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February 1, 2013

The New Girls

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It's telling that so many of these series brandish "girl" in the title. Not so long ago, "girl" was considered a politically incorrect term, an ageist/sexist word that patronized young women. It was acceptable if spelled with an aggressive growl — as in "riot grrrls" and "grrrl power" — but, otherwise, uh-uh. Now the G-word has been reclaimed, destigmatized, practically cuddled like a security blanket. Some might chalk this up to our chronic immaturity, but the new, knowing girlishness is also a declaration of independence from unreal ideals of womanhood imposed by a culture that enshrines the beautiful dead. Here we are a half-century later and Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the holy trinity of class and elegance, are still held up as aspirational ideals. But their world isn't ours, and cultural nostalgia can turn into a kind of curse, a perverse re-enactment of the past. The '70s gave us the first movies with actors and actresses who looked like "real people," with nasally voices to match. And over time, it began to revert as Botox injections, personal trainers, and red-carpet standards of super-perfection took control, the designer gowns evoking a classic Hollywood that exists only on TCM.

Much has been made of the unconventional looks of Dunham and Kaling, how their figures don't conform to Maxim's babe specifications or the exalted boniness of some of our leading yoga/Pilates crunchers. Perhaps too much has been made. Roseanne Barr, once the queen of TV comedy, was no ballerina. And poor Margaret Cho, who starred in the short-lived sitcom All-American Girl in 1994, starved herself after being told by producers her face was too round and suffered kidney failure as a result. Were a comedy performer of her age and ethnicity given the same opportunity today, the powers-that-be would be less likely to put her in a duck press.

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