From 'Little Women' to 'Girls'

by Meta Wagner

3 June 2012

Hannah of Girls is not your grandmother’s fictional heroine, but she's a worthy, modern-day descendant.
Lena Dunham as Hannah in Girls 
cover art

Girls

Series Premiere
Director: Lena Dunham
Cast: Lena Dunham, Jemima Kirke, Allison Williams, Zosia Mamet

(HBO)

I resisted watching Girls, but now I find it irresistible. 

After seeing the first episode on On Demand out of boredom and curiosity and the contrarian desire to deride it, I was hooked. So hooked that I held my own little mini-marathon of Girls, watching Episodes 1, then 2, then 3 without so much as taking a pee (or snack) break. That’s true devotion.

But, why? Logically, the show shouldn’t appeal to me. As has been widely written about, Girls has aspirations of speaking to and for its generation. In the first episode, the lead character Hannah (played by the show’s creator, Lena Dunham), claims, “I think I might be the voice of my generation” and then softens this with “Or, at least a voice of a generation.” Well, not only is that generation not mine, Hannah is explaining this to her parents, who are cartoonish, buffoonish representatives of my generation. I guess I should be put off, not pulled in. But I’m not. Put off, that is.

The sharp writing might have been enough to do the trick. My favorite so far is in the scene where Hannah’s rambling inanely about AIDS while a semi-mortified middle-aged female gynecologist is giving her an exam. 

Gynecologist: “You could not pay me to be 24 again.”

Hannah, who’d unsuccessfully tried to convert her unpaid internship into a paying job: “Yeah, well, they’re not paying me at all.” Ka-zing!

But it’s more than just snappy dialogue that keeps me tuned in.

Hannah reminds me of the female protagonists in the novels I read when I was first discovering my love for reading. You know the type: the girl who “gets” what the adults around her fail to perceive. Who has tomboy tendencies and an individualistic streak. Who observes the world closely and, in some cases, feels compelled to write about it. 

There’s hot-tempered Jo March in Little Women, the sister who’d compose plays for her family to act in and rejected the perfectly charming suitor Laurie for a man she loved. And, Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, who’d never back down from a brawl with the boys and also understood what the townspeople did not:  that people treat each other in some truly inhumane ways.  And, Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, who refused to marry for economic security or convenience and held out, instead, for love in the form of Mr. Darcy.  And, Francie Nolan in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, who’d sit on the fire escape of her tenement building, reading and dreaming until her dreams of going away to college came true.

Those female characters are part of a grand literary tradition. But television’s another story. In most series, the brains-before-beauty, self-deprecating, wisely sardonic woman is still relegated to second fiddle or best friend. 

Not so with Girls

TV reviewers have made comparisons between Girls and Sex and the City and The Mary Tyler Moore Show —and rightly so. The influence of these shows would be apparent anyway, but Dunham made sure to give a nod to each (or was it a pre-emptive strike against comparisons?). In one scene, Hannah’s friend Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), who has a huge poster of Sex and the City on her bedroom wall, compares herself to Carrie, with a little Samantha (poignant and ironic since she hasn’t had sex yet). In another scene, Hannah and her best friend Marnie (Allison Williams) are entangled together in bed, having fallen asleep after one of their favorite activities: watching episodes of Mary Tyler Moore

But, in Girls, the lead/best friend roles have been flipped. The more traditionally feminine, pretty, composed Marnie is Mary for the Millenials while Hannah is Mary’s best friend, Rhoda, unleashed. 

As someone who grew up watching Mary Tyler Moore every Saturday night (sad, I know), this is soooo satisfying. Rhoda was the hands-down favorite of my friends and me. She was Jewish and brash and overweight (not really—it was the baggy clothing) and vulnerable and self-deprecating: a literary heroine brought to the small screen. To this day, I can remember her pigging out on junk food and saying, “I don’t know why I even bother to eat this. I should just apply it directly to my hips.” She epitomized the sort of person Dunham describes Hannah as: “Overconfident, with low self-worth.” 

I’ve got to admit:  It’s hard to imagine Jo March or Elizabeth Bennett or Rhoda Morgenstern getting themselves into quite the same predicaments as Hannah. And by predicaments, I mean losing out on one promising job opportunity by kidding around with the interviewer about how the incidence of date rape at his college went down after he left. Or, being involved with a guy who keeps her from going through with her break-up with him by enticing her to watch him masturbate while she yells at him. Or, telling her kind-but-fondling way-older boss that he can have sex with her, and then, after he laughs at her, saying she could sue him for sexual discrimination and then quitting. 

No, Hannah is not your grandmother’s fictional heroine. But, she is a worthy, modern-day descendant.

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