So after all the predictions that HBO’s “Girls” would be the next “Sex and the City” and hosannas about how great it was that women would finally (finally?) get a voice on television, it turns out that the largest audience for this show was men. According to Nielsen’s Live +7 ratings, which includes a week of DVR playback, an average of 712,00 men watched “Girls” over the first eight weeks of the season, compared to 573,000 women.
This trend holds for all age groups. Whether they are young, middle-aged or seniors, more men than women watch “Girls.” (The gender gap is actually highest among viewers 55+, where men outwatch women by more than three to two.)
It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this. Except for the new season of “Mad Men,” the premiere of “Girls” became the most widely anticipated event of the year, and most (but not all) of the hype was generated from women’s blogs, double-X podcasts and female critics. Most of the early reviews were rapturous about the originality of 26-year-old Lena Dunham’s voice and the honesty with which she portrayed the lives of four entitled young white women trying to survive in Brooklyn.
This early hype, which provoked a furious, almost psychotic, backlash, did no favors for “Girls.” First the show was criticized for having no characters of color, making you wonder why, out of the dozens, if not hundreds, of TV shows guilty of the same sin, this particular show was singled out for such criticism. Then there was snark that Dunham benefited from nepotism, as if HBO was in the habit of routinely handing out prime-time shows to young women who happen to be the daughters of moderately successful New York artists (her mother is a photographer and designer and her father is a painter.)
There was also backlash against Dunham herself, who, despite not meeting the definition of a modern sex symbol, had the effrontery to shoot numerous painfully awkward sex scenes featuring her character Hannah. Who, the critics asked, was this chubby, ordinary-looking girl to think she represented the voice of her generation?
What is it about quirky and original TV women that drives other women so crazy? Earlier this year, Zooey Deschanel was put through a similar wringer, and even Tina Fey’s character Liz Lemon was deemed a bad role model for women last season because she had a hard time balancing her romantic and professional lives. In the year 2012, why does every woman on TV have to be a role model for every other woman in America? And if that were the case, wouldn’t the righteous indignation be better directed at the slatternly behavior of the women in series like “Two Broke Girls,” “The Jersey Shore,” and reality relationship shows?
In any event, now that the first season is over, both the hype for and the backlash against “Girls” seem vastly overblown. “Girls” turned out to be a perfectly charming and surprisingly funny show, but one with a very personal and narrow mission. Dunham herself never claimed to speak for her generation and it should be clear to all but the most obtuse that the confused, self-indulgent Hannah is not a surrogate or mouthpiece for Dunham, who totally has her act together.
It’s the very specificity of Hannah as a flesh-and-blood character -- and not a gender icon – that makes it possible for men to relate to her. You don’t need to be a 20something woman to laugh knowingly or be moved by her mistakes because we’ve all messed up job interviews, misread personal cues, experienced social anxiety or regretfully escalated an argument that couldn’t be taken back. As Hannah and her friends try to navigate the world, there’s a universality to them that makes them accessible to everyone regardless of age or gender. When she asks, in the very last line of dialogue of the season, “Excuse me. Where am I?” it’s a question we can all relate to.
So maybe it’s not a surprise that Bill Simmons, ESPN’s “Sports Guy,” would take the unprecedented step of recording a podcast with Dunham on a Sunday so he could talk to her, or that Slate.com would have a special feature, “What a Bunch of Guys Think about ‘Girls.’”
Simmons made the point that FX’s “Louie” is more like “Girls” than “Sex and the City” is. “Sex and the City” was a female fantasy, an orgy of shoes, fashion, beautiful apartments and Cosmopolitans all put to the service of girl-to-girl bonding. All of that is in short supply on “Girls,” which lets everything hang out.
Like “Louie,” “Girls” is infected with brutal honesty and self-abasement, with no attempt to pretty up non-standard bodies or to paper over unpleasant human impulses. In this regard, the show does have a male sensibility, where sex is humorous or uncomfortable rather than romantic.
What the early hype overlooked is that the executive producer of “Girls” is the quintessential guy’s director Judd Apatow. The vision for “Girls” is fundamentally Dunham’s, but she freely admits that Apatow encouraged her to think more expansively about her characters, which is exactly what he did with Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo on “Bridesmaids.” Even if Dunham had wanted to lapse into sentimentality and feel-good storytelling, Apatow would have steered her away. And for that, 700,000 men can be grateful.