First a Twitter account, then a web series, then debates about what it all means. The anatomy of a controversy.
In just ten days, the two short clips for Shit Girls Say have racked up over seven million views combined and provided an easily-digestible introduction to the Toronto-based Twitter stream they’re based on. Since the release of the first episode last Monday—there will be four in total, reports the Star—the account has picked up on average 30,000 new follows per day, extraordinary given that it started with 55,000 before the clip’s release, and will top 300,000 followers today. That 79-second clip (aided by a killer Juliette Lewis cameo) captured the public’s imagination—or at least lit up on Buzzfeed and Reddit—and was featured internationally in outlets such as Wired, Gizmodo, Guardian, and Bust.
The success of Shit Girls Say probably shouldn’t be a surprise. The most eminently quotable films of the past two decades have been about teenage girls—think Juno, Clueless, Bring It On, Mean Girls, and Heathers—with boiled-down compilations of the best lines easily retrievable on YouTube. The twist with Girls is that the one-liners don’t come from characters on-screen but from people you’ve overheard (the Globe suggests “straight, white, middle-class women in the 20-to-40 age range”) or, more likely, ourselves. Hitchcock once said that a great story was life with all the dull parts cut out: what makes Girls so hypnotic is the sharp precision of writers and creators Kyle Humphrey and Graydon Sheppard in capturing and presenting small-talk—those Hitchcockian dull parts—as the main focus instead. There isn’t a better time for the idea, firmly rooted in the status update era that rewards both instancy and brevity.
Naturally, not everyone has found the web series funny, with many critics suggesting the clips mocked and dismissed women. “Making fun of girls is sooo hilarious,” wrote Bitch Magazine. Or if not making fun, the videos are at least asking “girls to look at themselves as risibly absent-minded, controlling, insecure, boring, shrill and loud, especially in the context of relationships,” notes Lynne Crosbie in the Globe.
Certainly, the creators understand that their work can be a Rorschach test with the viewer or reader’s own experiences projected onto the one-liners. “We know that the funny part to us in the tweets is the complexity of them and the way they can be read, and we respect that. It’s more of an observation,” Humphrey and Sheppard told the Star. “We are really careful about what we tweet,” they said, worried about being sexist or mean-spirited. (It’s not to say the stream isn’t without judgment however. How else to read the use of the iconic image of Sharbat Gula from the National Geographic cover, except to juxtapose the plight of women in developing nations to the excess of the first world?) With comedy about gender, the argument often becomes: is Shit Girls Say sexist or about sexism?
On one hand, the use of drag in the videos is an indication that Humphrey and Sheppard were looking to deepen the Twitter feed. Sheppard, who portrays the lead character, examines gender based on social conventions of gender—how feminine hair, or make-up, or attire should look—rather than biological ones. Without fake breasts and using a speaking voice that potentially could be his own (and why not?), his performance leads to an interesting question: if it weren’t for the title card, why do we know that the lead is female? (Musician Owen Pallett offered a similar thought yesterday on Twitter.) What if we viewed the clip through the frame of a man adopting a new gender role and its complicated coding of language?
Maybe we’re overthinking it, something critics of the drag act would suggest. “Are we laughing because it’s a guy in a wig?” asks Bitch. While Jezebel thought the first clip was funny, the “tired” part was “where guys dress up as women in order to mock them.” When Sheppard reveals drag was used because it “would look funnier and also take some of the edge off,” the complaints ring a little truer. How might this clip have been received if, say, Mindy Kaling had portrayed the lead character? Kaling in her book of essays Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? rails against the idea that enjoying superficial things necessitates stupidity, a presupposition that critics of the clips should heed.
This is certainly the case with the Shit Girls Say Tumblr that was created in response to the clips, which features more substantial quotes, but was originally subtitled “because not all of us are vacuous boring shit heads.” This oppositional nature, the pitting of one segment of females against another, is perhaps the most frustrating result of the clip. (As Tina Fey notes in Bossypants, women shouldn’t be tricked into thinking they are in competition with each other: they’re in competition with everyone.) The subtitle was changed after a much-read piece by writer Emma Woolley surfaced yesterday morning observing: “And while I believe it’s still necessary to remind the world that yes, women are smart, and yes, we talk about lots of different things—I also think it’s wrong to do this at the expense of other women.”
Woolley’s piece led Toronto Standard editor Sarah Nicole Prickett to wonder if an equivalent stream called Shit Boys Say would be as “ridiculous” and “gettable,” adding that she thought it could. Local Twitter users filled up their suggestions of what said stream might look like, mostly with trite lines men use in discussing (or not discussing) romantic relationships, such as “Can we talk about this later?” “I’m not ready for a relationship right now.” and “You think too much.” In how men discuss with one another, the most common suggestion was simply: “Dude.” Could we see a reactionary Tumblr to these lines that would label the men as “shitheads?” Probably not.
In a society where words are still heavily codified—when a person is described as “sweet” or “beautiful” it signals the likely gender—that’s what makes the Shit Girls Say so damaging, according to Woolley and Crosbie. Wrote the former: “Whether you see yourself in it or are simply offended by the stereotypes, what you’re actually reacting to is the fact that being a woman is still a punchline.” (Emphasis Woolley’s.) The lines pulled from context reduce people to something akin to a reality-television contestants—especially the one who announces he or she “is not here to make friends!” with a false sense of autonomy: there’s a horror to realizing you speak off a script you didn’t even know existed. And for many people that script, written by gender norms, is flawlessly executed by Sheppard’s hair-fiddling, wide-eyed, faux-coy character.
Episode three of the web series (with Juliette Lewis returning) comes out on Boxing Day, reports the CBC. The big question is if there is room for a third video, even one that will move “beyond the tweets into more exploration.” Knowingly, Sheppard tells the Star: “We don’t want to over saturate the market. We’re kind of aware that people get sick of things quickly, so we’re just trying to work with these films that we already have.” The viewership of the second clip has matched the popularity of the first, a sign that fatigue hasn’t set in yet.
As more people become curious about their work, Humphrey and Sheppard might want to consider some words of advice from Sarah Silverman, about handling reactions to one’s (attempts at) humour. “It’s so subjective, comedy,” she told the Guardian. “If you don’t find something funny, it can easily be truly offensive, so I usually just say I’m really sorry.”