Watching Girls is similar to seeing someone do an awful impression of you and having all your friends scream, “Yes! That’s perfect!” when it looks like a nightmarish mash-up of Liz Lemon and Any Unstable Kristen Wiig Character On SNL. I’m the audience HBO wants to reach, which gives Girls-watching all the awkwardness of the first time you hear your voice recorded and the first time you bare your skin to the sun after winter and the first time you get waxed all rolled into one.
It’s jarring to know that audiences will look at this characterization and, because it is partially true, assume a larger truth about the overly generalized experience the show represents. Hannah is speaking for me, and she’s putting words in my mouth, and I don’t appreciate it.
The show tries to give the 100-percent-bullshit-but-nonetheless-terrifying experience of upper middle class, 20-something white girls nuance and flavor that it doesn’t have.
I appreciate an attempt at being represented, but “our” story doesn’t need to be told. It’s just not that good of a story: you get good grades in school, easily avoid pregnancy and arrest, and you go to a nice private college and get good grades, then you’re a person like everyone else. Everything in between falls in the general categories of Awkward Sex Stuff, Periodic Chemical Self-Destruction, Reasons for Ugly Crying, and Technological Misadventures. If you’ve seen a TV lately, you’re probably all too familiar with these tropes, so you might understand why I find this national obsession with Lena Dunham’s brainchild confusing. The fact that it’s especially cathartic to most of my educated, white, privileged friends and myself isn’t a sign of visionary success, but proof of its cultural irrelevance.
Hearing the show’s characters tell breathless stories of their self-made microdramas only makes me wonder what the show could have been. It irks me deeply that Lena Dunham could have this influence and still tell such a boring story packed with characters so blissfully unaware of their privilege.
Imagine the cultural conversation if Hannah had realized that Adam Shirtlessdouche was a narcissistic dickbag who would only disappoint her by, like, the third minute of the first episode and had the self-respect to dump him in the name of maturity over melodrama. Imagine the conversations if The Pretty One had creatively salvaged her relationship through some quirky S&M scenario, opening a discussion about gender and sexuality and consent. Or if the Crazy New Age One had looked around at her friends at the club and said, “How did I end up in New York, melting pot of the world, and still end up partying with the whitest kids on earth?”
The script could bloom with all of these juicy, provocative opportunities for the characters to question the status quo and let these questions reverberate in the echo chamber of its audience’s social media chatter.
Instead, Dunham denies Hannah the opportunity to be anything but a bumbling, helpless kid who refuses to extricate herself from toxic relationships or make it through a job interview without making a rape joke. We get it, she’s awkward: your twenties are awkward and you don’t know anything. I don’t know anything and I’m still pretty awkward, but I don’t need to turn on my TV to be reminded, because this morning, I found three packets of Taco Bell Fire Sauce under my pillow, thank you very much.
If Dunham is trying to make a statement, the fact that she’s repeating an old one while the youth-obsessed culture congratulates her on capturing the zeitgeist is even more telling than the scripted story. It’s the hallmark symptom of my generation’s disease: Special Snowflake Syndrome. That glass balloon of self-important pride you carry into the real world after four years of collegiate achievement must be shattered in order for you to build a more useful version of yourself from the pieces.
For privileged white kids, this often means realizing that you are, in fact, fortunate. It means being grateful you have a soft place to land and a long way to fall before you hit bottom. The breakdown hurts, yes, and you feel terrified of even basic tasks like filing an insurance claim and disputing your cable bill—because you don’t know shit, and you will probably do it wrong.
But you do it, because the alternative is to swaddle yourself in anxiety and try to build great importance into the Lilliputian dramas that fit your shrunken world. Leave that bubble of self-importance intact, and you get Hannah: someone who would rather wolf down a cupcake and malign the lack of Photoshop knowledge that kept her from getting a job than just fucking sit down and learning to use Photoshop.
Stop whining, own your responsibility, and actually do something.
Hannah is perennially flummoxed by the basic rules of enlistment in the U.S. workforce—like, don’t make a “friendly” joke insinuating that your interviewer is a serial rapist. And she’s unaware of any job lower than the one promised by her expensive Oberlin degree.
Dunham was supposed to write a show about the meme generation, and instead just created a meme: something funny and silly, and ultimately disposable. She has grossly abused her privilege as a head HBO writer by glossing over meatier subjects so that we can spend more time watching her dance to indie electronica, valuing the show’s aesthetics over its potential poignancy. Episodes are saturated with scene changes and pop culture references because without this distraction we’d realize that we’re watching Brooklyn’s answer to the Kardashians.
But let’s be real: it’s just that they’re so goddamned white all the time. To add to their demographics problem, their only hobbies are Things White People Like™: palm-size desserts, whispering about vaginas, arguing in cocktail attire, etc. You would think that 20 years after the premiere of Friends, Dunham would be self-aware enough not to make a somehow even whiter sitcom about young people in New York. And any college-educated person sheltered enough to believe that Girls should look the way it does because we live in “post-racial America” should just take her diploma outside and set it on fire.
Giving a voice to characters of color could get an energetic, intelligent debate going among Girls viewers about what privilege is and how it plays out in the real world. Instead, we’re left agape over how bafflingly fucking ridiculous it is that a show named after half of all humans, set in a city of 58 percent non-Hispanic Caucasians, would cast four white women as leads.
Just because Hannah has a normal BMI and farts on screen does not revolutionary television make. HBO gave Dunham a megaphone to speak to millions of people, and she’s reading her Facebook feed aloud with funny inflections, and her friends are boring and so are their problems. If I want to spend 22 minutes watching young, attractive women eat refined sugar, I have pretty friends, a phone, and a fro-yo place in my neighborhood.
I’ll eat my words if Dunham’s characters stay on the air long enough to feel guilty for all the things they didn’t earn, and then try to earn them. I would watch that show. Then again, The Uptight One did spend an entire episode waxing poetic about the tragedy that was her pristine hymen, so I won’t hold my breath.
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