I was wondering why Lena Dunham’s new show on HBO, “GIRLS,” got the bitch slot (10:30pm) on the Sunday night line-up, despite all of the glowing reviews in the media. Or at least the New York-centric, witty pop culture media that defines my worldview.
After watching it last night, I think I know why. Despite the fact that New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum describes herself as “a goner, a convert” for the show, and even though writers like Frank Bruni seem to think that it defines the way that the rising generation of women feel about sex, the network executives aren’t sure it’s that good.
And, if the first episode is any indication, it’s not. I say this with a twinge of envy-relief—and also with disappointment, because I find Lena Dunham to be really endearing, the kind of girl you’d immediately want to be friends with—but the show was dull, confusing, and myopic. “This is what middle-aged well-educated white people WANT to think 24-year-olds are like today!” I thought, as I continually checked the clock from 10:33pm until 11:04pm, waiting for the minute when I could, with good conscious, turn off the television and go to sleep.
Because from the moment that Lena appeared on the screen as Hannah, a young woman from the Midwest who has been living on her parent’s dime in New York for the past two years, to the first time she referenced how hard it is to get a job in this economy—in the publishing industry, no less, which doesn’t even pay living wages for its executives, thereby rendering a quest for a salary almost superfluous— to the awkward, uninspired sex between Hannah and her worm bellied loser of a lover, to the final scene in which Hannah, on her own, walks bravely past a TAXI CAB, Carrie-style, towards the subway, I was fucking bored.
“It costs a lot of money to look this cheap,” Hannah says to Marnie, her best friend, who is played by Allison Williams, the daughter of Brian Williams, the NBC Nightly News Anchor, as they walk out of their apartment one morning. “Har har har,” I imagined a 50-year-old woman with a child enrolled at Brown University chuckle to her husband, both of them sitting in their shabby but well-appointed den in Westchester. “Didn’t Serena say that to us last week?”
As much praise as GIRLS has gotten in the media, it’s gotten equally as much slack from people who see Lena’s success as the product of her privileged upbringing as the child of wealthy TriBeCa artists. Lena, despite the fact that she does actually have talent, was born into a position that allowed her myriad opportunities open only to a very small segment of the population. She was sent to the best schools, where she was encouraged to be as creative as she wanted, because practical matters like supporting herself after college were really of no concern. In school, she no doubt met other people from equally privileged backgrounds, who were connected to a tightly knit network of successful, wealthy people who had access to other successful, wealthy people with powerful positions in the entertainment industry. This, of course, is how the world works, and Lena can’t be faulted for it.
The problem is not that Lena has had these opportunities—or that the cast of GIRLS is composed of equally privileged children, including Zosia Mamet, the daughter of famed playwright David Mamet—but rather that she didn’t use these opportunities as a basis for her show. I might have wanted to watch “rich girls” be “rich girls.” I don’t want to watch “rich girls” playing “average girls” while at the same time living “rich girl” lives, because that pisses me off.
For some reason, I’m having a tough time putting thoughts into words today, but I’m going to try to explain what I mean.
Part of the appeal of watching Sex and the City was that the women on the show were living ridiculously unrealistic lives. They wore stiletto heels to go for long walks. They exposed their bellies in public. They had crazy, fun sex. They had fantastic, pink apartments. They were archetypes of late 1990s “power women”—writer, PR executive, corporate lawyer, gallerina—and women could watch them, judge them, be fascinated by them, and then turn them off. It was an escape to be engrossed in their world.
The characters in GIRLS, however, are very much real. Too real. I know kids exactly like them. And not because I’m like the average person. But rather, because I also grew up in a similarly privileged world. (In fact, in her interview with Frank Bruni, Lena Dunham references sleeping with a guy from Chappaqua, where I grew up, and I’m like, I wonder who he is, and if my little brother knows him?) I went to Brown University with kids like Lena Dunham (and by extension, Hannah), who graduated into very similar circumstances.
But when I graduated, my parents cut me off. Because of it, I quickly had to figure out financial independence — and in turn, become an adult.
And as an adult, I don’t want to watch a bunch of coddled, self-important children who feel like my freshman roommate complain about their parents not supporting their self- indulgent lifestyles. “I don’t feel badly for you,” I want to say to Hannah. “Go start dropping your resume off at restaurants. Write when you’re not working. Sucks until you make it.”
I also don’t want to watch women have degrading, awful sex with men unless they do imitations of their penises after, like Kristen Wiig did in Bridesmaids. When Hannah’s boyfriend tries to slip his dick in her ass before giving it to her doggy style, in broad daylight, completely sober, and Hannah asks if she’s doing it right, I didn’t laugh. I didn’t even feel uncomfortable. The funniest missed anal sex story I’ve ever heard is when one of my friends, rip roaring drunk, was given the slip, and turned around and punched the guy in the face.
The women I know have awkward sexual encounters all of the time. And the guys they are dating are very often dicks. But rather than basking in our own helplessness, we usually turn such encounters into good stories. I would have found it more realistic if Lena Dunham had started texting Marnie while she was taking it, like one of my friends did when she was giving a blow job to a guy who was apathetic to her attentions. “This is so boring,” she wrote to me. “What are you up to?”
Because to me, watching a woman who is complacent with her helplessness do things that were only shocking to me, a member of almost the same generation, before I hit puberty, just feels pointless. People a little older than me might ask themselves, in fascinated horror, “Is this what it’s like to have sex these days? Is this where feminism has taken us?” But for me, I’m like, “I’ve heard of a thousand stories more awkward and funny. I fucked that guy in a bathroom, and then made fun of him the next morning.”
Alternately, if Lena had really played her character honestly—like she did in the far superior Tiny Furniture, which is almost a mirror of her real life—I might have been fascinated. “Look at this child whine about her privilege!” I might have said. “I am fascinated and repulsed by her, and I want to live her life vicariously.”
Because despite the fact that I grew up around privilege, I never lived it myself. While the kids I grew up with (and went to Brown with) were getting allowances from their grandmothers, and having their parents’ put down security deposits on their apartments, I always had to hold down a job. I even drove the fucking shuttle bus in college. When I ran out of money after quitting my first real-life gig at a gallery, in a blazing show of blatant, egotistical stupidity—driven by the example set by my friends from high school and college—I called my dad, wailing for money, and he hung up on me.
And most of my friends in New York have had the same experiences. Almost none of them ever got any trickle downs from their families. They’ve had to budget their way through tough situations. They’ve had to live with roommates in shit holes in the ghetto. They’ve had to take retail or restaurant jobs to supplement their incomes. They’re the New York that I, a 29-year-old freelance writer, am familiar with; and I much prefer to hear their stories, which are empowering. Long ago, I grew sick of people like Hannah. I envied them, and then I left them behind.
I’m not sure if Lena’s characters redeem themselves in later episodes, by which I mean they start to grow up, and realize that freedom isn’t being able to do whatever you want, but rather not having to rely on anyone else to survive. And I’m pretty sure the show’s not going to hold my interest long enough for me to find out. In the meantime, those of you who are as pissed off (i.e.: green with envy) at the privileges afforded to Lena Dunham can now rest assured that being connected may get your foot in the door, but you have to stand on your own two feet to keep your momentum from sputtering out.