In her 2005 book, Female Chauvinist Pigs, Ariel Levy argues that women have been duped into embracing “raunch” culture, wherein women and girls objectify themselves and other women in crude, sophomoric ways. Levy argues that “raunch” culture pretends to be about women liberating themselves, but is really about keeping women in their place as objects for the male gaze.

In recent years we’ve seen a similar trend, where women have been encouraged to buy into “asshole” culture. While some may argue that we have always tolerated certain types of male bad behavior, it seems there has been a cultural shift in recent years where we actually applaud watching male characters behave like jerks.

A few months ago, Emily Nussbaum wrote a review of Archer and Eastbound & Down for The New Yorker, wherein she highlighted how both of these shows center on protagonists who are pretty much straight-up bad people. She called shows like these, where the audience is supposed to alternately laugh at and sympathize with the asshole protagonist, “dirtbag sitcoms.”

Then, a few weeks ago, in Salon magazine, Willa Paskin noted how many critically acclaimed TV shows center around incredibly unlikeable antiheroes. Paskin claims that antiheroes are ubiquitous in today’s TV culture as a means of signifying the way that television is willing to tackle compelling human dramas. She also claims it is a way of distinguishing excellent programming from the medium of TV itself, an invention that was originally about selling people soap.

To a certain degree, I think it’s unfair to lump all antiheroes together. I find some antiheroes quite likable in their own rumpled and maladjusted way (Jesse Pinkman from Breaking Bad is a great example of a character with deep-seeded flaws who is also clearly a good person) and others are simply incredibly annoying or reprehensible, with few redeemable characteristics whatsoever (Pete Campbell, anyone?). Of course, judgments about a character’s “likability” are incredibly subjective and tend to tell us more about who we are as individuals, what we value and what we are willing to forgive. “Asshole” culture is nothing new, but the extent to which the antihero has replaced the traditional hero is a direct response to something larger than the desire to render television a deserving medium for communicating ideas.

I would argue that the current type of “asshole programming” is all about showmanship. What distinguishes Kenny Powers and Sterling Archer  from inadvertent jerks like Homer Simpson or the cast of Seinfeld is the swagger. While we are repulsed by Kenny Powers’ abrasive personality, we are also supposed to admire his bravado. We cheer his cheeky reliance on hard drugs and disdain for humanity and are supposed to find his callous self-marketing and branding cute and endearing, rather than genuinely problematic. Kenny leaves lovers, yells at children, gets high on drugs, curses in public and is unabashedly self-absorbed. Similarly, Sterling Archer is broadly lacking in empathy; the few moments in the series where he demonstrates genuine concern for anyone else are startling and strange for the viewer.

This type of intentional asshole-ness also seems to reflect the rise of social media and the fallout of The Great Recession.  These two defining features of modern culture have, in their ways, led to some bizarre ideas regarding social propriety. On the one hand, we love living in public and are consistently drawn to all kinds of sensationalism. On the other hand, we live in constant fear that we will be exposed for our frivolities. Branding oneself through social media is pervasive, an often essential part of one’s identity, but we also live in a culture where everything is traceable, and the judgment of people’s lives, both personal and professional, happens unabashedly.  Why wouldn’t we then be drawn to these freewheeling antiheroes, who are given constant permission to behave badly and are, in fact, consistently rewarded for making shitty choices (the opposite of what happens in an economic downturn)? There is something liberating about these kinds of characters, but there is also something very sad and disturbing about them. The asshole-anti-hero archetype is a self-defeating kind of escapism, since it is ultimately just about acting out, rather than about enacting any kind of real and vital social change.

Of course, in the vast majority of these sitcoms and dramas, the antihero is male. Only very recently have female characters been given permission to behave badly. Bridesmaids was lauded precisely because the female characters were allowed to get as down and dirty as their male counterparts, and Veep centers on a female vice president who is arrogant, self-centered, and callous. While I’m all for diversity in women’s roles, I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically empowering about women being given free reign to act like jerks.  The recent trend toward empowering female characters to “channel their inner asshole” is just as dispiriting as encouraging women to adopt “raunch” culture.

Another prime example can be found in Girls, the HBO series created by Lena Dunham.  The show’s female characters turn out to be just as self-absorbed as their male counterparts, while also highlighting how “girl swagger” is, in the end, merely bratty; there are no self-assured assholes here. Hannah’s lack of self-awareness is coupled with low self-esteem, so  her decisions seem immature, rather than brazen. Girls has been marketed as a “game changer” for women,  but in reality Hannah is a rather conventional female anti-heroine, defined by her desire to be seen as “special.” The girls on the series are alternately vicious and vacuous, and, Hannah’s writerly aspirations aside, primarily defined by their relationships to men. What decision is she making about sex and how does she choose to use her body?  Is she a virgin or a slut?  Is she a free spirit or does she want to get married?

In many ways, the recent conversation about whether or not Girls is inclusive enough, whether it’s too white or only representative of a particular cross-section of the population (it is) obscures other questions about why we’re so delighted to see yet another series that focuses on characters who lack scruples and/or interiority.  None of the girls on Girls are particularly good people—as opposed to, say, the old MTV series Daria, which centers on a character with a definitive moral compass and provides a much more complex reading of girlhood overall. While Daria may hide behind a veil of sarcasm, she is well aware that she is operating in self-defense. By contrast, Hannah’s abrasive one-liners seem cloying, rather than insightful. Sure, the vast majority of early twenty-somethings are somewhat immature and make mistakes, but many young women would have a moment of interiority when stealing money from the maid, and wouldn’t demand thousands of dollars from parents before even looking for a job to supplement an internship. The vast majority of women in their twenties wouldn’t tell a gynecologist how much easier their lives would be if they got AIDS, or daydream about how many more book opportunities would be available if their boyfriend died an untimely death. Hannah’s proclamations of low self-esteem do little to hide how her attitudes and behaviors are less the product of youth than of a seriously narcissistic attitude problem and a fundamental lack of self-awareness.

This insistence on holding onto brattiness for the sake of brattiness is frustrating precisely because Girls is subversive and radical in other, quite interesting ways. I love how Dunham unabashedly illustrates the ways that Internet pornography has shaped sexual dynamics for young people today, as well as her insistence on exposing real bodies and showing women eating on camera (sadly, this is still a provocative “statement”).  And I was heartened by the final episode of this season precisely because it allowed a sustained moment of interiority, with Hannah reflecting on her relationship with Adam, and her own needs and desires, as she sat alone on a beach gazing into the horizon, eating fistful after fistful of cake. For a few soft, subversive moments, Hannah became real for me—not just a “young writer,” or the sum of her neuroses, or even a “representative 21st century girl.” I hope next season picks up this thread and continues with it, rather than falling back on the “cutesy brattiness” that has been keeping teen and twenty-something girls from being seen as people since the dawn of television.

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ARIELLE BERNSTEIN is a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American University and also freelances. Her work has been published in The Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review, South Loop Review, The Ilanot Review and Press Play (Indie Wire). She has been listed three times as a finalist in Glimmer Train short story contests . She is currently writing her first book. She is Associate Book Reviews Editor at The Nervous Breakdown.

9 responses to “Fistfuls of Cake: Empowering Girls”

  1. Adam says:

    Makes me think of how excellent Buff the Vampire Slayer was–Buffy, though ultimately always heroic, nevertheless had plenty of flaws and moments of anti-heroism (and these moments were always well accompanied by insight to her interiority). Nice piece.

    • Arielle Bernstein says:

      Thank you, Adam! Buffy is another great example of a show that didn’t have to resort to asshole-culture in order to empower women. Can we just go back in time to the late 90s/early 2000s?

  2. Lacey says:

    I’ve been watching Girls and wondering why I have such mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, the characters frustrate me so much; I want them to be better–which would make them, I think, more real. On the other hand, I appreciate that the story moves forward and that we learn new things about the characters–and that there are hints, albeit small ones, that the characters will move forward, too. (And on a third hand, there are sometimes moments of lovely writing that keep me coming back for more.)

    • Arielle Bernstein says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Lacey! I plan on watching next season just to see if this type of growth actually does occur. The last episode made me hopeful. Fingers crossed!

  3. Sandie says:

    Arielle, You’ve explained exactly why I’ve been apprehensive about watching Girls. Now that you’ve written such an interesting reading, I do want to watch it.

    But, my husband says, not with our 16-year-old daughter. Would you second that? I gather it’s not really appropriate viewing for her.

  4. Arielle Bernstein says:

    Thanks so much for your feedback, Sandie. While I think Girls is worth watching, I think 16 might be a little too young…But she could definitely check out Daria! 🙂

  5. Laura Bogart says:

    I’ve been very conflicted about “Girls” since catching the pilot because I have wondered whether we were to take some of Hannah’s less-than-stellar moments at face value, or as a sly commentary about some of the brattiness we all have to get over as we grow up. After having watched the whole season, I’m more inclined to believe that it’s the latter. As I kept watching, I felt a mix of anxiety and chagrin and out-and-out relief that I’m no longer in my early twenties. Like you, I was deeply moved by that final image in the season finale and hope the show can move forward from there.

    • Arielle Bernstein says:

      Thanks for leaving such a thoughtful comment, Laura. I wonder how Dunham feels about being in her twenties. She seems to be living the experience and writing simultaneously; maybe that is why the tone isn’t even vaguely nostalgic.

  6. Markham says:

    Two thoughts:

    1) I’m not sure Archer is a great example as all the characters are bad people, in fact, the worse person is Archer’s Mother and it’s fairly obvious as the show goes on that he’s just hiding the pain of his childhood. The only time anyone on that is truly taken to task for being a bad person is when the cast chides Archer’s Mother for the way she treated him as a child.

    2) I think Girls is brilliant in its portrayal of a certain type of woman in her 20s, but the flipside is that I find it totally unwatchable as I know too many people like that, people who still act like Hannah and her friends in their 30s. It grew tiresome when I was in my 20s, can’t watch it on TV in my 30s

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