Who (does HBO hope) is watching Girls?

April 24, 2012
By | 14 Comments

In the pilot episode of HBO’s new series Girls, Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham) begs her parents to continue to bankroll her Brooklyn lifestyle by arguing that she is “the voice of my generation.” Seeing the skepticism on their faces, she scales back and says she is at least “a voice of a generation.” This amusing moment has become a sign of Hannah’s simultaneous uncertainty and self-importance, but it’s also an indication of HBO’s hopes for the series.

Beaten into silence by the unrelenting media buzz surrounding the premiere of HBO’s new series Girls, I’ve had time to think about my response to the series’ first two episodes. The HBO-stoked hype around Girls suggested that showrunner Lena Dunham, with guidance from Judd Apatow, would speak for a new generation in this dark comedy about life after college in New York City. In case you’ve been under a rock since the series premiered on April 15th, let me summarize the response so far: Girls has been critiqued for its lack of racial diversity and for its characters’ focus on the trivial problems of the privileged. It has been applauded for its realistic portrayal of women’s bodies and for its ability to find humor in awkward situations.

It’s a challenge to find traction for a solid review after a single episode, but after two episodes of trying to decide how I feel about the show, I started to wonder: Who does HBO hope will watch Girls? Vulture pointed out that HBO likely released the Girls’ pilot free online to draw a twenty-something audience to the show, but media users like Dunham’s character, Hannah Horvath, who in the pilot was “cut off” by her parents, likely don’t have the income to subscribe to HBO, and likely wouldn’t subscribe for only one series (though they may use their parents’ HBO GO account to watch subsequent episodes).

Though HBO is fairly tight-lipped about their subscribers, The Wall Street Journal reported that Time Warner’s premium cable networks HBO and Cinemax lost 1.6 million subscribers in 2010, while companies offering broadband distribution of movies and TV shows gained subscribers (Netflix, for example, gained almost 8 million subscribers). HBO finished 2010 with 28 million subscribers, its lowest number since 2005; this loss is no doubt due to a range of factors, but has been tied to HBO’s inability in recent years to produce a major hit like The Sopranos or Sex and the City.

Unlike The Sopranos10 million viewers (its pilot drew 3.5 million) and Sex and the City’s 6 million viewers (its pilot drew 3.7 million), the Girls’ pilot drew 1.1 million viewers over two opening night airings. This suggests that HBO’s massive advertising campaign, which created a buzz through both mainstream and alternative sources, unsuccessfully targeted a population they can’t draw to subscription TV—twenty-somethings are more likely to watch the show online illegally or wait for the DVD release (though Jezebel pleaded with readers to save for HBO subscriptions to keep Girls in production).

But Girls’ small initial audience also suggests that its audience “isn’t easily defined.” I suspect that HBO believes Girls can draw a loyal fanbase built from (mostly white, mostly privileged) women older than their twenties—a more typical HBO subscriber. A moment in Girls’ second episode, “Vagina Panic,” gives this older audience a small nod when Hannah’s gynecologist, bewildered and overwhelmed by Hannah’s seemingly endless monologue about her obsession with AIDS, pauses her exam and says, “you couldn’t pay me enough to be twenty-four again.” Girls’ focus on self-indulgent panic attacks and cringeworthy sex scenes allows older viewers a chance to identify with its (admittedly narrow) coming-of-age stories. And while most older viewers might agree that they don’t wish to repeat their twenties, HBO is betting that some will want to look back and laugh through the discomfort and embarrassment of their memories. If, as Dunham suggests, the show’s heart is the relationship between Hannah and her best friend Marnie, it may have a chance at developing a respectable following that enjoys the show for more than its uncomfortable humor and shock value. If Girls can build upon what viewers of all ages share (and Dunham fulfills her promise to add racial diversity to the show), it may truly become a series that is “a voice of a generation.”



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14 Responses to “ Who (does HBO hope) is watching Girls? ”

  1. bitchstolemyremote on April 24, 2012 at 11:50 AM

    Who is the intended audience is definitely an interesting question, especially in light of recent similar shows such as “I Just Want My Pants Back” which is also about white, hipster-esque NY who have sexual misadventures while attempting to get their lives in order. The difference is that that show aired on MTV, which is likely better suited for this kind of material compared to HBO.

    In our recaps (latest one here: http://wp.me/p1VQBq-Ml), we’ve struggled with both the show and some of the criticisms of it, but your question remains – pertinent as ever – who is watching Girls?

    • Kim on April 30, 2012 at 6:16 PM

      Well, I am watching… I am a 45 year old mom who still watches “Sex and the City” reruns. “Girls” doesn’t really apply to my life -neither did SATC, but I find it refreshing, honest, funny, and well-written and well-acted. Like most HBO shows, it is different than most other TV shows. I know I am not the target audience, but I am loving it….

      • Jennifer on April 30, 2012 at 10:27 PM

        Right on.

  2. Katie Walsh on April 25, 2012 at 3:51 AM

    I’m glad you introduce the concept of HBO and access to this conversation about “Girls,” and I think it’s terribly important and a topic that has been sorely missing in the hype > backlash > backlash to the backlash cycle that has trafficked in some pretty troubling discourse that I find sexist and destructive. I myself am probably right in HBO’s sweet spot of demographic: white, hetero, 29 year old female, and yes, I cut my teeth in New York City, and no, you could NOT pay me to be 24 again. The twinge of recognition I felt when I watched the pilot of “Girls” (on Youtube, but we’ll get to that in a minute) was an identification with the representation of young, urban post-modern femininity, and the nostalgia was mixed with fond memories, regret, pain, and a gladness to be beyond the the stage of life where Lena Dunham finds her inspiration.

    Though I am a model potential consumer for this particular show in HBO’s eyes, I don’t even own a television set, never mind a cable subscription, and watch everything online– typical television consumption practice for my demographic. Therein lies the conundrum of HBO attempting to attract an early 20s demographic that might find representation in “Girls”– the accessibility issue. Much of their quality image is tied up in their actual inaccessibility, only releasing episodes online to HBO subscribers through HBO GO and keeping their DVD series off of Netflix and Hulu. It reminds me of the first episode of “Mad Men” when the young Jewish doyenne of the department store tells Don that she wants the kinds of shoppers that go to her store simply because it is expensive. By limiting their accessibility, HBO imbues their product with value simply by making it less attainable, and garners a lucrative, wealthy audience (to what end? Not advertisers…)

    Yet, I think that HBO is more tangled in the complicated representation issues that most of the show’s critics have unfairly pinned on Dunham and her privileged NYC upbringing as the daughter of two artists. As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote this week on The Atlantic website:

    “It is not so wrong to craft an exclusively white world; certainly a significant portion of America lives in one. What is wrong is for power-brokers to pretend that no other worlds exists. Across the country there are black writers and black directors toiling to bring those worlds to the screen. If HBO does not see fit to have a relationship with those writers, then those of us concerned should assess our relationship with HBO.”

    The burden of representation should not fall on the shoulders of the artist/author but squarely on those of the network, namely HBO. Obviously, as Dunham has put herself in the spotlight, creating, writing, directing, and starring in the show, thus creating a clear auteurship of the vision it’s much easier to pick on her. Still, the backlash against Dunham has revealed many ugly facets within itself, including sexism and insulting Dunham’s looks and body, which she uses in an almost activist way against the representations of how women are expected to look on TV. Much of the criticism has come from women who, instead of celebrating a new female voice on television, have complained that Dunham’s singular vision has not included them. While Dunham says in the pilot she is attempting to be A voice of A generation, she acknowledges the singularity of her voice. I guess with all of the hype, garnered by HBO, female audiences were wanting more from this awkward satirical look at early twenty-somethings.

    But, as you argue, maybe the right audience for “Girls” is actually the women, because the actual girls themselves are too caught up in demanding a pound of flesh from Dunham and calling for her head because she failed to accurately represent their own personal vision of their early twenties. Maybe hindsight is necessary to dull the inaccuracies and hone in on the universal truths that Dunham attempts to express, regardless of race or class. Perhaps HBO has inadvertently discovered their true audience, ones that can and will access HBO and find value in Dunham’s vision only through the lens of hindsight and nostalgia. Who knows if this will dual model will prove to be tenable, but it seems that “Girls” is one grand experiment that I hope will lead to more truthful/non-stereotypical representations of women on TV– driven firmly by the networks themselves.

    • Jennifer on April 27, 2012 at 1:15 AM

      Well written, Ms. Walsh–
      especially this part: “and yes, I cut my teeth in New York City, and no, you could NOT pay me to be 24 again. The twinge of recognition I felt when I watched the pilot of “Girls” (on Youtube, but we’ll get to that in a minute) was an identification with the representation of young, urban post-modern femininity, and the nostalgia was mixed with fond memories, regret, pain, and a gladness to be beyond the the stage of life where Lena Dunham finds her inspiration.”….
      I very much relate.
      And also here—is very much linear in thought with what I’ve been rolling around in my own head: “Maybe hindsight is necessary to dull the inaccuracies and hone in on the universal truths that Dunham attempts to express, regardless of race or class. Perhaps HBO has inadvertently discovered their true audience, ones that can and will access HBO and find value in Dunham’s vision only through the lens of hindsight and nostalgia.”
      -So thank you!

  3. Jennifer on April 27, 2012 at 1:07 AM

    The writing and direction on this is superior. Thank you brilliant Lena D.!
    For those who still dwell on “lack of racial diversity” in television. WHAT?! Get over it. This is clearly written from a specific perspective. And it’s not pretending to be representing a cross-sector of people in their 20s in NY post-college. That’s what sharing stories is all about. It’s not to appease you, or make you feel comfortable in your own skin, and safe and sound. This is to SHARE. If you don’t relate, well there ya go. You just don’t relate. But to constantly force awkward “racial diversity” into stories where clearly that isn’t serving the story, well that just makes the story less than, and clearly is cow-towing to network suits who think a “token asian” should be a neighbor, or a “token who-ever” should be their friend in the coffee shop. ICK. It’s refreshing when a story is told without thinking, oh damn, I bet the suits mentioned the word “racial diversity” when deciding upon which actors would be called back to producers and ultimately signed.

    • Izzy on May 23, 2012 at 4:22 PM

      This comment is precisely why I will continue to watch and enjoy the in-your-face misogyny of GoT than sit through this pseudo-feminist “art”. Yes, the show was criticized for it’s lack of diversity. Your frustration about that borders rage-why? If Dunham can recognize the importance of parading her naked, homely, and oddly shaped body around in every episode as “progressive” and “activist” work, then surely a non-white, non-straight, or non cisgendered person could have been seemlessly included without a million strangers having to point out to an Oberlin alumn that it’s weird that her fantasy life has no minorities when her real life has quite a few. What’s sad (pathetic, really) is, you can’t even imagine a situation where this could occur without it being laborious, forced, disingenuous, and thus undesirable. Yet, you seem to believe it’s something to “get over” because it’s not a big deal. A self identified Black poster stated that she enjoyed the show and relates to the characters…so what “specific perspective” are you discussing that can’t possibly include non-white, non-straight females?

      Also, it is a cop out to say that Dunham is getting unfairly “bashed”. She writes, directs and stars in the show…unprecedented control for a person of any age in this industry and thus the responsibility comes with the territory. Furthermore, since when did we NOT question the choices and perspectives of artists? If one is critical of a painter’s work, you don’t ask the owner of the art gallery about it. She’s a big feminist girl. Hand holding is unnecessary here. If she really wants to impress me (not that she should care, since I decidedly abandoned ship after episode 2) she can start by getting rid of that twit Arfin. Hopefully once this show is cancelled HBO can throw it’s financial weight behind something more epic (GoT season 3 perhaps).

      BTW, I’m totally not surprised that they’re token of choice is Donald Glover. Like Miranda from Sex and the City, they will dump him on the ugliest girl in the crew. Looking forward to everyone’s take on those episodes.

  4. jon on April 27, 2012 at 10:11 AM

    As a male who’ll turn 35 tomorrow, I think this series is off to a great start. I think more guys my age would find it as entertaining as I do if they could get past the title. I’m always willing to give original programming a chance on HBO, and this was no exception. The dialogue is fantastic, and I love every second of awkwardness experienced by the characters. I hope it finds enough of an audience to not only survive, but thrive over at least a few seasons.

  5. Alex White on May 7, 2012 at 1:38 PM

    I, myself find the show to be completely enjoyable, and I’m a 22 year old black female. Am I offended by the lack of racial diversity? Not at all. As Jennifer said, the story is being told from a specific perspective. She shouldn’t receive backlash because she’s telling a story about the type of environment/friends she lived in and surrounded herself with. If I were telling the story the cast would look a little different, but that doesn’t make my story less relatable. Regardless of color, girls are girls and we struggle with the same things: body image, guy problems, best friend betrayal. Hell, I’m a college student and the apartment that l live in now is being paid for by my parents…not to mention my car insurance, cell phone bill, sometimes food expenses. My dad tells me everyday to get a job. It may be a predominately white cast, but the experiences are relatable to girls of all races. Great show! I love it already!

    • Agatha on May 8, 2012 at 9:19 PM

      Thank you for sharing this comment! I too love the show and I am an Asian-American 44 y.o. who lived in NYC in my early 20s…not only can I relate, but I had friends and co-workers who shared the same angst as Hannah and co. As a matter of fact, I had an African-American best friend in high school whose family was the wealthiest of all our friends. The character Jessa reminds me of her.

      • Jennifer on May 8, 2012 at 10:55 PM

        I love this, Agatha. I had a british friend in college who was beyond rich, went shopping almost daily, while I worked my ass off on 2 jobs while being in an intense conservatory program. I can’t imagine how amazing-as-in winning-the effing- lottery–it would have been to have had my parents paying for a cent during or after college. I feel lucky now because of that fact, but at the time WHOA. To live in NYC on someone else’s dime? Especially in my 20s?
        Segway…episode was so good it hurt: Hannah’s speech in the doorway. Yep.

  6. Jennifer on May 7, 2012 at 6:30 PM

    Thanks Alex–totally relate to what you wrote!

    • Rachel on May 8, 2012 at 12:57 AM

      I am a 44 year old women who tonight took the time to watch Girls for the first time. However, given that I was these characters age 20 years ago in the early 90’s, I really can’t identify with their “problems”, or wax nostalgic, since the “problems” these girls are going through in 2012 are completely different than those we faced 20 years ago-its a completely different time now, and a completely different social and sexual milieu. That being said, I think this show, like Jersey Shore, glorifies the boring and mundane life of privileged white kids. Worse still, I think that this show is unfair to the many kids in this generation who, unlike these silly characters,have great values, who work hard, and grasp what is truly important in life.

  7. Jennifer on May 8, 2012 at 1:47 AM

    Rachel, while you voice is completely heard, it shows how you simply don’t relate to the story line. And that’s OK! But I have to disagree with your swooping statement “kids in this generation, who unlike these silly characters, have great values….” Really? You really believe that as a majority truth?
    Just curious and opening it up for conversation.
    Then again, the fact that there’s an ongoing discussion is proof in and of itself that GIRLS is a compelling show.