Is HBO's 'Girls' the Voice of Our Generation? Nope, And That's Ok
Lena Dunham’s much-hyped new HBO show Girls, which follows four newly graduated young women as they navigate New York City—and the recession—in privileged poverty, has been anointed by countless journalists as pinpointing the coddled, twentysomething female zeitgeist. The main character, Hannah, a version of (and played by) Dunham herself, is downwardly mobile and broke and overeducated, negotiating hookups and sexual mixed messages and social media while trying to mine dignity out of a delayed adulthood.
Because Dunham is deft at preserving her vision, and because it’s an HBO show, Girls is more natural than anything else on television, especially when compared to all the new sitcoms starring young women: 2 Broke Girls, New Girl, Whitney. The show hasn’t even aired yet—the premiere is Sunday—but there's already a backlash brewing. Critics who are scandalized or irritated by the frank, unglamorized sex scenes, who are turned off by the upper class entitlement of the central foursome, or who simply, as one Jezebel commenter put it, would like to be notified “when Lena Dunham realizes that there's a person of color in New York City.” Most of the criticism can be summarized thusly: “I was/am a young woman, and that's not my experience.”
I fit the Girls demographic profile. I'm a white, 20-something woman who went to a small liberal arts college, lives in New York, and has a creative job. I went through the same mess of unpaid internships, babysitting jobs, and service gigs. I have a striking amount in common with Dunham and the character she plays: the professor parents, the unsatisfying sex sessions in my early twenties (not quite as excruciating as the ones onscreen, thankfully), the scramble to be as successful as my mother, the hubris of thinking I had something important to say at age 22. The show is seemingly tailor-made for me—FUBU, as Salon’s TV writer Willa Paskin called it in New York magazine.
My friend Collier and I watched the first three episodes together, laughing appreciatively at Hannah’s Riot Grrl reference and quippy tweets carefully crafted for her 26 followers. We recognized the show’s resident emosogynist—the sensitive artist dude who’s really a pig in skinny jeans—while respecting that he isn’t just an archetype. We were grateful that the Brooklyn apartments onscreen rang true: dark, cramped, and a 15 minute walk from the G train. Collier nodded her head vigorously when one of the characters fretted about being infertile because she’s never had to get an abortion; I gave Hannah props for eating a cupcake in the shower. Collier and I stared at eachother, mouths agape, when two characters on the show discussed the totem pole of social media (first Facebook, then Gchat, then texting), echoing almost word for word a conversation we’d had that same night.
Yet we were pissed that it didn’t exactly represent our lives. I found myself seething at the suggestion that someone like me wouldn’t know the ins and outs of HPV. I was annoyed at the choice to make the girls non- native New Yorkers, when Dunham’s character was so clearly a city kid like me. Despite the show’s realistic portrayal of affectionate female friendship—spooning, going to the bathroom together, speaking in code—I found it odd that hipster Hannah and preppy, polished Marnie were best friends. (“How do they even know eachother?” I blurted in exasperation). And since I found one of the girls, the Sex and the City-obsessed NYU student, insufferable, I was positive Hannah and the rest would, too.
Not all my criticisms were tiny and nitpicky. I couldn’t (and still can't) get past that all four main characters are white—and not just white, but fresh-off-the-Mayflower, straight-haired white, girls who date all white dudes and have all white friends and do white things like attend a gallery opening with a white wine in hand. Collier, who is biracial, later gchatted to me, “Out of our group of friends, I’m Hannah. I over-analyze everything in similar ways and have had similar relationships with men that I build up in my head. But why couldn’t they have put in just one person of color?” Twentysomethings are the most diverse generation in history. Even the subculture that Dunham calls “rarefied” hipster New York City isn’t just made up of rich Caucasians.
Despite the misgivings, I'm not adding to the backlash. Paradoxically, the details—even those that don't ring true to my own experience as a twentysomething in New York—are what make Girls so good. Hannah and her friends are individuals, not caricatures. Their dialogue wasn't dreamed up in an inclusive, politically correct utopia, it was plucked directly from the lives of Dunham and her writers, who are professed lovers of Friends and Mad Men and who describe their writer’s room as “one big group therapy session.” (One character’s “virginity arc…echoed aspects of my own experience,” Girls writer Sarah Heyward told Buzzfeed.) Keeping the show authentic means reflecting one woman’s white, privileged, sexually awkward reality.
This is only a problem because there are so few shows starring complicated, authentic young female characters. Girls ends up having to stand in for everybody. Dunham is painfully aware of this pressure. “I was given a role I never said I could handle,” she told Salon. In the show, Hannah proclaims to her parents that she may be “the voice of her generation,” then backtracks and clarifies—“a voice of a generation.” This line has made its way to the trailer and virtually every review of the show so far, because it directly speaks to these criticisms.
We live in a world where a few sitcoms about women airing at the same time is considered “peak vagina,” and shows with deeply quirky male characters aren't required to speak for their entire gender or generation. Girls, a narrative about young women created by an actual young woman who seems to understand their desire for representation, almost never happens. The last time I saw myself so much in a television show was My So-Called Life…almost two decades ago. No wonder we all want Girls to be perfect.
The more art purports to represent our reality, the more we end up scrutinizing it, pinning all our hopes on it, and feeling contemptuous when there are cracks in the mirror it holds in front of our faces. The protagonist in Girls is our uncanny valley—a lifelike representation of us that is still, unnervingly, off. It's easier to love a magical world like True Blood or a cartoon like 2 Broke Girls or a fantasy like Sex and the City. When I fawned over Friday Night Lights, a show that made rural Texas seem like an inspiring wonderland, smalltown natives turned up their noses and assured me it was bullshit. We’re hardest on the ones we know and love.
Most critics end their rants about Girls with a call for, well, better girls. “We deserve more” than a white, privileged, “hot-mess protagonist,” writes Julianne Escobedo Shepherd in Alternet. “We need a show that can appeal to all ‘girls,’ not just some,” writes Sarah Seltzer in the Jewish Daily Forward. But it’s time we stop waiting for that perfect show. If networks allowed more directors and screenwriters to strip away the gloss and reveal the nuance and rawness of young women’s experience, we’d have room for both Girls and its less privileged, less white, less New York counterparts. We wouldn’t get so angry that a voice of a generation doesn’t reflect our lives.
If we acknowledge that the semi-autobiographical details are what make Dunham's work great, we shouldn't be demanding the show to appeal to and reflect every girl. What we should be wishing for—nay, pushing for—is a lot more shows made by a lot more girls.