Is HBO’s ‘Girls’ about young women’s struggles, or some women’s privileges?
“Girls” begins with the conversation that many parents of 20-somethings dream of having someday real soon with their floundering children: No. More. Money.
This is what the parents of 24-year-old Hannah Horvath, played by series creator, director and writer Lena Dunham, tell her over dinner. She is two years out of college working as an unpaid intern at an indie publishing house living in a crappy apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn with a roommate while being heavily subsidized by her professor parents.
Sound familiar? It should. Over the last half-decade, countless articles have chronicled the exploits and failings of the Millennials, the generation whose experience is being represented on this show. And as many accounts have noted, this cohort has had a more difficult time than previous generations finding jobs and adult identities, with some remaining dependent financially on their sympathetic Boomer parents. Hannah’s own father, when confronted by the pathetic sight of his daughter, high on opium tea, mumbling on the floor, declares to his wife, “It’s hard for me to watch her struggle.” He is undoubtedly echoing the sentiments of many a parent who has mailed a check to his post-college child.
But watch them struggle we will, and it won’t be pretty. However it’s a particular type of struggle and not one that is very easy to get behind. “Girls” is not the story of underdogs, the children of immigrants or even a young adult from a middle-class background struggling in a recession that has been particularly hard on recent graduates. It follows four daughters of upper-class privilege—Hannah, Marnie, Jessa and college student Shoshana. These young women are not encountering institutional barriers to success but their own too-fortunate upbringings, which reinforced the idea that the lives and careers that awaited them were special and meaningful. They were not expecting boring nine-to-fives where no one saw them as unique snowflakes who have lived enough to write memoirs, as Hannah is doing while her parents foot the bills. (Hilariously, hers seems to be about six pages long, as befitting a 24-year-old who hasn’t been a child soldier, battled a life-threatening illness or escaped from a cult.)
One blogger humorously suggested that the series could be renamed “First World Problems.” And in that, you can detect the majority of the criticisms of the program. After being feted by nearly every major critic before its April 15 premiere on HBO, the backlash, which was predictably fierce, has largely been about the white privilege of the characters, how the problems of the characters are hardly representative of Millennial women with student loans, or from the lower socioeconomic strata, or who work multiple jobs to make ends meet. Which is to say, most of them.
Add to this casting decisions—in addition to Dunham, who is Jewish and the daughter of artist Laurie Simmons, the other three women are from equally if not more prestigious backgrounds – that make the cries of “class/racial privilege” seem even more credible. The other three leads in the pilot are played by Allison Williams, the daughter of NBC News anchor Brian Williams; Zosia Mamet, progeny of the famed playwright David Mamet; and Jemima Kirke, the daughter of the drummer of the rock band Bad Company. While all four are quite good in their parts—the acting throughout is naturalistic—the choices do seem a little culturally tone deaf. It’s one thing to watch a show about privilege. It’s quite another, more uncomfortable thing to watch one cast entirely comprised of its beneficiaries, which is then touted through its marketing and via interviews as representing all women.
While white privilege and class privilege are certainly nothing new on television—“Two and a Half Men” is a show about white male privilege if ever there was one—it is not entirely unfair to criticize “Girls” on these grounds, either. Unlike “Men” and many of the female-centric comedies that premiered this fall, which merely aim to be funny, “Girls” seems to aspire to do more than get laughs. It aims to be a realistic depiction of young women today. And this generation, which has been frequently called “multiracial,” helped elect President Obama and protested economic inequality en masse at Occupy Wall Street. Some awareness of these “facts on the ground” would be welcome, especially when one chooses to set it in Brooklyn, which is actually only one-third white.
While I definitely subscribe to the write-what-you-know camp (hello—I primarily write for Jewish publications), I guess I’m disappointed that Dunham seems to “know” so little of New York, much less the world. Thus far, her work, which also includes the semi-autobiographical feature, “Tiny Furniture,” has betrayed a stunning lack of curiosity about other strata of the city in which she was born and raised.
I really wanted to like this show. Not am I only part of its target demographic (albeit at the tail end)—I’m 29, I live in Brooklyn (in addition to being born and raised here) and have a creative career—but I loved the idea of a woman like Dunham, at the age of just 25, being given unprecedented creative control over a series. And perhaps because I and many others like me had been hoping for more, we were bound to be disappointed.
Over at Jezebel, Dodai Stewart writes, “If ‘Girls’ was merely a terrible show with zero potential, none of this would be up for discussion. Part of the problem is that the creator, Lena Dunham, and the premise—a kind of more realistic ‘Sex and The City’—have so much potential.”
And she’s right—there is actually stuff to like about “Girls.” The female characters aren’t total caricatures. They don’t fit neatly into archetypes—the creative one, the smart one, the prim one and the slut—as they did on the show’s predecessor, “Sex and the City.” The dialogue felt natural even if a bit too much of it referred to social media. (We get it—kids these days narrate their lives on Twitter and don’t use their phones as phones.) It was also squeamishly entertaining to watch the least sexy sex scene I’ve ever seen on television. It was a nice change of pace from the highly stylized iterations we typically see on TV where everyone’s always having fun and no one’s head accidentally hits the headboard. And in this television season where writers have used “vagina” as a punch line, as though the term in and of itself was humorous, Dunham actually lands a vagina joke that is legitimately funny.
Are bad sex and vag jokes enough to get me to tune in to future episodes? Well, while I’m inclined to give the show another shot and see how Dunham and Co. develop the characters, unfortunately I’m part her target demographic. This means I don’t have a subscription to HBO. Ultimately, “Girls” might be for the parents of post-collegiate girls who want to see how their retirement savings are being spent.