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HBO's Accidental Feminism, From Lena Dunham's Hannah Horvath to Laura Dern's Amy Jellicoe

Thompson on Hollywood By Julia Chasman | Thompson on Hollywood March 21, 2013 at 11:37AM

With the recent finale of the second season of “Girls,” and the “Enlightened” season finale still resonating in my mind, I’ve been thinking more and more about the characters from both shows. The upcoming new season of “Veep” is only a few weeks away, too, and, even though it’s a more stylized comedy half-hour, it’s another example of what I’ve come to think of as HBO’s inadvertent nod to feminist sensibilities; these three shows have female protagonists who are far from lovable -- but we love them. What’s going on here?
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Zosia Mamet, Allison Williams, Lena Dunham and Jemima Kirke of HBO's 'Girls'
Zosia Mamet, Allison Williams, Lena Dunham and Jemima Kirke of HBO's 'Girls'

With the recent finale of the second season of “Girls,” and the “Enlightened” season finale still resonating in my mind, I’ve been thinking more and more about the characters from both shows. The upcoming new season of “Veep” is only a few weeks away, too, and, even though it’s a more stylized comedy half-hour, it’s another example of what I’ve come to think of as HBO’s inadvertent nod to feminist sensibilities; these three shows have female protagonists who are far from lovable -- but we love them. What’s going on here?

The title “The Accidental Feminist” was used by M.G. Lord for her recent biography of Elizabeth Taylor, and I liked it a lot, and think it’s apropos to this situation too.

I’ve been thinking about this for awhile, and reading with great interest the tsunami of over-excited journalism that “Girls” in particular has generated. That’s one thing that HBO has got to be happy about -- if there’s no bad publicity, then “Girls” is doing great! And lately, the public has been talking about the characters on the show as if they were real people, criticizing the behavior of Hannah and her “sisters” as though they were disappointed in them, on occasion, like friends who let them down. “Girls” has also stirred a passionate sometimes divisive debate among its critics, with as many people hating these women as loving them, sometimes throwing stones without even having seen the target (a lot of posts start out, “I haven’t actually watched the show, because I don’t want to waste my time…”).

One of my favorite Hannah-watchers is the wonderful “New Yorker” writer and TV critic Emily Nussbaum, whose defense of Lena Dunham has so far been unflagging, and whose reminder to us of “Girls’s” literary and cinematic forebears -- Mary McCarthy and Rona Jaffe, etc -- was entirely on the money. Ms. Nussbaum came up with a new moniker for the type of character which I am obsessing over; she has named these women characters “Hummingbirds,” and announced them as a new television archetype. At first I thought she had simply preempted what I wanted to say, but as I have thought about the “Hummingbird” theory….I’m not sure we’re on the same page exactly. (Click here to read Nussbaum’s piece)

I feel like a Hummingbird is meant to be an agent of change. They are characters who ARE leading ladies -- or important secondary characters -- who are NOT necessarily likable. For me, that is the key here. But Nussbaum loses me in widening her theory so much that I am no longer sure what she’s identifying. In particular when she says there can be male Hummingbirds….I’m lost.

Read the rest of this article as originally published here.

This article is related to: Features, HBO, Girls, Lena Dunham, Features, Enlightened, Laura Dern, Television, TV Reviews, TV


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.