Teaching Popular Cultural Semiotics

Jack SolomonJack Solomon is professor of English at California State University, Northridge, where he teaches literature and critical theory. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers and is author of The Signs of Our Time and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age.

Girls

posted: 5.22.14 by Jack Solomon

Having just read two large classes worth of student papers whose purpose is to semiotically analyze the HBO hit series Girls, I am learning a great deal about this popular program.  There are many striking things about the show that I could write about, but for the purposes of this brief blog I will choose only one:  the notoriously high level of nudity in Girls Indeed, as my students tell me, it appears that Hannah “gets naked” about twice per episode, and that this phenomenon is a much discussed feature of the show.  So, if you will, I will join the discussion here.

The debate over Hannah’s nudity seems to hinge on the physical appearance of the actress/writer who both portrays her and created her in the first place.  Similarly to the Dove “Real Beauty” campaign, defenders of Lena Dunham’s nakedness celebrate this display of an ordinary female body, countering complaints about it with the retort that no one seems to be complaining about all of the nudity in Game of Thrones—another highly popular show among Millenials featuring more conventionally beautiful actresses.  And so, from this perspective, Hannah’s nudity strikes a blow for women’s liberation.

I don’t think that this is all there is to the matter, however; for when we situate Girls in the system of contemporary television, we can see that there is a whole lot of such nudity and sexuality to be found—in Mad Men, for instance, wherein sexual threesomes (two women to a man, not the other way around)—as well as a lot of rape in shows like Sons of Anarchy, and, notoriously, Game of Thrones.  Indeed, reading my student papers is a bit of a jolting experience as I see the way they seem to take it for granted that of course television is going to be filled with rape scenes and not-so-soft porn.

The explanation (or excuse) for all this nudity, sexuality, and rape is often that it makes contemporary television more “realistic,” and, in an era where campus sexual assault has become a matter of national concern all the way up to the White House, this explanation is certainly true enough.  But there is a difference between a story that tells of such things and one that graphically shows it, and there, for me, lies the crux of the matter.

Let’s get back to Hannah’s nudity.  It generally occurs during decidedly unpleasant sex scenes, scenes in which Hannah is not only not experiencing much pleasure but is being humiliated in one way or another.  Marnie (another Girls regular) is also willing to humiliate herself sexually to hold on to her “boyfriend” Charlie.  Indeed, sex in Girls seems to bring almost nothing but humiliation, or worse.

This is quite different from shows like Friends, which bears a number of similarities to Girls.  In Friends, too, young people struggled to make it in New York during a down economy, and there was plenty of sexuality in that show too.  But the sex in Friends (while often rather puerile) was neither so explicit nor so painful as it so often is in Girls.  No, something has changed.  The sky has darkened.

Thus, I am unable to accept the Third Wave feminist argument that the sex and nudity in Girls (and contemporary television in general) is an expression of female empowerment, and that what counts is that women can choose what to do with their bodies.  There is simply too much of an appearance that such “choices” are really responses to what is expected of them.  Instead, I see something of a vicious circle: television shows that depict young women being sexually humiliated in order to satisfy their viewers’ demands for “realism,” while young women, seeing such humiliation on so many of their favorite programs, come to expect that in their lives and behave accordingly.  Art here doesn’t only reflect reality; it helps shape it.

Perhaps that is the most striking sign of all here: that it is a dismal time to be young in America, and the young know it.  Whether economically or romantically, the world, shows like Girls are saying, is off kilter.  Whether or not things are really that bad, the responses to Girls indicate that people think that they are, and enjoy the dark humor that the program delivers.  There are worse things than laughing at the darkness, however, and Girls, after all, is a comedy, sort of.

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One Response to “Girls

  1. Eric Dinsmore Says:

    I watched one season of Girls. After the premiere of season 2, I was done. Getting away from your thesis for a moment, I could not stand the meta irony of the show. “Do you know how expensive it is to look this poor?” says Hannah, describing her Urban Outfitters Hipster look. I couldn’t figure out if the show is an attempt for privileged girls to “make it” in the big city, or Lena Dunham’s attempt to satirize this bohemian lifestyle.

    Nevertheless, I happen to agree with your conclusion that humiliation is one way to describe the sex on the show. Hannah’s boyfriend urinates on her in the shower and ejaculates on her during sex. (He’s likely taking his cues from porn.) Marnie’s sex scenes are always awkward, whether she is having sex with her timorous boyfriend or her gay best friend.

    That leads me to the “boys” of the show, who are often as awkward and self-loathing as the girls. Yet, the men are less likely to be the victims of humiliation – that interpretation is up to the audience. It’s not the same with the girls – we know they are supposed to be humiliated and are often the ones regretting their poor choices (often concerning their relationships with men). The boys come out on top.

    I’m not sure why your students see the show as feminist. I see the show as a cautionary tale: “Warning. Do not live like these people.” Sure, Lena Dunham’s sexuality and naked body may “educate” some men that not all women look like models, and some women may learn that men of a certain age (ahem…millennials) are an awkward bunch. But if people are interpreting the show as a way for women to use their sexuality to empower themselves, then I would say Kim Kardashian just took Gloria Steinem’s place in history. If, of course, we are equating power with money.

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