Saturday, December 7, 2013

What's a "GIRL" on TV?

For my final project, I examined what the female characters represent on three popular and similarly named television programs: CBS’s 2 Broke Girls, FOX’s New Girl,  and HBO's GIRLS.  I wrote an article to submit to various feminist publications.  I followed the guidelines of  BITCH Magazine's (  "front-of-book section features" which are "1000-1500-word columns on film, television, language, activism, advertising, publishing, and more, with pieces taking the form of reviews, critical essays, Q&As, and activist profiles,"  because BITCH would be my first choice for publication.  My article will also be published in the January/February issue of SPRED 'EM, the Feminist Collective of Detroit's ( Zine.

Below you can read my full article and find links to my presentation and various video clips to support my claims.  Enjoy!


What’s a “GIRL” on TV?

What’s a “girl” on TV?  In the 2011-2012 television season, three shows with young women protagonists premiered: CBS’s 2 Broke Girls, FOX’s New Girl, and of course, the much discussed, HBO show GIRLS.  These shows, currently in their third seasons, or in the case of GIRLS entering its third season January 12, 2014, have been hailed for having female leads, as well as creators and writers, but what are these “girl” characters representing?

First of all, none of these “girls” are girls.  2 Broke Girls centers on Max Black, played by Kat Dennings – a struggling professional waitress/cupcake baker with a rough childhood – and Caroline Channing, played by Beth Behrs – a trust-fund baby who lost all her money when her father was locked up for a Ponzi scheme.  Although Max’s age is uncertain, Caroline has already graduated from Wharton Business School at the beginning of the series and is reportedly 26 years old.  In GIRLS, all four of the dysfunctional sisterhood of Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshanna, are post-college age.  Creator/Writer Lena Dunham, plays Hannah Horvath, who in the pilot episode, while tripping on opium, yells at her father, “coffee is for grownups!” implying she is not one.  Her father responds, “you’re gonna drink a strong cup of coffee,” and Hannah snaps back, “I’m 24 years old, don’t tell me what to do!” claiming her independence.  (This comes directly after asking her parents to support her with $1100 per month, for the next two years.)  Leading the geriatric girl category is Jessica (Jess) Day, Zooey Deschanel’s character from New Girl, who has been a teacher for years already, and is supposed to be thirty!”  Webster Dictionary defines a ‘girl’ as “a young female child,” which is confusing considering these “girls” are all adults; it later defines a ‘girl’ as an “unmarried young women,” which could perhaps be what “girl” means in these titles.

All of the characters have terrible luck with men.  The 2 Broke Girls pilot has Max discover her boyfriend in bed with another women, after Caroline tells Max her boyfriend had come on to her earlier.  The New Girl pilot opens with Jess trying to surprise her boyfriend by arriving early wearing nothing but a trench coat, only to discover he has another women over.  Cheating seems to be a common problem for these “girls.”  Luckily Hannah on GIRLS has a “non-boyfriend,” Adam, who she has demeaning sex with.  In the pilot , he calls her “kid,” and “slave,” before saying he’ll “consider” putting on a condom.  Hannah’s relationship with Adam is completely messed up – he wants to act out rape scenes, and turns into a bit of a stalker later in the series.

Apart from the scum that these “girls” date, they all deal with the male gaze.  Max and Caroline work with a cook, Oleg, at the dinner, on 2 Broke Girls; he is the King of Sexual Harassment!  He ogles the ladies and has no filter.  He greets Max with, “hey sexy women, you look so pretty today, you look so beautiful I forgot how bad your personality is,” and calls the thin, blonde Caroline, “Barbie.”  GIRLS has male gazing moments, like Adam criticizing Hannah’s tattoos when she is speaking of how she got them to embrace her body; or when Marnie decides to capitalize on the gaze by taking a job as a hostess at a swanky restaurant that caters to old men, where her new work uniform consists of hot-pants.

New Girl has an interesting dynamic regarding the male gaze because Jess lives with three men, Schmidt, Coach, and Nick, and she forms meaningful friendships with them quite quickly.  The men do see her as beautiful, when she dresses up, and she later ends up in a relationship with Nick.  It is Jess’ best friend Cece, who falls victim to Jess’ roommates’ gaze.  In the pilot, Cece is so uncomfortable sitting in the living room with the three men, she can only stand it until Schmidt admits, “I’m gonna be honest with you, I did not hear a word you just said, because I can kinda see your party hats right now,” and so she runs to Jess’ room.  Cece later ends up dating Schmidt, who screws up the relationship, and in the Season 3, Episode 9, Coach tries to lay clam and takes her on a date.

Female friendship is the most positive attribute any of these characters bring to the screen.  On 2 Broke Girls, Max began as a standoff loner, being she has not had people there for her growing up. Since Caroline has moved in, the two have decided to start a cupcake business together, and work as a pair towards joint goals.  Max took Caroline in when she had nowhere to live, and during Season 3, Episode11, she joined her at Caroline’s childhood nanny’s funeral for support.  They have a new friendship (since the start of the show) that has changed both characters for the better – Max has opened up, and Caroline has become more resourceful.  GIRLS centers around multiple female friendships.  Jessa and Shoshanna are cousins, and Marnie and Hannah have been friends for years.  Even though their personalities are so different, they get along well because of shared history.  All the “girls” have romantic relationships come and go on the show, Jessa even gets married, but the central relationship is the female friendship between them all.  The New Girl relationship between Jess and Cece has been since at least middle school as flashbacks show, but their friendship has something none of the others do – some color.

All of the “girl” main characters are white! Cece is Indian, but she is a supporting character.  2 Broke Girls has an Asian man, Han Lee, as the owner of the dinner, and a black man works as the cashier, but the two stars are both Caucasian Americans.  The show often makes offensive jokes towards Han and his race.  In the pilot, he is corrected on his English and says he wants to change his name to Bryce, making a cheap Bryce Lee/ Bruce Lee pun.  GIRLS has gotten a lot of flack for being so dominantly white.  In the beginning of the second season, Hannah sleeps with a black man, but it has been agued that it was merely to fight against the racist criticism.  GIRLS is the epitome of white privilege; all the “girls” are white, private college graduates who hardly work, are supported by their parents, and are spoiled brats.

Whether supported by their parents or working hard themselves, all these “girls” are broke.  For 2 Broke Girls, being broke is kind of a given as it is in the title.  But they’re not really “girls,” so maybe they’re not really “broke?”  They are, but they do save and work towards their goal of a cupcake shop.  Max and Caroline even opened a shop, which fails, but they downsize the location and are currently successful.  These two “broke” “girls” are actually quite good financial role models.  They live thriftily – they shop at thrift stores and save everything they can.  New Girl’s Jess works hard for her money as well.  She is a teacher, which most people would agree is an underpaid position.  She does not have much extra spending cash; the audience learns this in the pilot when she needs to replace a television and cannot afford a pawnshop.  Jess also spends most of the second season unemployed and does whatever she can to survive.  She shares a loft with three other people and drives a beat up car.  Jessica Day could be viewed as a positive fiscal role model for young women watching her show.

That leaves the “girls” of GIRLS; the financial support of all the characters is uncertain, but Hannah is in favor of being supported by her parents for as long as possible.  The pilot starts with her being “cut-off” by her parents, where she counters for $1100 a week.  Hannah is unfortunately stuck in an un-paid internship like so many others of her generation.  She should be getting paid for her work, but that is a different battle.  When she does get an e-book advance, she fails to write fast enough, and needs her daddy to bail her out, once again.  She is the least independent character of the ones examined, and is a terrible role model for self-sufficient young women.

From looking at this evidence, a “girl” on TV seems to be a young woman in her mid-to-late twenties (even early thirties), college educated (for the most part,) white, an attractor of the male gaze, unlucky in love, and broke, but rich with female friendships.  I myself am every one of these characteristics; I’m just not on television, yet. But I would like to be seen as a young woman and not a girl. I believe referring to these women as girls is the juvenilization that allows Hannah’s character to be so popular, and makes young women believe they need outside support.  Even though all the characters analyzed have room for improvement, Hannah has the most to grow before becoming a functional adult.

Works Cited:

You Tube Clips:

Daulerio, A.J. “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart: A Girls Recap.” Gawker. 1/21/2013. Web. 12/4/2013

Hogan, Victoria S.. (2013). Behind the Scenes: A Look at Socio-cultural Messages in Situation Comedies and their Effects on Gendered Messages. In BSU Honors Program Theses and Projects. Item 15. Available at:

McEwen, Lauren. ““Girls”: Taking a real step towards diversity or just answering critics?” Washington Post. 1/14/2013/ Web. 12/6/2013.
McNutt, Myles. “Review: The Disarming Appeal of HBO’s Girls”. Cultural Learnings. 4/12/2012. Web. 12/7/2013
Sisson, Gretchen. “The 99%. Fixing the 2 Broke Girls.” BITCH Magazine. Dec 12, 2011. Web. 12/1/2013.
Team TVLINE. “TV’s 15 Most Empowered Female Characters (and Their 10 Hapless Counterpars)”. TV Line. 3/20/2013. Web. 12/5/2013
West, Ella. “It Happened to Me: I Went to College with HBO’s New It Girl Lena Dunham, and I’m Seething Jealous.” XO Jane. 4/20/2012. Web. 12/5/2013
Wortham, Jenna. “Where My Girls At?” The Hairpin. April 16, 2012. Web. Dec 2, 2013.

2 Broke Girls. Pilot. CBS. 9/19/2011. Web. 12/1/2013.
2 Brok Girls. CBS. Season3, Episode 11, “And Life After Death.”  12/2/2013. Web. 12/3/2013.
GIRLS.  Pilot. HBO. 4/15/2012. Web. 12/1/2013.
New Girl. Pilot. FOX. 9/20/2011. Web.12/1/2013.
New Girl. FOX. Season3, Episode 9. “Longest Night Ever.” 11/19/2013. Web. 11/24/2013.

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