Like a weather pattern in reverse, the “year of the woman” trope has moved west from Washington, D.C. — where it is periodically used to describe female victories in the House and Senate — to Hollywood. Never mind that Bridesmaids came out in 2011, The New York Times Magazine says that 2012, with Katniss, Bella, Catwoman, Hush Puppy, and Anna Karenina, was the year of the woman. Excuse me, the year of “Hollywood heroine worship.” But not because the movies with interesting female leads will win fancy awards, break box-office records, or were directed by women. They won’t and they weren’t. Acknowledging all that, critic A.O. Scott concludes that it’s not so much the year of the woman as it is the year of woman as news. He’s talking about all those “controversial” Atlantic, Time, and Newsweek covers, but really, he’s talking about Lena Dunham. (Aren’t we always?) And he doesn’t make it sound like anything worth celebrating.
The problem is not that [woman-centric] issues are not important but rather that they are presented with a sensationalism that tends to undermine their ongoing and complicated significance. The behavior of a woman who appears on the public stage can be counted on to provoke a contentious referendum on the state of women in general. Is this good for women? Is she doing it wrong?
[The] reception of “Girls,” even more than the show itself — which is, to keep things in perspective, a clever half-hour sitcom about a bunch of recent college graduates — is an interesting sign of our confused times. Dunham was mocked for her body, sneered at for her supposed nepotism, scolded for her inadequate commitment to diversity and lectured about the inappropriate things her alter ego, Hannah Horvath, does in bed. That much of the criticism came from Dunham’s peers is both evidence of a robust feminist discourse in the cultural blogosphere and a legacy of the under- and misrepresentation [of women in film and television]. Dunham was not quite allowed just to explore her own ideas and experiences. She was expected to get it right, to represent, to set an example and blaze a path.
The important difference between Girls and all the movies featured in the Times’ pretty women of Hollywood slideshow is that Girls, unlike, say, Anna Karenina, is about women and made by women. I don’t love the fact that Dunham’s work became something onto which every female critic could project her feelings about her unwritten novel/lost youth/class anxiety/eating disorder/whatever. But the “disproportionate” response to Girls — like the so-called controversy surrounding Atlantic articles about women — has less to do with some nefarious and exploitative sensationalizing of them and more to do with how starved we are for them. Every writer like Dunham, or the Atlantic’s Kate Bolick and Anne-Marie Slaughter, who tells a story successfully (if someone has written a critique of their articles that engages with the content of the articles, not their headlines or the facts of their existence, please direct me to it), shows studio executives and magazine editors that topics confined to women’s magazines and rom-coms, like women writers, can be smart, funny and interesting and are therefore good for business. Criticism and engagement with women’s work can get ugly, especially on the crowded, loud, and anonymous Internet. But I’ll take it over simple “heroine worship” any day.