Yes, ‘Girls’ Gets to Say the C-Word: Why “Language Rules” Are Antithetical to Art

Most people are pretty comfortable with the idea that what happens on a TV show should be treated differently than what happens in real life. Throughout its four-year run, Girls has proved particularly resistant to this concept. From the get-go, critics and viewers conflated its creator with her creation, as if Hannah Horvath could have possibly achieved half of what Lena Dunham did by the age of 25.

The latest backlash against the show, currently in the middle of a spacey but enjoyable fifth season, is that it deploys the kind of sexist language that its creator has been known to object to in real life. In The Guardian, Mary Katharine Tramontana writes, “I agree with Dunham that there is a lot of sexist talk that has no place in a civilised discussion of [Hillary] Clinton or any other female candidate. I wonder, though, why Dunham doesn’t expand this standpoint to the dialogue in her own television show?”

I wonder! Tramontana goes on to bemoan the show’s “conservative politics regarding sexuality and romance,” and objects to leading characters using “unmistakably misogynistic” language like “bitch,” “pussy,” and “cunt.”

Let’s set aside the fact that Tramontana’s critique contains factual errors. (She writes that on the show, “The only type of real relationship seems to exist in monogamous, possessive, straight couple form, and nearly all sex is solely penetrative,” which is plainly false. The sex depicted on Girls is probably the most varied of any TV show I can recall; the fact that it’s faced criticism that it’s both irresponsibly loose and hopelessly conservative only confirms this.)

What’s really troubling about the Guardian piece is its assumption that art should play by the same rules as politics. For a show like Girls, that’s a particularly unhelpful notion. Network sitcoms like The Carmichael Show or Black-ish — which recently aired episodes focusing on Bill Cosby and police brutality, respectively — can deal with these complicated issues in a more straightforward way. In both episodes, the shows’ characters gather in their living rooms to discuss whether it’s wrong to enjoy Bill Cosby’s comedy in light of his criminal behavior, and how the American justice system fails black people. Heady stuff for a half-hour sitcom, but both episodes are exemplary in their nuanced and sensitive treatment of topics that often divide not only Americans in general but members of one’s own family.

But it’s also a fairly simple conceit to have sitcom characters enact the debates that many of us are having in real life. What Girls does is trickier, partly because as a cable series, it’s not compelled to simplify things for the sake of a multigenerational audience. Girls exists in murkier territory, which is exactly where I think its creator wants it to be. The show explores issues of gender, sexuality, and feminism (and other stuff!) through the ways in which its characters live their lives; they’re not gathered around the dinner table talking about these things, but actually experiencing them, which means different viewers will come away from the show with vastly different takes on what those experiences mean.

I remember seeing Noah Baumbach’s film Frances Ha with my mom and grandparents when it first came out in 2012 (incidentally, the same year Girls premiered). For me, the depiction of a 20-something woman trying to live a creative, fulfilling life, dragging her furniture between sublets and storage units, was exhilarating and a little scary. To my grandfather, this portrait of a bright, cheerful young woman living life on her own terms without a man was just sad.

Good art often inspires this kind of mixed reaction (which isn’t to say that a mixed reaction is necessarily the hallmark of good art; Vinyl has inspired some decidedly mixed reviews, but make no mistake, it’s terrible). I don’t like to accuse people of watching something the wrong way — you can’t force yourself to like something if you don’t — but since Tramontana’s gone ahead and written an article about her viewing experience, I feel pretty comfortable stating that she absolutely got it wrong.

“Celebrities who call themselves ‘feminist’ have a responsibility to put into practice what the label actually means,” Tramontana concludes. “At the very least, it should reflect their own work.” If Tramontana hasn’t noticed, “what the label actually means” has been up for debate basically since the label was created. And I know I’m not alone in feeling fed up with women policing each other’s creative output, publicly holding one another’s work up to the light to see if they can make out the “feminist” watermark beneath the surface.

I think Girls is a feminist show, but that’s not why this piece is so off the mark. The argument that any feminist screenwriter must refrain from putting the word “cunt” in the mouth of a character whom audiences might find appealing is an argument in favor of bad art. Do I think people should refer to Hillary Clinton in such terms? Bite your tongue! But one has absolutely nothing to do with the other; this kind of reasoning is how monstrosities like the Amazon pilot for Good Girls Revolt — based on the Lynn Povich book about a group of female Newsweek staffers who sued the magazine for discrimination in the 1970s — come to be. If Tramontana wants feel-good feminism, she’ll find it there; for those who appreciate art that complicates rather than flattens debate, we have another panty-bunching season and a half of Girls to enjoy.