The Upside to 'Girly' TV Shows: They Understand That Women Struggle

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.

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Alexandra Chang is a staff writer at Wired. She has also written for The Bold Italic, Macworld, and All Things Digital.  

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