Class and Generational Politics in Lena Dunham’s Girls
The very first scene of Lena Dunham’s new show Girls (HBO), which premiered Sunday April 15, tells us exactly where its 24-year-old protagonist, Hannah (played by Dunham), is coming from. After supporting her for two years after college, Hannah’s professor parents announce they won’t be “bankrolling [her] groovy lifestyle” anymore. “But I have no job! Do you know how crazy the economy is right now? All my friends get help from their parents,” she moans. Later, when her friends convince her to grovel her parents for more money (instead of finding a job), Hannah shows them the parts of the memoir she’s written—all of ten pages—as evidence for why they should continue paying her rent and funding her writing career. “I may be the voice of my generation,” she sputters, “Or at least a voice of a generation.”
And with those words, a new poster child for the Millennial generation was born. Despite her recent backpedaling in interviews from the show’s stated ambition of capturing and speaking for the twentysomething zeitgeist, Dunham, the 25-year-old creator, writer, and star of Girls, is stuck with the mantle of “voice of her generation.” In fact, the fresher elements of Girls—its frank portrayals of disappointing sex and unfulfilling relationships; unconventional expressions of female friendship ; grim look at post-collegiate unemployment; and withering observations of Millennial entitlement—make it easy, if not irresistible, for critics and audiences to view the show as Dunham’s soapbox, Hannah and her friends as archetypal twentysomething characters, and their low-stakes misadventures as an accurate depiction of life after college in post-recessionary America.
Lena Dunham, Jemima Kirke, Allison Williams, Zosia Mamet
The problem with Girls’ reception as a true reflection of post-grad existence is that the characters so enjoy the privileges of wealth, education, and whiteness, that they—even their problems—are aspirational, not typical. The premise of Girls—four female friends fumbling around Brooklyn, eating, tweeting, and dating—has led many critics to describe the half-hour comedy as Sex and the City’s younger, dowdier sister. It’s an apt description. Girls may lack SATC’s gloss and opulence, but its characters come from the same upper-middle-class or rich families as Carrie and Company, and they definitely live in the same magically deracinated New York of Girls’ older sis. Unlike the chicks of 2 Broke Girls, another sitcom about floundering twentysomething females that premiered this TV season, the girls of Girls don’t support themselves, because they know they don’t have to. Only one of the four main characters, Hannah’s prissy BFF Marnie (Alison Williams), is regularly employed, as a receptionist at an art gallery. Her one major scene at work shows her enjoying—actually, literally getting off on—being sexually harassed.
Girls seems to have earned some cred by recognizing the bleakness of the job market, especially for younger workers, and the dead-end unpaid internships that await recent grads. When her parents cut her off, Hannah calculates, “I can last in New York City for three-and-a-half more days. Maybe seven, if I don’t eat lunch.” But despite the big show of Hannah being severed from her parents’ bank account, Girls doesn’t take Hannah’s new found poverty seriously (at least not in the three episodes made available to the press). She’s not in danger of starvation, eviction, or defaulting on her student loans, if she even has any in the first place. (How could any show hope to realistically depict the post-college experience without portraying the crushing burden of student debt, which now tops $1 trillion and disproportionally affects people born after 1982?) Perhaps most unbelievably, none of the characters even consider the prospect of Hannah moving back to Indiana to live with her parents, unlike the 40% of real-world graduates who do return to the nest. And speaking of privilege, what to make of the alarming fact that the entire central cast is packed with the daughters of famous parents, among them news anchor Brian Williams and playwright David Mamet? With that metatextual aura of nepotism, deserved or not, surrounding the show, it becomes especially difficult to take seriously Girls’ ambition to be meaningful commentary on normal twentysomething life.
Given the show’s economically rarefied and nepotistic context, the most offensive thing about Girls is its accusation that college grads are responsible for their lack of employment. Regardless of Dunham’s intentions, the show argues that twentysomethings are, as a group, too lazy (watching game shows all day), too irresponsible (smoking pot while babysitting), or too stupid (admitting to smoking pot while babysitting) to hold down a job. The depiction of the characters as indolent, entitled brats might matter less if the show were called Rich Losers instead of simply and broadly Girls; or if there were any financially independent characters in her twenties; or if there was any recognition that the economic woes and uncertainties afflicting the Millennial generation are largely the product of social and economic policies implemented decades ago, and not the result of all twentysomethings everywhere deciding every morning to eat cereal on the couch all day. Like the lack of nonwhite or less affluent characters, the absence of responsible, self-sufficient girls—or even those striving for self-sufficiency—is stark, and serves to blame an entire generation for its economic disadvantages.
And while Hannah considers herself too smart and educated for a job at McDonald’s, she’s too much of a halfwit to get any other kind of job. The perils of youth are many, but Hannah and her friends aren’t just inexperienced or unsophisticated—they’re full-on idiots. They’re not book-smart, definitely not street-smart, not even people-smart. For example, Hannah is too moronic to realize that she shouldn’t joke about rape at a job interview. In the same episode, Hannah’s friend Jessa (Jemima Kirke) schedules an appointment for an abortion. It’s a great set-up for an episode, with ample opportunities for characterization: Hannah judges Jessa for not always using condoms; Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) shamefacedly admits she’s a virgin; Marnie reassures her that “sex is really, really overrated;” and Jessa purposefully misses her appointment to mack on a cute boy she meets at a bar. Then, whoops, it turns out Jessa wasn’t pregnant after all. She just actually takes both her pregnancy and her abortion that lightly. (A thousand second-wave feminists just threw up in their mouths.)
If the girls are disappointing daughters, dissatisfied lovers, and nonworkers, their one redeeming role should be great friends. But despite the characters’ well-meaning natures, they are too self-absorbed to make good friends. Much of the show’s wit comes from the friends constantly insulting each other, their narcissism preventing them from realizing the true meaning of and nastiness behind their words. The accidental barbs are hilarious, but occur so often that they seriously undermine the strength of the female friendships that is supposed to be the heart of the show. After all, Dunham’s characters aren’t simply objects of mockery, but also of sympathy and pity.
The ladies on Girls aren’t the career-minded women we’ve seen so much of on television and romantic comedies lately; they’re losers with no jobs, prospects, or ambition. But the interpersonal relationships it depicts ring so emotionally true, and television has been so sorely lacking in post-recessionary gloom (with a few notable exceptions), that it’s tempting to look at Girls as a reflection of the Millennial Zeitgeist.
But Dunham is right to protest Girls being interpreted as a reflection of anything other than her very thin slice of young, hip Brooklyn. As much as it might want to be, the show simply can’t be a reflection of her multicultural, multiracial, downwardly mobile generation—the characters are too white, too wealthy, and most damningly, too insular and incurious about the world beyond them. For viewers unable to watch Girls without thinking about its myopic class and generational politics, the show works best if viewed with a perverse “pity the rich” message: “Rich girls, they’re just like us!”