Programs like New Girl, 2 Broke Girls, and Girls feature characters who are realistic, not role models.
"Girl" is an at once simple, yet hard-to-negotiate term. Its whimsy and naivety and immaturity and innocence bundled together to define everyone from the actually young girl child to the not-quite-there woman. In the past several months, that latter category of girls has become especially visible in television with the rise of both fictional and reality shows that have "girl" right there in the title. And these girls are offering a new look at female success.
On New Girl, Zooey Deschanel plays her usual adorable manic-pixie girl self—the first episode of the second season kicks off with her losing her job as a teacher and subsequently filling in as a shot girl at her roommate's party. The laugh-tracked filled sitcom 2 Broke Girls follows lead characters Max (Kate Dennings) and Caroline (Beth Behrs) as they attempt to start a cupcake business while, unsurprisingly, broke in the city. In Bravo's reality TV show Gallery Girls, a group of recent college grads aspires to move up in New York City's art society. Finally, perhaps the most talked about show of the last year is Lena Dunham's Girls, whose lead character Hannah (played by Dunham) struggles with her career, love life, and friendships.
What each of these girls has in common is her lack of having "made it" as a successful woman. Each is still trying to navigate the bumpy landscape of their career, the even rougher terrain of their love lives, and the boundaries (or lack thereof) of their friendships, especially those with other women. Their often infantile approach to life has frustrated many women, especially when it comes to New Girl and 2 Broke Girls. As Jezebel's Julie Klausner put it in her valentine to maturity, "the larger issue is that it is a lot easier for men—or even guys or bros—to demean us, if we're girls. It's much harder to bring down a woman, or to call her a moron, when she's not in pigtails and Ring Pops."
So many of these girls represented on TV don't feel like women yet. And that's OK. In fact, it's refreshing to see girls of this age represented in less conventional ways. I'm not here to defend the word 'girl' or uphold girly attributes, by any means. As someone who is treading the seemingly endless space between girlhood and womanhood, however, I see these "Girl" shows as taking a stand for a broader look at female struggle and success, one that had not previously been represented on TV.
Some of the shows accomplish this better than others. Most compelling are Dunham's characters on Girls, each nuanced and multi-dimensional, vulnerable and conflicted. These girls are not meant to be traditionally likable, say, like wide-eyed, sing-songy Jess in New Girl. They feel raw and real. Hannah can't pull her life together—even her underwear has holes. And though her best friend Marnie has a stable job, she battles with her desire to gain as much control as possible in her friendships and romantic relationships.
"I think Girls is valuable as a break from 'role model' protagonists that inevitably provoke critique for constructing too narrow an archetype of female success." says Amanda Lotz, associate professor of Communication Studies at the University of Michigan. "It may not be a blueprint for how to be a young professional, but nevertheless gives voice to the competing demands and uncertainties that are part of the experience."
That can be said of the other shows, though to a lesser extent. 2 Broke Girls tries to capture the lives of two girls seeking financial success in the city, yet it falls disappointingly short. (I won't go into detail about the often humorless race, rape and sex jokes throughout.) Max and Caroline have one goal, and one goal only—to start a cupcake business. This mission feels oddly contrived compared to the goalless characters of Girls. But it's a sitcom, so it's no surprise that the two girls spend a lot of the show high-fiving, dancing, and giving each other pep talks. Still, 2 Broke Girls does at the very least address how the financial crisis affects young women.
Jess on New Girl is one of the most likable girls of the bunch. Though some scenes make me cringe—I never want to see Zooey Deschanel's Urkel impression again—others are touching. When Jess gets a pink slip from the school principal, something that is happening to teachers across the country, especially in California (where the show takes place), she rebuffs her male roommates' awkward tenderness to deal with the shock herself. The rest of the season so far has seen Jess pick up a series of odd jobs, from shot girl to haunted house zombie. While she may be over-the-top goofy and klutzy, Jess does offer a non-traditional media representation of a transitioning woman. One that is relatable to anyone who has had to work several jobs to make ends meet, and though she may not necessarily be a role model, by any means, she is not two-dimensional.
Yet of all the shows that I got sucked into most this season, the most oddly addictive was Bravo's reality series Gallery Girls. I hatewatched every single episode. It's impossible not to compare and contrast the show with Girls, which similarly takes place in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and tracks the lives of somewhat artsy female characters in the city. The girls range from the blonde Liz, who is in art school and has a wealthy art collecting father, to red-lipsticked Chantal, the Brooklynite who starts a "platform for creatives, staged as a retail and exhibition space" with her close friends.
The premise of the show is that it follows seven girls who are trying to make it in the art world. That alone is an interesting storyline, especially as we watch the girls struggle through unpaid internship after internship. Kerri, who works a full-time job next to an unpaid internship, is especially compelling. Though she didn't provide the most entertaining drama for the show, her struggles to pay the high-cost living expenses of staying in Manhattan and attempting to balance her ridiculous schedule is indicative of high-achieving girls transitioning into womanhood. At one point, she gets dinner with her dad, who says that she can always move back in with him. She laughs and shakes her head, as if to say, "That's the last thing I want." And yet on a separate night she slips out of a drinks session without paying her part of the tab.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Maggie, who is so quiet and overlooked that even when she tries to fight for fair treatment at her gallery internship, nothing changes. And when she eventually leaves that job for another, it turns out her new employer fires her for another gallery girl, Amy. Maggie proceeds to cry on the phone to her boyfriend, saying between sobs, "My dad will be so disappointed." It's in this spectrum of the typical success and failure that Gallery Girls captured a world of young women that was both outrageous and endearingly realistic. It's hardly as insightful as Girls, but when you watch Claudia cry to her mother about her debt-ridden business and Angela get excited about the positive reception to her photographs, you see that, even though the drama of the show is typical Bravo, the girls are not.
Career aspirations take a leading role in each of these shows. As Lotz says, it's not about offering a blueprint for how to become a woman. It's about shedding light on the confusion and struggles that get you there and ultimately, offering a valuable and new perspective on what it means to be a successful woman.