The XX Factor

Sheila Heti, Lena Dunham, and the Challenges of Telling “Girly” Stories in Film and Television

Lena Dunham arrives at the SXSW screening of Girls in Austin, Texas

Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images for SXSW.

While the discussion of women’s representation in culture has been on a rolling boil for the past several years, from Vida’s counts of women’s bylines in major literary journals to the depictions of women in Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, two events have turned the temperature up to a particularly scalding degree. First Lena Dunham’s HBO show Girls and now Sheila Heti’s novel How Should a Person Be? have reinvigorated debates about double standards for male and female creators.

“From a feminist point of view one could argue that it is heartening to see a woman be as vain and self-serious about ‘creating art’ as a man,” writes Katie Roiphe in Slate, before concluding that even from that perspective, Heti’s novel comes across as exhaustingly self-absorbed. Michelle Dean argues that “In ‘serious’ fiction of the sort reviewed by ‘serious’ people, the subjects discussed by women tend not to be so wide and abstract as the nature of ‘life, the universe, and everything’ (to steal a man’s phrase, because there are few others available).” And at BuzzFeed, Anna North draws an even more specific distinction about what makes the current crop of women’s fiction challenging:

Kate Zambreno, novelist and author of the upcoming critical memoir Heroines (which deals in part with how women have been perceived in literary history), told BuzzFeed Shift that we’re seeing a rise what she calls “girly” stories. She makes a distinction between writing by women and “women who write of a girly experience.” Girliness, she said, is something that “transcends age” and is characterized by “not being entirely empowered.” Girly characters are those “who are messy, who are ambivalent,” whose “feminism is messy.” Heti’s book is girly, she said, and so are Lana Del Rey, Fiona Apple, and the characters on Girls. “We’re in a general moment now,” she said, “where young female narratives are being heralded” — but “then there’s this huge backlash that they’re not serious.”

There’s no question that some male literary gatekeepers place a lower value on women’s stories. And the dominance of male creators in film and television means that fictional women in those realms can end up punished or mocked for their girliness, as is the case with vast numbers of pop-culture brides, or viewed askance when they behave like decisive, action-oriented, amoral men, like uber-lawyer Patty Hewes on Damages. But the problem isn’t just the judgements and preferences of a few powerful men. In visual mediums like film and television, it can be harder to tell stories about interior struggles than external actions. And we’re conditioned to prefer heroes and anti-heroes of any gender who take the initiative, even when they step wrong, over those who focus inward, vacillate, and embrace—or at least embody—passivity.

One great advantage literature has over film and television, particularly when it comes to stories about women, is the interior monologue. A first person narrative or a third person perspective that focuses on a single character requires that a reader submit to the narrator’s view of events, and be overwhelmed by the main character’s feelings at the same time that he or she is. Whether readers find Sheila’s emotions and reactions to events irksome or charming in How a Person Should Be?, the novel privileges her experiences and delivers them clearly. When she wishes to be obliterated by gunshots in the wake of a fight with her best friend, she can tell us that directly, rather than trying to find an alternate way to make that depth of emotion visible. Similarly, when the film adaptation of The Hunger Games arrived in theaters this spring, it was generally faithful to Suzanne Collins’ novel, but the inability to relay heroine Katniss Everdeen’s constantly-churning interior monologue made the movie less complex and rich. The film could follow Katniss as she moved through the arena where she was meant to fight for her life, but it couldn’t communicate what she was thinking and pointedly not saying when she saluted the courage of a dead girl from another District, or when she pretended to be in love to win fans.

One of the reasons some of the more successful movies about women “who are messy, who are ambivalent” focus on things like cooking or weddings is that those processes create visual depictions of a character’s internal emotions. In the film adaptation of Julie & Julia, Julie Powell’s failed, kitchen-sink-clogging aspic is an ugly, nauseating manifestation of her frustration, doing the damage to her apartment in life that Julie’s feelings are doing to her psyche. Watching Annie Walker (Kristen Wiig), the baker whose business failed prior to the events of Bridesmaids, baking and frosting a perfect cupcake, then devouring it alone in her kitchen, provides a wordless testament to how talented she is, and how painful and inexplicable it is that she fell short anyway. It may be irksome that so many movies about women center around marriage, but weddings provide a convenient arc for a character, a deadline by which her uncertainty must be resolved, and a host of physical objects to signal her growth or failure to the audience. A wrecked cake can signal the need to abandon perfectionist ideals, a ripped dress or a broken heel a loss of control. It’s hard to illustrate a character’s satisfaction that she’s achieved balance or beauty, or sense that she’s written something good. Girls did that briefly in its third episode, when Hannah agonized over which Tweet to send off into the universe, but it’s difficult for a show or movie to spend substantial time zoomed in on a typewriter or computer screen, or to fill in the thought process indicated by a flashing cursor. And unlike the clarity of a squarely-delivered action hero’s punch, symbols of women’s inner ambivalence, lack of confidence, or transformation still seem subject to dispute and misinterpretation.

It doesn’t help that, as television has emerged as a major artistic medium worthy to stand alongside film, it’s done so primarily on the strength of stories about men who act rather than self-examine. Shows like Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, The Shield, and The Wire are interested in their main characters’ self-knowledge insomuch as it might help them know when to quit or withdraw, not because self-awareness makes them happier or better people. Even when these men behave badly, they’re doing so out of an excess of traits that are coded positively, like decisiveness or loyalty. And often what’s important in these shows are systems, be they drug cartels, police department chains of command, or mafia families, not personal, inner feelings. It’s terrific that we equate good television with a serious approach to social problems and the bureaucracies and social norms that contribute to them. But that doesn’t mean that social problems are the only subject worthy of serious examination, or the only determinant of whether television is sufficiently substantive.

FX’s remarkable Louie, with its shambling, body-image-challenged hero, and a small world bounded by comedy clubs and family dinners, has expanded the consensus on what subjects are worth treating seriously—at least when they’re experienced by a man. And that program certainly cleared territory for Girls to take root in. Louie and Hannah go out into the world not to save it but to rescue themselves, taking their bodies and their minds as their cathedrals, their children and their best friends as their gods. Too often, that kind of perspective is treated as if it’s myopic, a sign of misplaced priorities. But that criticism is too bad, positing a false choice between Deadwood and Girls, between Jimmy McNulty (who could have used some therapy) and Carrie Bradshaw. Focusing on self-improvement and on characters’ relationships with other people, is evidence of an everyday moral seriousness. When stakes are small and personal rather than large, institutional, and immediate, the right thing to do may be less clear, and the pressure to act right away less intense. Just because we lack language or tropes to acknowledge the difficulty of those situations doesn’t make them minor or frivolous or irrelevant.  Not everyone can or will save the world or do great harm to it. Most of us, men and women alike, are simply the heroes and villains of our own lives.