Understanding the backlash against Girls

Why people hate the HBO show with low ratings and huge buzz

(JoJo Whilden/HBO/AP Photo)

I haven’t had much to say about Girls lately, though I liked the early episodes very much. The show still has many impressive and beautiful moments, but in some ways it’s more of a dark relationship drama than a social comedy, and when it went that way it didn’t hold my interest the way Enlightened did. (Maybe liking Enlightened became my hipster alternative to watching Girls. Though I should say I know a guy who loves Girls but can’t watch Enlightened because he finds Laura Dern’s character too annoying. I guess it’s a matter of what kind of annoyingness you identify with more.) There is no such thing as a show you have to have a strong opinion about, and while Girls is often held up as a love-it-or-hate it kind of show, I’m think the wishy-washy alternative of not loving or hating it is still available to many.

There is a lot of loving or hating of Girls going on out there, though, and I wanted to say a little something about the backlash against the show. After the initial backlash for being too white and insular started to fade a bit, the second season backlash has been very vocal and even personal – there are few shows that have inspired as many angry comments sections on as many publications as this one. There have been many explanations for this, and I’m sure each one can apply to some haters of the show: dislike of the people the show deals with; resentment that it’s being held up by the media as a portrait of a particular generation; greater tolerance for self-indulgent male filmmakers like Louis C.K. than self-indulgent female filmmakers; resentment that Dunham hasn’t “paid her dues.” And yes, there are sexist commenters, though I do think they seem to be outweighed by the people who just hate all the characters.

But there’s one other explanation for the backlash that occurred to me when the number of viewers for the season finale was reported. As expected, it was very low. HBO doesn’t care, having gotten all the buzz and subscribers it needs from this show, and getting a healthier number of viewers when HBO Go is factored in (though you could have said the same of other shows they canceled; it’s the buzz factor – the ability of the show to create conversation and attract subscribers – that will allow it to live while shows like Bored To Death couldn’t make it). The fact remains that the show is not particularly popular and was never expected to be – and I think its lack of popularity, which can be sensed even by people who don’t read about ratings, may be contributing to the backlash. We’ve all heard about backlash against popularity, but there’s also such a thing as a backlash against a show for not being a big hit.

It goes like this: Girls was the subject of a truly brilliant marketing campaign by HBO, one of the best of our time. It wasn’t just the marketing campaign that made it such a big story, of course. It was the show itself, and how strongly it connected with critics – even the ones who didn’t like it. It was the story behind the show, as the first TV work of a major new young filmmaking talent, backed up by the most powerful producer in film comedy. And it had all kinds of small factors that guaranteed it would get more coverage than most shows: for example, shows that are filmed in New York often get more coverage than most (think 30 Rock, The Good Wife, and even Smash). The marketing did not guarantee that the show would get good reviews, nor that it would attract passionate admirers; that was up to Dunham and showrunner Jenni Konner, and they did it. But it was almost like a big movie; it got saturation marketing. You would hear about it everywhere.

But when a big movie gets saturation marketing, there’s usually less of a backlash for one reason: the movie is big, and everybody knows it. Even a major movie that under-performs, like John Carter, will sell a lot of tickets. The amount of coverage given to a movie somehow seems commensurate with the number of people who see it. There’s a sense that the subject of the publicity has “earned” it. But with Girls, HBO has helped create a tidal wave of publicity for a show that few people watch. And I suspect that creates a suspicion that something is up – that the publicity is being manufactured, that the studio publicity machine is trying to tell us what to think and what is in. The studio machine is also solidly behind Batman or The Hobbit, but no one can deny that their friends want to see those things. But Girls is almost the perfect target for backlash because it’s a difficult little show being publicized as if it were a massive popular success. I detect a lot of anger on the anti-Girls side from people who feel there’s almost a conspiracy to make the show look bigger than it is.

If a show gets an outsized amount of publicity buildup and then fails, like Smash, people can just laugh it off – though Smash is in a way an even clearer example of how successful publicity can be: that show continued to be covered constantly for two seasons even though hardly anyone liked it beyond the first few episodes. (Critics cover Girls because they really like it; they covered Smash for reasons no one, even the critics themselves, could really explain. The publicity had made Smash seem like something to follow even though it no longer was.) Girls didn’t fail, it just didn’t catch on with the general public, and I think that’s a formula for backlash.

Should it be held against a show that it’s not popular? Of course not. Popularity and quality are not and never will be the same thing, and people who like Girls should write about it as much as they possibly can. I just think that this is one possible explanation for the intensity of the backlash. People are inclined to get angry when they think they’re being told what’s hot. The ideal thing, from a marketing standpoint, is either not to make the push so obvious, or to back up the push with huge popularity so that no one can deny that this is the in thing. But with Girls, people who don’t like the show may feel that its constant presence in the news is the result of someone trying to put something over on them. In a way it’s like the reaction Woody Allen used to get in the ’80s, when his movies were no longer seen by many people outside of New York yet he was constantly written about. There’s a feeling that “they” – meaning the studio, or the media, or both – are out to inflate the importance of these things. An arty money-loser is just ignored by people who aren’t interested in it; a blockbuster hit is respected in a world that worships success. But something that isn’t a hit but is treated as though it is? That’s when the knives are most likely to come out. Again, I’m not defending that attitude, but I think it does exist.

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