Broke Girls one of the most poorly written and awkwardly timed comedies on television these days – but at least it got this part of its politics right.
In Girls, the term also functions as a marker of coming-of-age, a process of trial and error culminating, supposedly, in adulthood. The show cleverly reflects upon the challenges facing 21st-century white, middle-class, urbanites in their 20s: not simply, as its predecessor Sex and the City made us believe, which shoes to wear or men to sleep with, but how to negotiate your parents’ – or friends’ or college professors’ or bosses’ – expectations with those of your own, your abstract desires with your concrete needs, how to struggle, to resist, to adapt or to accept the realities of the present, unfair and unequal as they are – and unrecognized by popular discourse. The title seems to suggest that a woman is someone who can successfully address those challenges. Until then, regardless of age, you remain a girl. Since these challenges at times seem insurmountable, you are left wondering whether in this show’s universe anyone can ever be a woman.
Definitely the weirdest of the bunch is Lost Girl. An action drama about an athletic woman with high cheekbones and superhuman abilities, this is no Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003), or even Xena: Princess Warrior (1995–2001). Where Buffy moves with the speed of light and Xena has the strength of ten oxen, Lost Girl’s superpower is seduction. Instead of driving stakes through hearts or chopping off heads, her preferred act of killing is sexing someone to death. Do I need to say more?
Taken collectively, these programmes highlight how difficult it is for young women to fulfil the contradictory role models available to them today. Of course, as a man, I am not speaking from direct experience. But judging from these shows, contemporary womanhood is a constant struggle between the illusions of post-feminism and daily experience. Far from ‘having it all’, these titular ‘girls’ would be happy to have something. Few of them are successful in their chosen professions; hardly any have a happy love life; none of them seem particularly pleased with themselves. What these ‘girls’ are trying to find out is the kind of women they can actually be. You’d just hope there were more opportunities out there for them, and more shows in which they could succeed.
Timotheus Vermeulen is associate professor in Media, Culture and Society at the University of Oslo and a regular contributor to frieze. His latest book, Metamodernism: Historicity, Affect and Depth after Postmodernism, co-edited with Robin van den Akker and Alison Gibbons, is published with Rowman and Littlefield.
First published in Issue 154