Lena Dunham’s Girls shows how fictional women are routinely judged more harshly by viewers than their male counterparts, writes feminist icon Erica Jong.

When Girls began in 2012 I watched with interest. I’m always fascinated by young women writers when they push boundaries. Intrigued to see that the first season showed four young women in their 20s trying to survive in darkest Brooklyn, I was riveted by the first crisis: Hannah’s parents cutting her off financially. What a great idea for an opening.

I grew depressed by the characters’ sex lives – how could we have gone so backward?

But as the series progressed, I grew depressed by the sexual situation of the protagonists. The girls who had boyfriends seemed never to reach orgasm with them. The guys were ignorant about women’s pleasure. They were a bunch of boobs who only thought of their own satisfaction. It was funny but also terribly sad. How could we have gone so backward? I didn’t want to focus on the advances of my era coming undone, but I would watch the show from time to time because I admired its honesty.

However, when I was asked to write about the latest iterations of Hannah and her ‘sisters’, I began to watch the new season more consistently and found myself interested again. In one recent episode, Hannah confronts a male chauvinist novelist about whom she has negatively blogged. He tries to seduce her. She resists. At first we think she’ll discover that he is really a good guy, but by the end of the episode we know that he has tried this trick on many other women. His penis suddenly slides out of his pants and we recognise that he’s a player with an old piano. The writing is true and funny. In another episode, Hannah is pregnant and has to deal with wanting the baby but not being sure she wants the man.

Inevitably, I wondered whether my now 38-year-old daughter had any experiences that echoed these. She did not.  Or maybe she never told me. After all, what does a mother really know? But my own experience was so different from the fictional Hannah’s. In high school and college, my boyfriends generally adored me and my writing. They also cared about my pleasure. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.  It was only after my divorce from my daughter’s father when I was 39 that I encountered a bumpy parade of awful men. I don’t know if this was because I was by then a ‘celebrity’ – whatever that means –  and some of the men who came on to me thought I was rich, or perhaps the world had simply changed yet again. It seemed to me that every time I was single between marriages there were new dating protocols. When I graduated from my marriage to my daughter’s father, it seemed everyone expected to go to bed on the first date. Every few years, the sexual rules seemed to change. Very confusing! Neither my nor my daughters’ experience was like the experiences of the girls on Girls. Still, I can relate which must mean the writing works.

Breaking the mould

Lena Dunham has had the guts to go on camera without makeup, without hairdressing, and often without clothes. There’s been plenty of controversy about that. But I see her as courageous. Women are so imprisoned by the need to be beautiful and thin and compete with skeletal models in magazines, that it takes enormous moxie to flout these imperatives.

I believe that writing, whether satirical or heart-stoppingly tender, must be honest – or why bother? I’ve never liked romance novels nor superhero comics nor car-chase movies because they bore me. They’re entertainment of a sort, but they don’t interest me. I want truth. Without truth, I’m not interested. Girls has moments of truth. Not every episode is equally well-written nor equally moving but some are excellent.

Does anybody ever find a male hero ‘unlikeable’?

And I feel empathy for the way Lena Dunham has been treated as a writer and actor. Her series has been criticised for not being ethnically diverse. She has been mocked for her nudity and plumpness. She’s been snickered at for sexuality while at the same time being criticised for not being naked enough. Her heroines have been seen as ‘unlikeable’ – does anybody ever find a male hero ‘unlikeable’? Never! Whether it’s Tony Soprano or Philip Roth’s Zuckerman, or even James Bond, male protagonists are never subjected to such criticism. But when it comes to women – every critic feels that he or she has the right to complain. I once read a 19th Century review in which a cranky male critic said of Jane Eyre, “I would never hire her as a governess!” This may seem funny to you – it’s certainly absurd, but it happens all the time to women who write. I’ve often wondered how we can change this. In the US, Hillary Clinton was pilloried for being ‘unlikeable’ so we got Donald Trump who, not even three months into his presidency, has historically low approval ratings – yet was he somehow more ‘likable’?

I had dared to be naked about sex in a puritanical country and nobody let me forget it

Girls asks many questions worth asking. The show is not scared to push boundaries and display the ugly truth – that life is not glossy like magazine covers. Women are not all long-legged and big-boobed. Not all men will do it for you. It’s not easy to make money doing what you love. Being an adult is a challenge, and sometimes life sucks. The show celebrates and accentuates the things young women deal with and it does so without pushing aside common female experiences.

Scarlet letters

Lena Dunham’s history as a writer echoes my own. In 1973, when I published Fear of Flying, I was battered by both male and female critics. Some of them seemed to regard me as the ‘happy hooker’ of literature. The fact that I’d been a prize-winning younger poet who had won many of the same awards as Sylvia Plath and WS Merwin didn’t seem to make much of a difference. I had dared to be naked about sex in a puritanical country and nobody let me forget it. I was a slut, a tart, a loose woman – not a writer. To this day the tainting continues here in the US. I have always been more honoured abroad.

Forty-four years later, that first novel has been published all over the world in more than 40 languages. It has sold over 35 million copies. People now tell me I’m an “icon” – whatever that means. It’s utterly astounding to me that the criticisms I faced all those years ago are still current.

The world is full of wonderful women writers. From Sappho to Emily Dickinson to Charlotte Brontë and her sisters, we have always written and written well. We have produced Middlemarch, Jane Eyre, Beloved, White Teeth, The Country Girls, Possession –  too many to name here. But while Philip Roth waits for his Nobel, we are poised for the next attack. No wonder young women get writer’s block and decide to stop writing and get pregnant instead.

So, mazel tov to the writers and producers of Girls. They have done something important.  Don’t worry – they’ll be punished for it. That’s the way it goes.

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