Girls, Ancillary Media, and Audiences

Curator's Note

From Lena Dunham’s body to the show’s alleged lack of diversity, Girls has garnered much attention for its representational politics. Moreover, Dunham, and Girls' parent network HBO, benefit from a convergent media presence.

Girls is a cross-platform product, making appearances in venues including blogs, YouTube, and online news. Girls and Dunham’s multi-media travels function to manage the brand of the show and network, and to cultivate an audience for it. This extreme social media presence seems indicative not only of a savvy marketing ploy—clearly ongoing Twitter conversations, blog posts, product tie-ins, and write ups equal publicity—but an attempt to carve out an audience for the show that is female, tech-savvy, attuned to irony, and politically conscious. Girls' regular appearances on the feminist blog Jezebel are indicative of the gendering of the audience.

Television scholar Avi Santo has argued that “quality television” purveyors such as HBO brand their products through discourses of taste and class, crafting a "refined" audience who can afford to pay subscription fees. The upscale audience is enjoined to engage in highbrow conversation regarding the content, an invitation that is apparent from the show's complex narratives. Rather than working within this framework, Girls and Dunham shift HBO’s notion of the quality viewer away from one who is refined towards one who is young, savvy, and highly involved with social media (and streaming/downloading media content?). Although the "girls" are clearly privileged, their relationships with work, media, and money reflect a change in HBO's cultivation of its demographics.

Evidence of this branding shift is notable in show’s representations—Hannah and Marnie are repeatedly depicted browsing Facebook, tweeting and texting, and pondering how to write clever Facebook status updates. A viewer niche is also courted outside of the text, as seen through Dunham’s travels across a convergent, socially-oriented media landscape, including online political advertisements (such as the featured clip). In her hailing of a young, YouTube watching, female voter in this ad, Dunham further works to stitch together a niche audience for Girls.

Within this space of hyper-visibility, Girls unites progressive politics, critical attention and popular backlash, self-reflexivity and a painful lack of awareness. Out of these inconsistencies, a fascinating aspect of Girls is its ability to brand its own contradictions, and in the process court audiences designed to identify—either in a critical or sympathetic manner—with some element(s) of this bundle.


Thanks so much for your take here on GIRLS' and Dunham's highly convergent multimedia presence. I'm really taken with your idea in the last paragraph that GIRLS is branding its own contradictions: we often think of brands as something unifying, but the idea of branding through these inconsistencies is innovative. I think it's also important to consider how the show and Dunham's star persona function as highly "networked" entities, not only in their online iterations but also in the personal and professional connections (e.g. charges of privilege and nepotism) that have been so consistent in the discourse surrounding them. This also seems important in terms of the focus on networking and self-branding in the Millennials Dunham's courting. Thanks again for tying together these "divergent" aspects of convergence!

Great piece, Manny! You make great points, and like Jennifer, I am really interested in the idea of branding contradictions. As a conflicted fan of the show, it's those contradictions that I relate to---which is why I can have my critique of the show and still tune in as an activity of pleasure. I also think it's interesting to point out that by targeting this demographic they are opening themselves to a generation that may be getting these episodes for free. Does HBO see the success of the brand more important than the actual money that comes in? I'm also really interested in the scenes of Hannah writing tweets. I don't know how to articulate why I find it so interesting outside of what you explain, but I am always really drawn in during those scenes. Lots of great things to think about!

Hi Raechel! I agree that something really intriguing is going on with branding and social media. Recently, there was a New York Times article on the HBO show Enlightened where someone from HBO acknowledged that social media buzz could compensate for low ratings. Along these lines, I think it makes sense that the network could be accepting a shift in media consumption trends-viewers who download pick and choose shows-that is forcing them to mine other venues for evidence of the show's popularity. How exactly these emerging approaches square with ongoing financial viability for the network I'm not sure about yet (they still need the subscription $$$ to come somehow). Along these lines, I wonder if Dunham is actively working to brand the "quality" factor of the show to include the "refined discourse" of academic critique as opposed to the enlightened discussion around the watercooler that defined the first generation of quality T.V. It is fascinating stuff! That being said, I am also in the conflicted fan category, and very much anticipating watching the season premiere!

Great post, Emanuelle, and thanks for kicking off the week! I'd like to ask a follow-up question related to the point you just made about social media buzz possibly compensating for low ratings. As we've seen in the weeks leading up to the S2 premiere, Dunham & Girls have been working all sorts of product tie-ins and promotions--Dunham modeled for ASOS, there's line of Girls nail polish, etc. etc. A blow-dry salon ran a Girls-related promotion ( Demand was so strong that their website crashed! I wonder how HBO profits from these activities--either directly or indirectly, and if indirectly, what would those "profits" look like? Future DVD sales? A boost to HBO's "coolness factor" among a certain demographic? They certainly can't expect to profit from increasing their subscriber base, if Girls target demographic is the similar to the group depicted in the show.

Great questions, Nedda. I suspect that HBO's profits from these tie ins fall on a spectrum ranging from direct and tangible (licensing fees from the nail polish company using the characters) to the more amorphous and speculative (more visibility =more Tweets, more DVD sales, overall strengthening and diversification of HBO's brand). I tend to agree that they are looking to other means of ensuring revenue than subscription profits. Perhaps, in addition to licensing fees associated with cross-promotional endeavors, cash (and yet more possibilities for tie-ins) from awards ("critical acclaim") are becoming a major player in the quest for profits.

Great post, Emanuelle! I was especially intrigued by the way that you laid out Girls' target audience--"female, tech-savvy, attuned to irony, and politically conscious"--and I would be interested to hear more about what you think Girls' political investments might be. It seems to be that while Dunham's voting ad cues a certain kind of political consciousness, it's a fairly surface one--as the Atlantic Wire piece you link to points out, a more nuanced liberal or radical politics often seems to be at odds with the writers' commitment to an ironic sensibility. Is the target audience more specifically what we might call "casually or unthoughtfully liberal"? Dunham suggests that this is what she's going for--with Hannah at least--in this Vulture interview about season 2: In response being asked why she made the Glover character a Republican, she says: "We liked the idea of a Republican entering their universe. And Hannah doesn’t really have a clear sense of why you shouldn’t date a Republican; it’s kind of just like the same reason why you shouldn’t date a Nazi: You just shouldn’t. My personal position is that you should date anyone you want so long as they treat you respectfully and share your value system. So it might be hard for me to date someone who was against gay marriage and abortion rights — I don’t think I would be attracted to them — but I don’t have any personal problem with dating a Republican. I do think that Hannah has this reverse ignorance where she’s like, If they’re Republican, get them out of my airspace, and that was a fun thought to explore." I wonder how this might relate to the show's assumptions about its audience's politics. I also (as another conflicted fan!) wonder how much we can conflate the opinions of Dunham's star persona, the show's characters, and the audience to which the show markets itself--a question that seems to get complicated by the show's investment in irony.

Thanks for that link! I agree that the political position that she is crafting through all of these spaces is casually liberal; in an undeveloped and superficial way. I find it fascinating that she chose to write Sandy, as Girls' only major Black character, as a Republican. I wonder if writing him as a Republican (will be interesting to see how this develops) allows her to side-step questions of racial difference in favor of exploring partisan political differences/Hannah becoming more politically engaged, or if she will engage with Sandy being a Black Republican specifically. Race and partisan politics are swirling together in really interesting ways surrounding Dunham. She did the Obama campaign ad, which was full of sexual innuendo and titillation involving her having sex with a Black man. Hannah/Dunham's persona in this space was also characterized as coming to political engagement through sexuality and intimacy. Then, in season 2, she introduces Sandy with a sex scene, and apparently is going to develop him as a politicized character. In a sense, this trajectory extends the persona that she began in the Obama campaign ad. I agree that the self-reflexivity and irony inherent in the show and its various endeavors make it really difficult to tell where one ends (Dunham, Hannah, audience) and the other begins. I think that mapping the different iterations of Girls across various platforms, and taking note of their convergences and divergences, can offer some insight into the audience investments they are working to cultivate.

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