Monday 24 October 2016

Couchsurfer: Girls, girls, girls

We've come a long way from Rachel in Friends. So what does it mean to be urban, young and female on TV now?

Emily Hourican

Published 29/06/2015 | 02:30

Actress Zooey Deschanel attends the 2014 Vanity Fair Oscar Party
Actress Zooey Deschanel attends the 2014 Vanity Fair Oscar Party
Lena Dunham

If Sex And The City was the blow-dried, designer-attired version of what it is to be at the very top of the female game - a professional modern woman in the greatest city in the world - Lena Dunham's Girls is a kind of scrubby, grubby, embarrassing younger sister. Dunham's girls, who are drawn heavily from her own life, are over-educated, under-employed, unhappy with the way they look, and even more unhappy with their relationships, engaged in sex so soulless it is almost unwatchable.

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Often filmed nude, in a variety of unappealing poses, including flat on her back with her feet in a gynaecologist's stirrups, Dunham's Hannah is the deliberate, uncomfortable antithesis of the usual run of air-brushed, sanitised, glamorised lives we're used to. To the point where it seems not so much 'just real,' as something else, something more targeted and confrontational. Yet the question is, do any of the girls on TV genuinely reflect our real lives?

It's not that Girls is any more broad than SATC - it's not, Hannah and her friends are middle-class, privileged, white New Yorkers; theirs is not the experience of most young women - but Hannah and screen pals Marnie, Jessa and Shoshanna, along with their messy, ugly, hilarious, awkward lives, have nonetheless orchestrated a kind of revolution, pointing up the ridiculous aspiration and gloss in the portrayals of young women on TV.

The popularity of Girls, renewed for a fifth season in January, has shown that there is an appetite for something beyond the standard Louboutin-wearing vision of young womanhood. Something more deeply reflective, less shiny.

It's just a pity Michael Patrick King, writer and producer of Sex And The City, hasn't been listening. 2 Broke Girls, also his, came to E4 in 2012 and is the story of two white waitresses in a Brooklyn restaurant - one (Beth Behrs) the daughter of a Bernie Madoff-style speculator whose trust fund has been frozen, the other (Kat Dennings), your average wise-cracking working girl. Their boss is Asian-American, and the show - recently renewed for a fifth season ­- is guilty of pretty much every stereotype in the tired, old, un-PC joke book, crushingly described by the New Yorker as "so racist it is less offensive than baffling."

Much better is New Girl, which triumphs over the watcher's initial reluctance to fall for the ultimate Manic Pixie Dreamgirl, Zooey Deschanel, pictured, as Jess, in a role so close to type it should be a car-crash - followed swiftly by the same watcher's utter capitulation and acceptance that, actually, she's a good comic actress, with impeccable timing, and the jokes are better than OK.

In fact, this is pretty much the natural successor to Friends, particularly once Jess embarks on a round of casual sex, hanging out with neighbourhood hipsters and the old sitcom gold of a will-they-won't-they relationship with cranky flatmate Nick (Jake Johnson). It may not be breaking any new ground in terms of portrayals of young women (Phoebe from Friends meets Doris from Fame?), but New Girl is sharp, self-aware, and doesn't feel like it is channelling Dynasty.

Unlike Pretty Little Liars, now into its sixth season on ABC Family, which is a return to more formulaic Gossip Girl territory - rich, beautiful, insanely bitchy high-schoolers having cheer-leader-with-hot-football-captain sex and generally leading lives of fabulous melodrama. There's even a back-from-the-dead character, not unlike Serena van der Woodsen's return to the Upper East Side at the start of the very first Gossip Girl. But underneath the light, bright, not-to-be-taken-seriously attitude, there is something bleak about Pretty Little Liars, which stars Ashley Benson, Lucy Hale and Shay Mitchell. We may not run the risk of seeing sex so raw and unpolished that it is hard to watch without squirming, but neither are we likely to see anything that feels remotely like it might happen in our lives or the lives of anyone we know.

It's fantasy, not reflection.

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