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February 1, 2013

The New Girls

Long portrayed as unattainable ideals, today's leading ladies are flawed, vulnerable, and real. And, says James Wolcott, they're changing the face of television.

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Once upon a golden time, Hollywood was the greatest modeling academy of them all. It transformed beautiful nobodies into even more beautiful somebodies and lit them like goddesses, their luminous skin giving off a lunar pull. Movie stars were more than objects of contemplation; they were avatars of instruction, idols of emulation. Young women could look up to these apparitions on the big screen for tips on how to dress, talk, slouch, smoke, wisecrack, and send some pest packing. Not so much anymore. Movies today seldom hold a tinted mirror up to the beckoning skyline of the city and the bustle below, the gritty, glamorous arena where young women can most be themselves as they seek the self they want to be. The raucous Bridesmaids aside, movies have become too wish-fulfilling, luxury-padded, and peppermint-stick sweet. Products of prepackaging, typical rom-coms prettify the city into a fairy kingdom where life streams along like one continuous bridal-gown procession and catering operation.

Now it's TV that provides this contemporary feed: an eye-level look at young women askew that's like peeking into their diaries. From Calista Flockhart's Ally McBeal lipstick-smearing the line between the personal and the professional to Sex and the City's glossy quartet show-ponying it down the sidewalk, the spoiled pets of privilege limo-ing about in Gossip Girl, Tina Fey ricocheting around 30 Rock, Amy Poehler's slightly crazed avidity in Parks and Recreation, Zooey Deschanel's goldfish puckerings in New Girl, the mouthy making-do of Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs in 2 Broke Girls, Mindy Kaling's ballsy subversion of expectations in The Mindy Project, and the bohemian raptures and ruptures of Lena Dunham's Girls (whose sophomore season on HBO started this January), television is the reality reflector where role-modeling and initiation rites take place, where life-size icons are created. That most of these shows are comedies is no accident. Comedy is the most honest form of entertainment because it's the least vain, closest to the sneaky little critters that we actually are, rather than the in-control adults we pretend to be — the one with the loosest tongue, blurting out the uncomfortable truth. At times, Girls seems to consist of nothing but blurts.

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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