Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Dealing with Conflict

I came to the “Girls” party late; I only downloaded Season 1 from iTunes long after the show aired on HBO.  But I was driven to find out what all the fuss was about and to see if the show was as good/bad, controversial/provocative, well-written/poorly-written as opposing viewpoints and reviews seemed to say.  There was a lot on the Internet about the show and its writer and creator, Lena Dunham, and what the show possibly said about what it is like to be a twenty-something young woman living in a very intense city.  (I think that’s one thing we can all agree on:  living in New York at any age is a challenge.  The city is the best in the world, in my opinion, but is loud, expensive, and sometimes difficult to navigate, both literally and figuratively.)

I watched the first season from start to finish in one dreary afternoon.  As a television show with interesting characters and story arc, I found it enjoyable.  As a mother with a young adult daughter, though, I came away thinking:  I really hope her twenties aren’t quite this difficult.  I hope she doesn’t have about eighty percent of these experiences. I hope she travels a less-conflict-ridden road.  The show makes me uncomfortable and after sorting through my feelings about various characters and plot devices, I have come to the conclusion that that’s not a bad thing.  In fact, it’s good.

Again, my opinion only, but to me, “Girls” is good television, despite being difficult to watch, despite the situations that the main characters often find themselves in, despite making me so uncomfortable that I often have to pause to think about things I have just watched.  The conflicts are disturbing and sustained, not resolving themselves in one half-hour episode. But watching the episodes as one long story rather than separate episodes, I got to thinking:  does the show need the extended, brutal conflicts in order to be entertaining?

And the answer, I decided, was yes.

Conflict is the salt /pepper in the plot recipe. A dash here, a dash there and you have a compelling story that speaks to readers in a way that a conflict-less story would not.  Do I want to cringe while watching a show about young women trying to figure out how to journey through a decade of life in an exciting city?  I guess I do.  Even my favorite show of all time—“The Brady Bunch”—created a half-hour episode about a happy, blended family on what would be considered cringe-worthy topics of the early ‘70’s:  not making the cheerleading squad, having a fake boyfriend, having one’s nose broken before the big show, bombing an audition. Happiness, if we believe our favorite shows and books, begets boredom while conflict brings the intrigue, the desire to watch/read more.

I’m in the midst of writing a new book and contrary to what might seem like common sense, am watching and reading as much as I can.  (I’m on a “Veronica Mars” kick right now and even contributed to the Kickstarter campaign to make it possible for the movie to be produced.)  I don’t “lose my voice,” as some writers claim they do by reading more while writing.  Rather, reading different kinds of books and watching television shows help me hone the conflict that must exist, temper the drama that I want to bring to my story. Good writing is good writing, whether it be on the page or on the screen and always helps me get to where I want my story—my writing—to be.

I’ve read various stories and reviews of this season of “Girls” and it sounds like the situations are more disturbing and emotional than they were in season one.  There’s OCD and disturbing sexual situations and even a mishap with a Q-Tip.  The writers seemed to have upped the ante, creating more drama where a lot already existed.  Will I have to suspend disbelief when I watch this new season?  Most likely. But will I watch?  Definitely.  And most importantly, will I be uncomfortable?

That goes without saying.

I know the Northern half of Evelyn David has an opinion about “Girls”—we’ve talked about it and agree on the depiction of the more salacious aspects of the show—but anyone else?  And do you like shows or books that make you uncomfortable, that contain so much drama that it practically hurts, or would you prefer less conflict, more harmony?

Maggie Barbieri


  1. I obviously live in a hole. I've not even heard of this show.

    That said, while I like conflict and like to see it resolved, I'm not one who enjoys being beat over the head with it, either (if that makes sense). There's a movie out with Halle Berry right now. I think it's called The Call. While it looks like it would be very good (based on the previews), the previews are so raw and, perhaps too close to home with the age of the kids being abducted in the film, I know I will NOT go see it.

  2. I haven't heard of The Girls either. I know conflict is what drives a story forward--but sometimes the conflict is more than I can handle.

  3. Laura, I hear you on that one. The ads for THE CALL makes me sweat bullets. M

  4. Before I forget: The trailer for “The Call” just supports my view that our arts culture is drifting more and more into depicting violence toward CHILDREN. Think “Criminal Minds”, “The Dark Knight”, etc. I’m telling you people, it’s a bad trend.

    GIRLS talk:

    1. I liked season 1 better than 2.

    2. I sided with Dunham against her critics in great part because while I know I am not the demographic for this series I admired a young woman getting off her rear end and putting work out there. Good work, bad work, doesn’t matter. She’s a do-er, not a yapper. And, I still hear far too few women’s voices in entertainment media, across the board, so she’s a plus.

    3. I agree with the criticism that the show really should be called WHITE GIRLS, or maybe WHITE GIRLS OF PRIVILEGE IN THEIR EARLY 20’S WHO ARE LIVING IN HIPSTERVILLE/BROOKLYN. It’s a bit narrow of scope.
    4. Even as a middle-aged gal, the first season was at least interesting, even if it made me roll my eyes and scoff a bit. It also gave me repeated chances to be very thankful to no longer BE a “girl”, which in turn at least meant the gang had my sympathy. To repeat what I say very often: young people suck.
    5. The second season is where they’re losing me and it’s unlikely I’ll watch the third. The whole Hannah has the quickie weekend affair with the hot doctor in his Pottery Barn-esque townhouse, during which she was such a bitch? Yeah, I’m not thinking so. The OCD? THAT seemed to come out of nowhere and felt to me contrived. Same goes for Marnie’s stint with that crappy faux artist Booth and Shoshanna’s love for that twerp Ray and Jessa’s wedding. In truth these girls often behave like whores—for security, status, revenge, etc. I think the OCD bit was put in to elicit sympathy for and excusing of Hannah, who is after all a very unlikeable character. She’s selfish, not really very well educated for all the chatter about Oberlin, and she’s a user. Marnie is closest to pulling her head out of her butt, but she’s still a dope. Shoshanna is just too irritating to listen to with her over-wrought valley girl speak. Jessa ran off one night and that just doesn’t amount to much of a cliff-hanger because she’s a flaky mean girl and I don’t care about her. And the end of the second season where essentially BOYS showing up to save two to three of these dopes is really cheap.

    I know we’re talking 25-30 years ago, but I don’t recall the young women I traveled with being as dumb and lazy as this set. The young women I know now—even though they do suck, as young people—are just not quite like THIS.

    I’ve never been good at suspending disbelief because I firmly believe that art is only good if it’s not asking you to buy some trumped up nonsense—i.e., I don’t believe good stories should ask for a suspension of disbelief at all. Good storytelling should present you with a world and people and things that you believe and can feel, even if fantastical or wild. You’ve got to make me a believer, and GIRLS has lost my faith.

  5. Thanks, Vicky. I haven't seen Season 2 yet but will probably give it a shot because I've read so much about it. You and I knew each other in our 20s and worked together and our experience was vastly different, right? We worked hard, we never went out (couldn't afford it!), we ate Chinese food on payday as our big treat, we took public transportation and wrote on the side. But again, would anyone really want to watch a show about that??? :-) Me, commuting 2 hours each way from suburbia? Us using Wang computers and trying to secure permissions for literature anthologies? It all feels so long ago. Maggie

  6. Oh, Mags, I think our reality was interesting enough, definitely! For your consideration:

    The search for a good and affordable place to get grown-up haircuts; going out for drinks and eventually kicking our shoes off only to find that after alcohol made our feet swell we had to go home barefoot or with our shoes sort of converted to mules; the craziness of those commutes (even my Manhattan one was often full of adventure!); the LOONIES with whom we worked (yes, they each say the same about us, I'm sure!)--my favorite is STILL that time you and MJ turned a corner in the hall to find little, chubby, very Jewish Sarah in her purple sweater dress with matching fedora and you, stunned, sputtered out "Hey, you look like Pam Grier!" as a complement when she really looked like someone who'd played Pam Grier's pimp in a movie!; the tragedies, some of the worst being the loss of Dave after he was shot during that business trip and Gary's son dying in a dirt bike accident; the occasional black-out/brown-out; the street life full of vendors, parades, etc.; falling in love; that huge rock that Chris C's fiance got her when he proposed!; getting promoted in our REAL jobs; quitting and moving away, etc. It's a long list. We had just as much "life" in our lives as any of these TV characters!

    I still applaud Dunham, but I just wish her product was even stronger, better.

  7. I don't watch TV, but I've heard a great deal about GIRLS. It seems to me that most of the criticism is two-pronged. 1) Criticism that Dunham would dare put this stuff out there, as if young women's lives were of interest to others the way young men's always have been. Needless to say, I'm not down with that stuff! 2) Criticism from dear friends whose judgement I truly respect complaining that once again it's a TV show setting up the very privileged white life in NYC as THE American life. I suspect if I watched the show that's what I'd come away with.

    I think the show Vicky offered about your formative years together sounds much more fun. I agree with you about the need for good conflict, but I've never been big for mean girls or girls who sleep with men for money or preferment of some sort. Not as protagonists that I'm supposed to root for or identify with. I feel those just reinforce negative stereotypes of female behavior.

    And I agree with Vicky also about the scary propensity of American culture to move more and more to the showcasing of ultra violence against women and children for entertainment. I know it sounds silly coming from a mystery writer, but honestly, some of this stuff now turns my stomach and leaves me worrying what we're feeding our society mentally and emotionally.

  8. Linda, the two-pronged criticism is on point. It is a very monochromatic show and I think Dunham tried to address that this season (unsuccessfully in my opinion) by having an African American boyfriend.

    My and Vicky's formative years did have some laughs but I remember feeling anxious about the future (would I ever get to where I wanted to be professionally?) and the present (how would I support myself until I got to where I wanted to be professionally?) and the past (why the heck did I major in English/French anyway???) but the fact that I do have fond memories of the time speaks for itself. It was the 80s and things were cool and fun and not quite as dangerous as they seem today for young women.

    I agree with both of you about the violence issue. I can't watch anything in which a child is in danger; I actually sobbed so loudly during "Jurassic Park" (when the kids are being terrorized in the car by the dinosaur) that I almost had to leave the theater. That's kids' stuff compared to what's on television and in the movies today. Maggie

  9. I'vwe got a couple of thoughts, although oddly, not so much about GIRLS. I haven't watched it, but my 20-something daughter has -- and didn't like it.

    I understand the need for conflict and drama in story-telling. Even the Three Little Pigs had drama built-in. But I deliberately tend not to watch or read books that are violent or too dark. Life itself is complicated and I read to escape, to laugh, to know that the "good guys win."

    As a mystery writer, I try to come up with clever twists to the whodunnit puzzle. But what always amazes me is that in real life, crime is often quite simple. I can't tell you how many cases of embezzlement I've read where it was simply a matter of the thief writing a check to himself. OY!

    Finally, I'd like to add a little word in support of 20-something young women. There are, of course, vapid, superficial "girls" -- just like there were when I was that age. But there are also a huge number of substantive, smart, kind, empathetic, funny young ladies out there who are finding their way through life -- just like we did. Are they making mistakes, sometimes? You bet. I was pretty dumb too. But I actually have a great deal of faith in the young women of today.


  10. I agree, Marian. I work with a lot of young women young enough to be my daughters (!) and am so impressed with their acumen and poise in the workplace. I don't remember being like that but my rearview tends to be very harsh, particularly when it comes to me. Maybe the ultimate thesis here--the one that I didn't state--is "what I want to watch is not necessarily how I want to live"?

    On another note, I watched a movie called "Once" last night and while it was full of conflict, the kind that will keep two in love people apart, it was quiet and lovely and without the violence that we see so regularly in our films. Check it out if you haven't seen it. Maggie

  11. Marian (I'm assuming it's you posting for Evelyn David since I know Rhonda is still having eye problems), I'm with you and Maggie on the great young women today. I worked with many on the campus for years and still teach and know a number of young 20-somethings, and I am impressed with their compassion and consciences and their willingness to work hard for things that matter to them (often unselfish causes). I know there are selfish, mean, manipulative young women out there, of course, but my experience has been largely with lovely young women (who make mistakes as we all do but try to repair or make recompense when they realize they have).