Downton Abby Ends in Feminist Dystopia of GIRLS?

downton-abbey-season-4-castDownton Abbey and HBO’s Girls seem to be talking to each other, says Anand Giridharadas in a New York Times piece

The early 20th Century world of Downton’s British aristocracy knew “there is a way to do everything, from cleaning spoons to dressing for dinner.”

But then World War I unleashes its chaos, confusing notions about who is independent and where one stands. Thus,

The family driver, believing in equality and marrying for love, runs away with the family daughter; thus the men wear black tie instead of white to dinner one night; thus a new generation of servants is less servile, more willing to question.

HBO’s Girls yields the fruits of that push a century later — and it isn’t pretty, he says — as four young women navigate the stresses and opportunities of New York City: a world that “says you can be anything but does not show you how.” 

Girls poster“I don’t know what the next year of my life is going to be like at all,” says Marnie, a smart, pretty, rather lost twentysomething on “Girls.” “I don’t know what the next week of my life is going to be like. I don’t even know what I want. Sometimes I just wish someone would tell me, like, ‘This is how you should spend your days, and this is how the rest of your life should look.”’

And sexual agency?

“Girls” portrays a sexual dystopia in which those women seem to have negotiated poorly: Men now reliably get what they want, while women must often content themselves with scraps, as when the character Hannah celebrates “almost” satiation in bed as the best she is likely to get.

Mr. Giridharadas ends with this observation:

The creator of “Girls,” Lena Dunham, is a self-proclaimed liberal. But her show is, as some conservatives gleefully note, full of ammunition for their side.

With all that ammunition, which of these worlds would you rather live in?

The conservative Downton Abby at least holds clarity and security — even if you lose power and liberty. Meanwhile, you can get pretty screwed up in the  messy world of Girls — but hey, the sky’s the limit.

I can relate to Girls. Before college graduation I always knew what to do. After graduation I faced a huge void — and little direction. I made unwise choices. And I experienced failure before figuring out what I really wanted and where my interests and abilities lay.

But I also learned a lot. And so, apparently, has Ms. Dunham.

“Hannah” was (in some ways) Lena then. But look at Lena now. Today she is an award-winning writer, director, producer and actress. She’s even in a stable relationship. And she has become a mentor of sorts, pointing out the potholes.

In today’s more egalitarian world I do see confusion, pain, suffering and messed up lives. But I also see plenty of people rising out of it all, a bit older, wiser and fulfilled.

And then there’s that old truism: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on February 28, 2014, in feminism, relationships, sex and sexuality, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. I can relate to Hannah. There are times when I’ve said the exact same thing. “Sometimes I just wish someone would tell me, like, ‘This is how you should spend your days, and this is how the rest of your life should look.”‘ They tell us to be what we want but they don’t show us how to achieve are goals and dreams. That being said, I would much rather live in World where I can be anything then follow strict rules. Even though I sometimes wish someone would tell me what to do, I enjoy have the free agency to decide for myself. I like guide lines not strict rules.

  2. i can relate to the whole careless action “the sky is the limit”. When i was in high school i went through a phase like that. I did stupid reckless things, and i know that i can’t change the things i did or decisions that i made, but i can act more maturely then i did back then. sure i wish i could erase my mistakes, but its what i did. I try to think logically and realistically. I don’t take huge risks thinking “ill never get caught” and then always fearing that someone would find out and be scared as to what might happen. You need to choose what you do carefully.

  3. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed with choice and do wonder if it was easier to live in another time where my only option was to get married and pop out babies and that was that, but I even though these times aren’t perfect, I wouldn’t really want to live in another time as a woman especially.

    • Yes. There have been times when I’ve been tempted to “Drop out” and go that route–which women can actually get away with. But I’m so glad that I didn’t.

      • I think this line, “a world that “says you can be anything but does not show you how.” really says it. We are told from the time we are little we can do anything and we live in a time where we really can, but sometimes all that choice can feel overwhelming and I see people being hard on themselves, because they should be achieving great things in a world where anything is possible and they feel like they aren’t. I wouldn’t live in another time, but all these endless possibilities can be a little bit of a double edged sword.

      • Yes, it’s true. When we are offered so many more options with our lives it can be stressful and confusing. But it can also be really fulfilling an amazing.

        In the 1950s there was widespread depression among women who were disempowered and bored with their lives.

        And it may take some explorations and trial and error to figure out what works.

  4. I used to feel sad and empathy with women in the feminist fictions where authors try to magnify extreme conditions women suffered from, such as family violence, physical abuse, and social inequality. Although women in the GIRLS are live much better than the world in Downton Abby, women are social inferior to their counterpart no matter what generation they belong to. Thus, it makes no difference for me to choose which world I would rather live in. No matter what, women have right to make their own decisions, women will become more independent through reflecting their past and learning from their own experiences.

  5. Looking back on my own twentysomething foibles, I can see that the journey was necessary and part of getting to where I am today. While my older self would like to be able to time travel and say, “What were you thinking?” To hold the wisdom you have to grow into it. Good food for thought, your post, as always!

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