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What “Shit Girls Say” Says About Us

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.


The first episode of the Shit Girls Say web series, featuring Juliette Lewis.

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.”

Comments

  • CS

    As a man watching this I didn’t really see it as mocking women, more mocking the modern North American. I say 50% of the things in the video, about as many as my finacee. I think the title card should be “Shit We Say”. I also think the actor in drag just knows people and has great timing and delivery. Having him do it in drag just makes it even funnier ala Kids in the Hall.

    • Anonymous

      I agree about mocking the modern North American. Having lived all over the place and picking up a few languages, these phrases and behaviour are more cultural than gendered. I read a few articles on SGS and the only thing I somewhat comprehend is the North American reference. Other than that, I have no idea to make of anything.

    • Hgfhgfhgf

      Being in drag just makes a hackneyed N. American stereotype (e.g. ditzy woman) even more hackneyed. Men dressed in drag has been in comedic productions for hundreds of years, thousands if you count the ancient Greeks. The whole thing was very lazy and painfully unfunny compounded by the awful writing.

  • Pd

    It took me longer to read that blog post than it did to watch Sh*t Girls Say.

  • Anonymous

    I just don’t get it.

  • CL

    “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”

    Really?? Those are the most quotable movies of the last 20 years?

  • Anonymous

    Christ, overanalyze much?

    GIve it a rest, man.

  • Anonymous

    The only really funny thing about the vids is that, as Woolley says, they make us realize we “speak off a script we didn’t know existed.”

    her post seems like pretty shrill overreaction, spewing all sorts of academic jargon and hyperbole to suggest a terrible affront to women. For the record, I–a man–actually do find the Twitter acocunt to be a bit mean-spirited and not that funny. (The videos are sorta funny.)

    And if you want to see “Shit Men Say”, turn on any prime-time sitcom and watched the stereotypical bros reciting their idiotic lines. For that matter, women are poorly written on most network TV as well, often as shrewish or sex-crazed. For some reason though, men seem to be more openly mocked as outright stupid. But that’s network TV for you.

    • Eric S. Smith

      For some reason though, men seem to be more openly mocked as outright stupid.

      Note that The Ditz is a stock female character — if lazy writing is cyclical, she’ll be back, and, yes, that is a worse thing than the portrayal of stupid men, for exactly the same reason that a gag involving a stingy Anglican minister is a whole hell of a lot less problematic than one involving a cheap rabbi.

      • Anonymous

        Is it “the portrayal of stupid men” or “the portrayal of men as stupid”? Because sitcoms do seem to rely on that in a way that transcends mere stock character status – any man can be bro’d.

    • http://derdriui.dreamwidth.org/ kirili

      “shrill overreaction..” yeah, not in the least bit sexist.

  • Canadahuss

    Great essay – a very well constructed argument. However, an example of what you and your sources think is funny would be helpful to understand why you’ve chosen to dig this deep. When did satire and parody become so touchy?

    • am

      I’m a woman who’s been following the twitter project for some time now and have since really enjoyed it – I think because it felt open to interpretation, visualizing scenarios in the mind, etc. But I feel like the web series is lost in translation and I wasn’t sure what we were laughing at anymore. Ditsy women? Men dressed in drag mocking ditsy women? A gay male in drag mocking ditsy women? I think it’s definitely worth asking the question, “what is funny about this?” Especially since now the mystery of what was once the twitter has now been revealed and decidedly presented as such. It’s OK to think about things that appear in viral form on the internet.

      • Canadahuss

        What’s open to interpretation is what you repeatedly refer to as “ditsy women”. My wife, mother, sister and female friends do a lot of those things…does this make them fundamentally ditsy? Or prone to behaviour that is funny to have played out by a man who has clearly observed – and related to – what millions of people have also observed and related to?

        • am

          Fair enough. How else then would you describe the character in the web series as a comedic character? Like if you were to describe it someone who hasn’t seen it, what would you say?

  • John Semley

    It says that we like funny jokes.

  • Willow

    It’s comedy why are you going into this deep analysis over nothing?… You turn this into a controversial matter by writing about it. Someone is always going to get offended no matter what it is. It could be a commercial for lundry detergent showing a female doing lundry. We could go into some deep analysis over that questioning why it isn’t a male. Honestly who cares?

  • Guest

    It’s comedy, there’s no need to go into this deep analysis over nothing. By writing about it like this you just make it controversial. You can analyze everything and find just about anything that will offend a person. Shit Girls Say wasn’t set out in an offensive manner it just makes comical references to certain personalities. If you compare it to the web series Very Mary-Kate you can clearly see that Shit Girls Say is completely harmless… Very Mary-Kate deliberately makes fun of a person where as Shit Girls Say makes fun of the ‘Valley Girl’ type personalities which doesn’t apply to all females.

    Non-issue

  • Anonymous

    Why are you trying to stir up controversy where clearly none exists?

  • josh

    Ridiculous that people are offended by these. They are comedy videos and they are very funny. Why does everything have to be an attack against people?

  • Tashalovsin

    I totally agree with what CS said, that is, that most of what is said in the video is not gendered and is mostly just commonplace, everyday things that people say. However, the content is delivered by an exaggerated stereotype of “feminine” behavior, and I thought this contradiction was both funny and enlightening. It highlights the ridiculous nature of the stereotype to begin with. you can read more about what I think in the post I wrote on fuckyoucosmo.com at this link : http://fuckyoucosmo.com/post/14987611641/shit-girls-say-funny-or-die

    I just want to note that I quoted you and linked to this site in the post. I hope you enjoy and comment on what I’ve written!
    Cheers!

  • Sf

    My girlfriends and I are smart, professional, accomplished women, and we cracked up watching these clips. I don’t think these guys have done anything wrong. Look at all the advertising on TV that portrays men as barely-evolved idiots…have you ever had a problem with that? Just relax a bit and focus on things that really matter. You probably say a lot of the stuff mentioned in these videos…it’s not a bad thing!

  • http://derdriui.dreamwidth.org/ kirili

    Definitely Americanisation rather than about women specifically, as this applies to North American men in some part, and doesn’t apply to men or women that are largely outside of the American influence (though that number continues to shrink, I admit). Not that men are less sexist in other contexts, just that they particularize other behaviours.

    Basically, people who are North American or have decided to indulge in North American media talk like that. (In the modern age; the older generation of Americans don’t do this either.)

    It’s a vapid, redundant way of communicating. Heterosexual women should also learn that this may be how men see them… another reason to feel sorry for them.

  • Bodnarchuk_janice

    Holy overthinking it, batman