Illustration by Gracia Lam
If you want to have a lively, occasionally combative conversation, just mention the HBO series Girls to a group of women. Even as the show arrives at a summer pause—plenty of time for you to download the first ten episodes and get caught up before the second season begins—my friends and I are still arguing about it. I cannot remember another TV show that has hit such a collective female nerve. The story revolves around four twentysomethings in their first postcollege years in New York City. The ensemble piece has galvanized debates about what it means to be a young woman circa 2012 and how far we have come—and not come.
I have been right in the mix. I hated the first episode. I was appalled, offended, troubled. Here were four smart
women residing in Manhattan, and they were a self-abasing
mess. Hannah, played by the show’s creator and writer, Lena Dunham, had the hots for a bit of narcissistic nastiness who turned her on and turned her over for a session of faceless sex—this after she had just lost her job and gone to his ratty apartment for a little comfort. “Let’s play the quiet game,” he said, trying to shut her up after a quick trip to the bathroom to get some lubricant.
I winced. No, I railed—at the TV and then with my friends, who phoned in immediately after the show. Primed by wild praise from the critics, we had all tuned in and were all maddened and saddened by what we had seen. Is this what girls are like? Is this what they will put up with? Similar huffing and hand-wringing commenced online. I read the posts, nodding my head in agreement. Then I reassured myself: Dunham was clearly just a hip artiste intent on pushing buttons, doing what she had to do to get noticed in this noisy, often vulgar world. No way was her onscreen coterie representative of today’s young women. I didn’t want to see these fumblingly insecure victims HBO was featuring every Sunday night. I swore I would never tune in again.
But I couldn’t stay away. Everywhere I went, people were dissecting the characters. I was even hearing from men; the 35-year-old son of a close friend in the Beltway weighed in. He told me he liked the show because the characters were not only flawed but honest about their appetites. And as the father of daughters, he liked that it wasn’t a pop culture fairy tale about girls being princesses. So I kept watching, and the program began to grow on me. I stopped being irritated and started to be moved by the women’s plight and pluck as they navigated a liberated sexual terrain in which anything can happen.
The series appears at a time when women writers are increasingly pushing boundaries on TV and in film. Think of 2 Broke Girls and Bridesmaids, the latter written by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo and coproduced by Judd Apatow, who is helping females catch up with males in the raunch department. No surprise that he is an executive producer of Girls. But there is something new in this show, a kind of vulnerable, reflective voice that accompanies the explicitness. Yes, the girls are expected to have sex and expect to have it, no seduction necessary—but that doesn’t make things easier. With hookups come heartbreaks, not to mention STDs and unwanted pregnancies, and Dunham gets the tone just right, including the touching and unsavory scenes into which she puts her own chubby, naked self. See, this is what a real girl looks like.
24-year-old Hollywood writer I know calls Girls the “humor of humiliation.” She finds the show smart and ruefully funny—females laughing at themselves and what they are willing to tolerate while seeking solace in their confess-all friendships. It’s hard to imagine L.A.’s young women, who appear to me less overtly intense, having the same insecurities and misadventures as Dunham’s Manhattan polyglot pack. But when you scrape the surface with a sampling of L.A.’s “girls,” you tend to find similar uncertainties—the worries over those intractable pounds, over what lies ahead, over ever finding happiness. It’s not just the hypersexed territory they have to negotiate. It’s the lousy economic times. Here they are with their college degrees and dreams of success, and they can’t land an unpaid internship or a job at Starbucks. They slide back onto the parental dole (if they got off in the first place), which causes all manner of friction. These are the most overparented kids in history—pampered and adored throughout long, tethered childhoods. They are like little birds pushed from the nest into an unwelcoming place, and Mommy and Daddy have helicoptered away.
In one episode Dunham’s character takes a trip home to the Midwest to ask her still-doting parents for rent money, then slinks back to New York empty-handed. More humiliation. But she is droll about it—not in that perky, one-liner sitcom way but in a thoughtful, self-mocking mode. She carries a full measure of shame around with her because she talks too much and eats too much and wants too much.
A quality that my young Angeleno friends admire is Dunham’s fearlessness as both an actress and a writer, many of them hoping to make their own mark in showbiz. They see her triumph as a cause for admiration—and envy. Dunham managed to write something from the gut and, even more astonishing, get it up and running. She is a role model. I now understand that totally. I have started watching episodes again to see what I missed: the quirks, the silences, the artistry, and strangest of all, the tenderness that starts to creep in and that I didn’t notice at first. Lo and behold, the cad turns into a sentimental boyfriend. Who knew?
These women also sympathize with how Dunham seethes with jealousy when old friends begin to make it. They, too, are the spawn of the celebrity culture, longing for their 15 minutes in the public eye—or maybe just 5. I remember discussing the death of seven-year-old pilot Jessica Dubroff, who in 1996 crashed while attempting to become the youngest person to fly across the United States, with a neighbor in her preteens. I told her how terrible I thought the whole stunt was and how sad. But she’s famous, she said to me; she’s on the cover of People. She’s also dead, I added.
I am always so hopeful for young women trying to put their lives together. When I started viewing the show, I was horrified—certainly on behalf of this gang. I wanted to shake them hard and protect them at the same time. But the girls don’t need any protection. They’ve got one another and a shared cockeyed optimism that things will work out as they trudge the gritty streets of their often overwhelming metropolis. How different it looks from the world of Carrie Bradshaw and her pals. That was another universe, a part of a superacquisitive, bygone era. All those clothes and all those shoes. Seems absurd looking back—even a little obscene.
These women are a more real bunch. They quip and squabble and, yes, whine. Some critics have accused the show of giving us a quartet of spoiled brats complaining about their predicaments. There is a fair amount of that, but the lamentations come with more pith than self-pity. Dunham has also taken criticism for a lack of diversity, that the series focuses on a privileged slice of her generation. I find the objection silly and patronizing. Dunham has said she will get more multicultural next season, but I hope she doesn’t overcorrect. She is clearly writing about the women she knows—and has said as much—and all she owes us is the truth of their characters and the milieu through which they move. That she has done.
Meanwhile the discussions continue to go on around me, and as usual, I am as high-decibel opinionated as the next person—only this time as a fervent defender. Go Girls.