Emma Woolf is Bad for Women


Emma Woolf is the British journalist who wrote the recent Daily Beast piece “Girls is Bad for Women.” The article is a pseudo-feminist takedown of the HBO show that so blatantly misses the larger points of feminism it almost feels like an intentional joke. Unfortunately, though, it’s not a joke at all, which is equal parts disturbing and infuriating, but helpful in its revelation of the type of person who just cannot allow GIRLS to air unscathed.

Which is not to say that I think critiquing the show is “bad” or undeserved—quite the opposite, actually. But in certain instances, and especially this one, the points that people can’t wrap their heads around in the show are really just representative of their incredibly close-minded perspectives on humanity, ahem, woman-ity, in general. When that’s the case, I can’t help but come to the defense—because it feels like a much-broader critique of women that’s just moonlighting as something microcosmic.

Certain critics have created productive discussion surrounding the issues brought forth on GIRLS, but this piece doesn’t do that. Instead, it seems entirely blind to some of the realities the show is trying to portray—and the few times that Woolf does catch on, she seems to find those realities faulty and reprehensible. This piece stinks of the author’s moral duty, a holier-than-thou-ness that she must bestow on all of us lesser beings that inexplicably enjoy this repugnant show. It’s as if Emma Woolf is a mouse being baited with cheese—cheese in the form of Lena Dunham and her fellow writers—and she walked directly towards it and took a bite. She is the face of the audience whose deeply entrenched beliefs Dunham has consistently worked to turn upside down, and as expected, she is very uncomfortable.

I wish I could say this surprised me, but I wouldn’t expect anything less from Emma Woolf. Why? Well, for personal reasons. But personal reasons that I believe are counterproductive for all women. Emma Woolf is best known for writing about her so-called recovery from anorexia—except that her strain of recovery is totally warped, and basically describes a way to go from the extreme end of anorexia to a more manageable level. It’s always disturbed me that she is the voice many women look to when they are suffering, as I once did, because it’s immediately obvious in her work that she’s still totally enmeshed in her disease. Her ideal for women is still built around perfection, one that asserts we should all continue to restrict what we eat, and where recovery from an ED means still being skinny, just not as skinny. Considering the diverse range of bodies that are afflicted with these disorders, this is a very dangerous message.

But, not surprisingly, this very narrow idea of what women should be comes through in all of her concerns with GIRLS. She asks, “Are we supposed to believe that young women actually live like this? Is the lead character…intended to be likeable or odious?” People, to Emma Woolf, are black or white, apparently. The fact that maybe, like most humans, Hannah’s likability factor vacillates often due to her personal complexity, is, well, just not a possibility. She can’t fathom young women complaining and adopts a how dare they attitude in response. She can’t sympathize with their poor “career prospects, their vile boyfriends, their lives.” The entire concept of self-pity is apparently surreal to her—which makes me wonder what kind of twenty-somethings this lady has been hanging out with. More than that, though, it’s gross and weak. Emma Woolf surely never went through this! Why should anyone else?

She continues:Living in Brooklyn with a group of improbably glamorous, kooky, creative friends, they navigate their twenties ‘one mistake at a time’. This is a world in which adult-children complain that “my parents pay for only half of my Blackberry”; a world in which it’s apparently acceptable to sit on the phone at work analyzing your sexual encounters in minute detail. This is the culture of entitlement writ large: not so much Generation Y, as Generation why-doesn’t-anyone-recognise-my-genius.

First of all, I wouldn’t really call their lives glamorous (god I hope it’s not glamour), and I know a lot of people who are easily as kooky and/or creative. Second, does she not realize that Dunham might be commenting on a lot of these generational facets? Not simply putting them forth in endorsement? She misses the point, and gets wrapped up in details so unimportant that it’s comical. Uh, you’ve never sat on the toilet and looked on your phone, Miss Woolf? Who…are…you? When Miss Woolf was younger, she never thought anxiously about the previous nights sexual encounters during dull moments at work? Once again…who…is…she? A robot?

She goes on to decry that no women would ever share a tub together—also false. But more repulsive to her than that failing is the notion that women USE THE TOILET around their significant others, or perhaps take a tinkle (as I can easily imagine her calling it) in the midst of their friends. It’s improbable that a woman would allow her guise of perfection, in which she doesn’t shit and urinates a bouquet of roses, to fall so far. Certainly not around her male lover!

Then, she wonders if she’s supposed to laugh when Hannah hands her parents an unfinished manuscript and boldly declares that it’s her book? Er, yes, that’s kind of the point. Because a lot of young people, ones who obviously aren’t in Woolf’s picture-perfect orbit, endure a learning curve at the start of adulthood in which their conception of work and success is naïve. And while Dunham and crew may be mocking this reality, they also seem to empathize with it, rather than simply shaking their heads in disgust as Woolf seems to be doing.

But the most off putting moment in her review is the following: “Most of all, how could anyone film—or inflict upon viewers—such gratuitous, relentlessly grubby sexual content? It’s not romantic, it’s not erotic, it’s not even entertaining. I can’t imagine how you’d watch this show with anyone else: I watched alone, and even so my was face burning.” Here the author reveals herself in all her prudish, sexless glory. She can’t stand the sex on GIRLS because it’s not pretty and filtered in the usual Hollywood vein—instead it looks a lot more like real sex. But this realness embarrasses her so much that she turns red whilst watching it—which says a lot more about the author’s discomfort with sexuality in general than it does about the show’s portrayal of it. She doesn’t understand “the point” of the humiliating moments that we see taking place during sex, or the occasional poor treatment of women by men. The scenes are “so disturbing” that they feel borderline “abusive” and as a result, they shouldn’t exist. But they do exist. These are realities that many young women face—men who transform during sex, often disturbingly, into seeing women simply as vessels for their pleasure. Sexuality in general is complicated like this, and instead of condoning all of these behaviors or dividing them into neat categories of right and wrong, Dunham is simply putting them out there. She is pulling real experiences out from under the rug of shame in which they’ve been suffocated for far too long. 

This is totally lost on Woolf, as she ends her piece with this warped line of questioning: “Is this what we call feminism these days? A group of sloppy, self-obsessed young women having dysfunctional relationships and semi-abusive sex? What is empowering about this? What is feminist about staying with a man who has nothing to say for himself, but orders you to take your jeans off, turn over, and keep your mouth shut?”

Apparently, feminism to Woolf does not allow for imperfections. It sticks to the clean, idealistic image of women that has been hailed blindly throughout time. If you are “sloppy” (presumably: not super skinny with all your hairs in place) and, god forbid, allow yourself to be subjected to relationships that are dysfunctional and involve questionable sex, you are not worthy of our attention. Your reality is not empowering us, and therefore you don’t exist. Instead, what we see on TV should only be that which we should strive for, which is to say, flawlessness. A life in which humans are never selfish, never stupid, never sick, or sad, or weak—or, perhaps, just more like the immaculate virgin that is Emma Woolf.


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