Tuesday, March 12, 2013

But is it "real" enough? Girls, The Wire and the authenticity obsession

Thinking about pop culture in terms of perceived authenticity can help explain reactions to everything from Girls to The Wire to Jennifer Lawrence and Anne Hathaway.

Lena Dunham, creator and star of Girls; David Simon, creator of The Wire.

Steven Poole's recent, excellent piece on the authenticity fetish currently dominating the culture (published in The New Statesman) has some fascinating things to say about the way critics and the public at large value authenticity in their entertainment. Touching on reactions to Zero Dark Thirty, artisanal coffee shops and Beyonce's performance of the national anthem, Poole ultimately concludes that the search for authenticity in entertainment and consumer goods is a way for tastemakers to distinguish themselves from the huddled masses who enjoy such "inauthentic" entertainments as lip-synched performances and Argo:
The authenticity of such an aspirational brand’s product boils down to the promise that numberless faceless artisans have laboured personally on your behalf. A similar fantasy underlies the ferocious insistence that a coffee shop be “artisanal” and “independent”, the indolent demand for a pre-aged Stratocaster, or the hysterical suspicion that a singer might not have been working hard enough to entertain us. The self-appointed guardians of authenticity, it seems, want desperately to believe that they are at the top of the labour pyramid. In cultural markets that are all too disappointingly accessible to the masses, the authenticity fetish disguises and renders socially acceptable a raw hunger for hierarchy and power.
 Of course, if you have a friend who prides himself on his consumption of only locally-grown, hand-picked food and micro-financed films shot on a vintage Super-8 camera (or if, god forbid, you are that friend), you were probably already aware of this phenomenon. Still, Poole's essay (which I highly encourage everyone to read - it meanders into existentialism a bit in the middle, talking about Sartre and "bad faith" and still manages to be worth your time) offers a useful starting point for a pop-culture discussion I've been wanting to have for a while, about perceived "realism" on film and television and the (often insane) reactions to that realism.

Let's begin by talking about realism. In the academic sense, realism refers to a specific literary genre, defined by an attention to detail in the description of setting and an attempt to depict life as it "really" is, without romantic or blatantly fictional embellishments. Dickens is a purveyor of realism, as are Balzac and Dostoevsky. Of course, anyone who has read these authors knows that they didn't always succeed at leaving out the more "romantic" literary devices, like Miss Havisham in her ancient wedding dress or Sofia Semyonovna, the hooker with a heart of gold, convincing Raskolnikov to confess to his crimes. Realist authors may pride themselves on their accuracy, but they're certainly still writing fiction, and often sensationalized fiction at that.

A similar confusion over the meaning of realism comes up in pop-culture criticism. Poole doesn't refer to this confusion in those terms, but he does provide an excellent example of realist whiplash in his discussion of Zero Dark Thirty's supposed documentarian credentials:
Kathryn Bigelow’s film Zero Dark Thirty, meanwhile, describes itself on a title card as being “based on first-hand accounts of actual events”, and thus lays claim to the authenticity of reportage. [...] However, Zero Dark Thirty’s screenwriter, Mark Boal, was quick to defend the film against the (silly) charge that it is pro-torture by quickly disclaiming that same documentary authority. Oh come on, he told the Times exasperatedly, “It’s a movie! It’s a movie! It’s a movie!”
In this example, Boal was trying to have his cake and eat it too; he and Bigelow had talked up the film's    basis in verifiable fact, but as soon as the discussion turned against it they fell back on the "it's only a movie" defense.

Realist whiplash can be seen in countless other places in popular culture, from the demonization of authors who fictionalize their lives to make memoirs more compelling (Poole's discussion of James Frey is brief, but excellent) to the Internet's current preference for Jennifer Lawrence's supposedly unfiltered public persona over Anne Hathaway's "overly rehearsed" manner. (To those people, I respond: I love Lawrence as much as anyone else, but why are we hating on Hathaway for acting? Rehearsed performances are, quite literally, her job.) I'd like to discuss realist whiplash in the context of two of the most talked- and written-about TV series of the 21st century: The Wire and Girls.

(Full disclosure: I wrote my master's thesis about perceptions of realism on The Wire. I can talk about the subject forever. I will try to be brief, but feel free to skip down to the bottom of the piece if you get bored. Or, you know, just go read about which Game of Thrones characters I think are going to die or something. I really don't mind.)

These two shows are interested to discuss because they each illustrate one side of the realist whiplash divide. The Wire is the standard to which all fiction with dreams of authenticity aspires. It has the documentary authority of creators David Simon and Ed Burns - a former reporter for the Baltimore Sun and a retired Baltimore homicide detective, respectively - which is used to support a large, sprawling story that details with complex issues of urban crime, governmental apathy, and the dirty, unsolvable problems of the American city. The Wire is constantly held up as a shining example of narrative television and an immense journalistic achievement.

Girls, on the other hand, has become a lightning-rod of criticism by those who find it unrealistic and inauthentic. For every critic who praises the series' accuracy and raw realism, there are five who complain that Lena Dunham's depiction of post-college life is missing some element necessary for true realism: the characters are too white or privileged or attractive, the sex they have is too good or too bad, Patrick Wilson would never actually have sex with someone who looks like Lena Dunham. Where The Wire is almost always assumed to be accurate (and I'll get to the "almost" part of that sentence), Girls is constantly under fire for not being accurate enough.

This critical divide is puzzling, and becomes even more so when you consider all the things the two shows have in common. They both make use of certain cinematic markers of realism, like diegetic sound and fairly unintrusive camera work (although there are exceptions in both series); they both present complicated, messy characters who exist in worlds that are easily identifiable as part of our own; they're both the work of singular creative talents who could only find a home on HBO. So then, why are the analyses of the shows' authenticity so different?

It all comes down to one thing: setting.

More specifically, it comes down to the familiarity of the show's audience with the social milieu that surrounds our characters. And, anecdotal accounts in fawning New Yorker profiles aside, most of the people watching these shows (a.k.a. HBO subscribers and interested parties with flexible attitudes toward internet piracy) are going to be much more familiar with the travails of recent college graduates living in Brooklyn than with the struggles of cops and drug dealers in inner-city Baltimore.

That might seem like mere speculation on the part of a writer who is, admittedly, much more familiar with the world of Girls than the world of The Wire. But like the good social scientist that I am, I have evidence to back up my words. You see, while the general consensus when it comes to The Wire is that the show is unparalleled in its accurate depiction of its chosen setting, there are some notable exceptions  that demonstrate the importance of distance to perceptions of authenticity.

One of those notable exceptions is sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh's excellent series of blog posts on watching The Wire with actual drug dealers. Venkatesh, who studies criminal networks, wrote about the gangster's reactions to the show, and some of the responses sound awfully similar to those penned by Dunham's detractors. In particular, one complaint illuminated the need for a certain amount of distance from the on-screen world, as well as highlighting the thug's perception of the show's intended audience:
The greatest uproar occurred when the upstart Marlo challenged the veteran Prop Joe in the co-op meeting. “If Prop Joe had balls, he’d be dead in 24 hours!” Orlando shouted. “But white folks [who write the series] always love to keep these uppity [characters] alive. No way he’d survive in East New York more than a minute!”
Orlando's complaint that the "white folks" behind The Wire don't understand the intricacies of inner-city drug dealing - or, more accurately, are willing to suspend certain aspects in order to further the drama - sounds somewhat similar to the many complaints about Dunham's white-washing of Brooklyn.

I'm not saying that Girls isn't guilty of white-washing to some extent - it probably is, in the same way that all TV is. (Which isn't an excuse, just a fact.) What I'm talking about is the reason Dunham took so much more criticism than Simon, which has nothing to do with the respective accuracy of the two shows. People are simply better equipped to nitpick Girls because the shows' audiences are, in all likelihood, much more aware of the nuances of a Brooklyn neighborhood populated by recent college graduates, than of inner-city Baltimore and the drug dealers and gangs who live there.

If you want another example, reading David Zurawik's review of The Wire's fifth season is a worthwhile exercise. Zurawik wasn't a fan of the season's Baltimore Sun-set storyline, complaining that the Sun scenes are characterized by "mainstream entertainment sacrificed to journalistic shop talk," not to mention "fact and fiction [...] mashed up in in the confusing manner of docudrama." I should probably mention here that Zurawik is the television critic at the Baltimore Sun.

Of course, anyone familiar with the inner workings of a major daily newspaper is going to find that The Wire's depiction isn't completely accurate, just as anyone who has ever been a recent college graduate trying to get along in a big city is going to find that their experience diverges from the experiences of Girls' characters. The reason The Wire has remained bulletproof for so long has little to do with the show's authenticity - I would suppose it probably has the same relative mix of fact and fiction as Girls, all things considered - and much to do with the strangeness of its setting.

When viewers are as familiar with the world of The Wire as they are with that of Girls, whether through a career in journalism or drug-dealing, they tend to have similar opinions about the show's authenticity. The difference lies in the fact that HBO's audience tends to more closely resemble Hannah Horvath than Omar Little. So, the next time you start complaining about the lack of diversity on Girls or telling your friend that The Wire is like "a documentary of the streets," take a moment to remember that both shows are fictional.

Then maybe go watch Archer.


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