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November 21st, 2017

Insight

How Bill O'Reilly and Lena Dunham Rode a Cultural Wave to Different Places

Suzanne Fields

By Suzanne Fields

Published May 5, 2017

How Bill O'Reilly and Lena Dunham Rode a Cultural Wave to Different Places

Bill O'Reilly, the opinionator, is out of Fox, and the "Girls" sitcom ended a six-year run on HBO. The two events are not unrelated. They're bookends for the ways men and women relate to each other.

Bill O'Reilly was the Everyman, reflective of the male chauvinism dominant in the last century. He was suited to the times in suit and tie, representing traditional masculine values bequeathed from an earlier era. He was the most powerful voice in cable television: bold, assertive, arrogantly smart, obnoxiously righteous, and intellectually and socially aggressive on and off camera, with a personality that dominated men and women alike — but especially women — in a patriarchal society.

He was the alpha male who made it big in the media, playing by old rules overturned by a new sexual revolution. He should have known better, but he was trapped in a lingering time warp of his own making. He failed to recognize that the times, as Bob Dylan warned, "are a changin'."

"Girls" captured the changing vulgarity of the times from an entirely different point of view. It seized on the zeitgeist of young white college-educated millennials thrown on their own with an innocence tutored by a smug liberal academia and betrayed by a cultural arrogance uninformed by economic realities or authentic multicultural experience.

Hannah Horvath, the protagonist, is played by Lena Dunham, the show's creator, writer and director. Hannah announces to her parents early in the sitcom that she thinks she can be the voice of her generation. She isn't quite that, but for six seasons her voice dramatizes the worst traits of her cohort within a cohort. The quartet of women who star in the show are selfish, spoiled, narcissistic, self-righteous white girls who learned a lot about art and literature and the latest social trends but suffer a self-centered, narrow-minded, self-defeating mindset that proclaims "anything goes."

"You Don't Like the Girls in 'Girls'? That's Its Genius" reads a headline by critic Wesley Morris in The New York Times. It fuses criticism with voyeurism. Raunchy and masochistic sex scenes turn the show into a hipster "Sex and the City" — unglamorous, unchic and, ultimately, unhappy. But in their polymorphous perversity, played out in miserable hookups and self-destructive decadence, they reckon that the times favor them — "I am woman, hear me whine."

If accusations of sexual harassment are the j'accuse of the feminist culture they inhabit, they're too young to have experienced much of it. They're on the cusp of maturity when the series wraps after Hannah becomes a single mother, rejected by the child's father. She thinks having him around would be "a pretty patriarchal old-fashioned attitude."

Bill O'Reilly fits into their universe only as an antique fogy. He's a colossus of a different genre, a different order. What's weird, however, is that he could be so ignorant of what was coming up behind him. Sexual harassment has been around for a long time, ensnaring both the guilty and the innocent. For all his smarts, O'Reilly was blinded by power. His time passed, and he didn't notice. Not even a visit to the Pope saved him.

Today, girls call themselves sluts, write "Vagina Monologues" to demystify their anatomy, play the man as a boy toy and make vulgarity an equal-opportunity expletive. But they're on the winning side in the war between the sexes. The male is disarmed (for now). We've come a long way since Anita Hill's sensational accusation that Justice Clarence Thomas joked about a pubic hair on a Coke can. She lost that one. Her sisters have been winning since.


Women can cry rape, sometimes for real and sometimes for wolf, and ruin the innocent man along with the guilty. They distribute pink Pussyhats and make "the nasty" their own. They call themselves girls, but no man dare. Colleges offer courses on what it means to be a man and encourage young men to purge their "toxic masculinity." They're told that masculinity is harmful to the health of both men and women. Sexual politics quickly devolves into the larger political arena. President Trump described O'Reilly as a "good person," but he was no more helpful than the pope.

Dunham, who campaigned for Hillary Clinton, was shocked when Clinton lost the votes of a majority of white women. The only socially redeeming value she found in the election was that the results made her thinner. She and the camera exposed her plump body from all angles, including full-frontal nudity, in an episode of "Girls." She credits the "soul-crushing pain and devastation" of Clinton's loss for melting a few pounds.

Every generation finds its own heroes and villains, and there's a time lag, as T.S. Eliot would put it, "Between the idea/ And the reality." That's from his poem "The Hollow Men." Sounds about right.

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