By Stephanie Nilva, Executive Director
I don't watch much television these days, but there are two shows that keep coming up in conversation around me: Girls, the new HBO series about 20-something young women, and Savage U, Dan Savage's sex advice show on MTV.
I was excited about the prospect of a new series for young women, until I started watching it.
Lena Dunham writes and stars in the new series, Girls, which portrays a group of twenty-something women navigating family, friends, dating, and jobs/unemployment in the present day. It's a narrow snapshot of New York City living; the show has already been criticized for presenting a privileged group of young women (in the first episode, Dunham's character, Hannah, to her great surprise, is financially cut off by her parents after two years) and for not portraying any characters of color.
Having watched four episodes, I can't bear to watch more of Hannah's "relationship" (a term I use loosely). The interactions between the two characters range from the young man's subtle disregard of her to complete degradation. Just in the first episode, Hannah shows up at his apartment after he has ignored a series of recent texts. The following sex scene between them has so little to do with Hannah that it left me in despair. She may as well have been an inanimate object given how he treated her. In a later episode, he fully focuses on her, yes, but only amid a fantasy that she is an eleven-year-old girl. Eleven.
Without getting into a discussion of voluntary choice to engage in consensual play, I have to say I am distressed. This fantasy is clearly not mutual. Yet I'm not convinced that the show sends viewers a clear message about questioning the power dynamic in a relationship where one partner is incapable of consent.
What bothers me most is the wrenching reality of this type of behavior and Hannah's acceptance of a relationship that is clearly unsatisfactory to her. I am concerned about her and the other young women on the show – and they are women, not girls (a friend of mine said she simply couldn't get past the title of the show) – and the women who are watching. Are these behaviors seen as unacceptable, or are the characters simply resigned to all of this as the reality of male-female relationships today? Do these women have expectations of autonomy or self-realization or even just making their own choices when it comes to sex? I fear not. With minimal content about healthy relationships, Girls leaves me clamoring for more positive messages.
Thankfully, there's Dan Savage. Following a long career as a sex columnist, Savage vaulted into notoriety with the It Gets Better campaign, which focuses on bullying prevention. He now dispenses his clear explanations and unvarnished opinions of sex and relationships on Savage U, which takes place on college campuses across the country. He takes every question seriously, and his feedback lets every viewer know that there is no normal – or, rather, that normal takes plenty of different forms. People like different things and that's okay. People are attracted to different people, and that's okay. Some people are attracted to different things at different times in their lives or all at once.… All of it: okay.
There is immeasurable value in acknowledging the complex, exploratory worlds of youth. Adults are in denial if they think that young people, lacking accurate information, will always choose to avoid risky behavior or will spot the warning signs of an unhealthy relationship. Savage U takes the embarrassment out of asking questions that stem from inexperience. Its goal is for interpersonal relationships to be less dangerous, less scary and less shameful. Young people are told to think about themselves and to treat others with respect.
Dan Savage's approach surpasses empowerment. I have no doubt his discussions of sex positions and toys and partners make some folks uncomfortable. But any day of the week I'd rather be confused or surprised by someone's attraction to furry sports team mascots than experience the discomfort of watching Girls. To see smart, talented young women minimized and infantilized upsets me. Watching these characters reduce their expectations of love and healthy relationships is depressing. And most of all, the disturbing reality of these portrayals makes me nervous about the future for all young women.
I sleep more easily knowing that Dan Savage's young viewers are getting their questions answered about safer sex, difficult choices, and confusing interpersonal dilemmas. Right now, I'm relying on the fact that more young people are watching MTV than HBO.