Lena Dunham’s overexposed body (of work) has garnered praise from an unlikely cadre of critics and artists, some of whom we hold in high esteem. The time it would take to admonish every positive review we find to be positively misguided would require us to quit the jobs we hate but are too cowardly to leave. So for now, we’ll focus on the praise heaped by one of our heroines: Alison Bechdel.
For those of you unfamiliar with the comic illustrator and writer, Alison Bechdel is lesbian literary legend. From the early ’80s until 2008, Bechdel published the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, which I (surprisingly, not the one of us who drives a Suburu) read surreptitiously in the tiny LGBT section of her college library like they contained the secret of how to eat everything without gaining weight. In 2006, Bechdel published Fun Home, a beautiful “tragicomic” graphic memoir in which she accounts her troubled childhood relationship with her closeted father who eventually took his life. We both regard this as one of our favorite books. Her second memoir, a highly personal and intriguing account of her relationship with her mother and the world of therapy, came out in 2010.
Bechdel may be best known for creating the “Bechdel test,” which is used to identify gender bias in fiction. A fictional work satisfies the test if it meets the following requirements: (1) It has to have at least two women in it, (2) who talk to each other, (3) about something besides a man. Because Girls fails this test and fails it miserably, Bechdel’s comment during a Buzzfeed interview that “[Girls] is great — I’m loving that show,” and her gushing praise of the show to June Thomas during a Slate podcast, is baffling.
Without even applying the three-part test, the fact that a show about four individuals who have been adults under the law for the better part of a decade is called “Girls” should earn the show an “F.” It’s one thing for a woman in 2013 to eschew the label “feminist” (although we both find this despicable). It’s a whole other matter for a mainstream show to deliberately infantilize a group of ostensibly empowered grownups.
But assuming that Lena Dunham chose this name to make some kind of ironic statement that’s lost on us, Girls is still the kind of fictional account that the Bechdel test was presumably designed to attack. Girls certainly has two women in it who talk to each other. Ad nauseam. But what they talk about is men. The men they’re fucking. The men they’re not fucking. The men they want to start fucking and the ones they want to stop fucking. The men they used to fuck who now fuck other men. The men we’re supposed to believe harass them at work. The men who won’t give them the money they believe they deserve. Men who may be sociopathic, others who are too empathetic, and others who are dull douchebags. One of the four lead character’s only role on the show is to represent 20-something-virginity, while another’s is to represent 20-something promiscuity. Make no mistake – Girls is only tangentially about women or girls; it’s about men.
Based on her work product so far, Neil Labute would probably earn a higher score on the Bechdel test than Lena Dunham. Alison, if you’re reading this — and we know you are — we love you and we hope you’ll join our side.