I was never as excited about TV as I was when I first saw the HBO pilot of Girls. At that time I didn’t know that it was the brainchild of an unknown named Lena Dunham, 26, who serves as its director, lead, and cowriter. What I did know was that for the first time in my life there was a TV show whose characters felt real in an uncanny yet relatable way. Hannah Horvath, the protagonist, and her three girlfriends seemed hyper-real to me; they resembled girls I knew, and they shared aspects of my own flawed character in a brutally honest, almost confessional manner. Before controversy over the show’s charged and unabashed depictions of sexuality overshadowed the praise of it, cultural critics noted what a stark departure the show’s premise was from what had come before it.
Sex and the City this was not.
There was little sartorial glamour and few stable jobs or romantic relationships, and most of the sex was downright unenviable. Issues such as financial stress, workplace harassment, the unmoored nature of youth, and complex romantic striations all had a place. In short, the show was about your life and mine, only hyperbolized and made witty. The media was astounded that television finally had a leading lady who did not adhere to its own definition of “pretty”.
When Dunham was featured on the cover of Vogue in 2014, the message was clear: inordinate beauty was no longer a prerequisite for the cover; creativity and brains could do. That this show could attain such a level of popularity on a network whose subscription base is 57% male is not only a testament to Dunham’s talent as a storyteller, but also says much about this decade’s attitude towards the lives and stories of young women.
Dunham recently released a collection of creative nonfiction essays that shine a light on Hollywood’s treatment of young professional women. “There is nothing gutsier to me than a person announcing that their story is one that deserves to be told, especially if that person is a woman,” Dunham writes in the introduction. It’s a fair statement given that western history is full of lacunae where female narratives should be.
What surprised me in the book was Dunham’s uncharacteristic restraint when writing about Hollywood. What she does say in the chapter “I Didn’t Fuck Them, but They Yelled at Me” hints at the fact that feminism has somehow left Hollywood behind. Dunham calls this an “era when women in Hollywood [are] treated like the paper thingies that protect glasses in hotel bathrooms—necessary but infinitely disposable”.
Another woman at the forefront of reviving the conversation about third-wave feminism is Caitlin Moran. She’s brash, mouthy, unapologetic, and acerbic. I first came across her years ago when she was as yet unknown on this side of the Atlantic, and her advice to young women set my heart on fire. One of the hobbies she told us all to acquire was revolution. It has certainly been her own hobby in the UK as a broadcaster, TV critic, university fellow, and columnist at The Times. In a culture known for its reticence and a stiff upper lip, Moran has highlighted the pesky social injustices that won’t go away because we have become inured to them.
Moran gave a candid interview for The Conversation, a woman-oriented web series. Moran said that women have “only just now been created. We’re talking about a hundred thousand years of patriarchy and women being burned as witches and women being vilified… treated as equal to animals, owned as property. Women being sent to the mental asylum by their husbands if they became troublesome.
“It has only been a small amount of time that we’ve been able to speak openly about the realities of our lives and to be autonomous people and to have our own money…we still don’t know what women are.”
Moran also says we need to “reclaim” the word “feminist” and cites these statistics: 42% of British women and a meagre 29% of American women identify as feminists. In other words, the term has a bad reputation with connotations of man-hating, aversion to sexuality, and general anarchy. In this generation especially. Moran insists that “it’s technically impossible for a woman to argue against feminism. Without feminism, you wouldn’t be allowed to have a debate on a woman’s place in society. You’d be too busy giving birth on the kitchen floor—biting down on a wooden spoon, so as not to disturb the men’s card game—before going back to hoeing the rutabaga field.”
But her view of sexism is not flat or pessimistic. She writes about how she spent hours on the most British of observation decks, her local pub, watching the interactions between men and women, and concluded that the problem of sexism is “not man vs. woman at all. What I see, instead, is winner vs. loser. Most sexism is due to men being accustomed to us being the losers.” Moran argues without bitterness that there is no female equivalent to Mozart, Einstein, Gandhi, Galileo, the Beatles, Churchill, Hawking, or Columbus. Our gender’s list of achievements is paltry when compared to men’s, and it’s self-perpetuating when men view women as less capable, since this world’s history is what they turn to for justification. For Moran, this doesn’t indicate “a prejudice based on male hatred of women”, but “a prejudice based on simple fact”. Understanding how women came to be the historical losers would provide critical insight into the work that needs to be done in our time.
I think it’s excellent that Canada’s two most notable writers—Munroe and Atwood—are both women, but North America is still yet to elect a female president/prime minister. Michaëlle Jean was by many accounts one of the most popular governor generals, but Toronto—Canada’s largest city—has only ever had two female mayors. During my four years of university, I have had exactly three female professors, only one of whom was tenure-track, whereas 80% of my school teachers have been female. See a pattern? Lena Dunham and Caitlin Moran are just two contemporaries who are doing their bit to undo it, one word at a time.