I had a look at it this morning and read a review by Betsy Woodruff of a new HBO TV series called Girls. Betsy doesn't mince words when reviewing the show:
it’s impossible to tell whether Girls is reflecting or shaping culture. But given how popular the show is and how much scrutiny it has drawn, it’s worth speculating as to which is the case. And for the sake of Western civilization, let’s hope it’s the former. That’s because if Dunham’s vision is prophetic — if it’s helping to forward a larger cultural shift, rather than just depicting a self-contained subgroup — then I think it’s safe to say it’s all over for us.
So there's something in the show that is simply incompatible with civilisation - it's that bad. But what?
At first it seems as if Betsy is going to make a conservative criticism of the show. She notes that the characters are uninterested in morality and devoid of responsibility. And the characters really are living morally bleak lives. In an early episode one of the characters finds out she is pregnant, her friends gather at the abortion clinic but she misses the appointment because she's hooking up with a man at a bar. In another scene from the show the lead character is told she has HPV but a friend reassures her by noting that "all adventurous women have HPV".
But it turns out that Betsy is quite happy with the modern girl lifestyle. What worries her is not what the girls are doing but that they're not proud enough to finance it for themselves. It's that right-liberal versus left-liberal argument again. Both accept that the goal is to be an autonomous agent. For right-liberals like Betsy this means being self-reliant and not depending on the state. For left-liberals it means the state empowering people to live autonomously. Betsy seems to believe that civilisation depends on people taking the right-liberal option and financing their own abortions and contraception rather than expecting the government to subsidise the cost.
Let me give some examples, starting with the worst of the lot. Here is Betsy criticising Girls by comparing its "new vision of women" unfavourably with the vision pursued by second wave feminists:
Second-wave feminists lionized the independent woman who paid her own rent and busted through glass ceilings and ran for Congress. Being totally self-sufficient was the goal. The idea was that women didn’t need men, whether those men were their fathers or husbands or boyfriends or presidents. By contrast, Dunham’s new vision of women as lady parts with ballots is infantilizing and regressive.
What does that paragraph tell you about National Review Online? To me that's a radically liberal view of the world. The aim is to be totally self-sufficient (autonomous) even to the point of not needing fathers or husbands or boyfriends. Betsy thinks that this is an adult and progressive approach to life, because it makes women self-reliant and independent. A left-liberal would simply reply that if justice means women not needing men, then the state can promote justice by increasing the number of women not needing men. Otherwise some privileged women will live a fully human life (independent of men) and others will miss out - an offence against human equality.
And here is Betsy complaining that Girls is not feminist enough:
You’d think the feminist elevation of agency would result in women who take pride in being responsible for their own bodies. You’d hope that telling women that they can do whatever they want would imply that they’re responsible for what they do. You’d think serious feminists would argue that true empowerment is something you lay claim to, not something the federal government dispenses in all its benevolence. But for Dunham, that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Again, there is no in principle disagreement with the philosophy of modernity here. Betsy is just upset with the idea that the left wants women to rely on the state in pursuit of their modern girl lifestyles. If they paid for it themselves, she'd be happy with it.
She makes the same criticism here:
In fact, for all practical purposes, the patriarchy no longer decides whom American women can sleep with and when. That’s great. But if you don’t want men in Washington telling you how to use your sexuality, you shouldn’t expect them to subsidize it. But Dunham seems to actually believe they should. Dunham makes tons of money, and I’m quite confident she can afford to pay for her own birth control. But she doesn’t seem to take pride in that...
Again, she has no problems with the decline of traditional morality - she thinks it's "great" that women can be promiscuous and can use their sexuality for whatever purpose they want. Betsy seems to be unconscious of the possibility that not all choices are the same when it comes to sexuality: that some choices might be elevating and others degrading; that some choices might prioritise love and a commitment to family whilst others might impair the ability to pair bond; and that some choices present risks to health and well-being.
The show itself is possibly a little wiser than Betsy in this regard. Girls does at least portray the more negative consequences of the sexual revolution. It doesn't pretend that if only people paid for their own contraception all would be well.
The thing is, I don't think we need to fear Girls. The lifestyle depicted in the show is so far gone that anyone who adopts it is simply lost to us. Girls portrays left-liberalism in such deep decay that it presents us with the opportunity to demonstrate something much better.
Which is why I fear Betsy a lot more. We are not showing the better alternative if the most right-wing criticism we permit ourselves is to complain about people not self-funding their modernist lifestyles. The opposition to left-liberal decay is, at the moment, a sham and that is what is really holding back a necessary response to it.