Girls: will it be the next greatest show on TV?
A younger, grittier Sex and the City?
HBO's Girls is a new, painfully honest series following four twentysomething women trying to survive in New York. Meet writer, driector and star, Lena Dunham.
Twenty-four year old Hannah thinks she might be the voice of her generation. Or if not the voice, she drowsily tells her parents as they leaf through the first nine pages of her unfinished memoir in a plush New York hotel room, then “at least a voice of a generation”.
While Hannah’s right to that accolade is yet to be determined, it is a phrase that has been applied liberally to the woman who plays and writes her: Lena Dunham, the 25-year-old writer/director/producer of new series Girls, which piloted on HBO in America on Sunday night. Since the sardonic half-hour comedy premiered at music/film/tech festival SXSW in March, it has been the subject of literally thousands of breathless reviews, interviews and speculation about what the program reveals about the state of young womanhood today.
So does Girls live up to the hype? In a word, yes. Tracing the fortunes of four twenty-something women in New York City – smart but socially awkward Hannah, level headed Marnie, wealthy world traveller Jessa and unabashedly uncool Shoshanna – the show is dark, funny and keenly observed. It tackles subjects such as abortion and STIs head on and unflinchingly. It deals with, as Dunham put it in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, “the uncomfortable middle ground where women are ejected from college into a world with neither glamour or structure,” that phase of life in which you are trying to make your mark on the world but have no idea of how to make that happen.
The cast of Girls Allison Williams, Jemima Kirke, Lena Dunham and Zosia Mamet.
Most of the publicity leading up to the show’s launch has focused on its dealings with sex. This is understandable: sex sells, and Girls’ take on the subject differs from much of what you will see on mainstream television.
But the more interesting story Girls has to tell is about money – or more specifically, the intertwinement of aspiration, economics and entitlement.
Indeed, where relationships with men took centre stage in the lives of the thirty- and forty-something women of Sex & The City, for the mid-twenty-something “girls” of Girls, sex is a more peripheral concern. They have sex, sure – some of it shown graphically on screen – but it is neither the source of their existential worries, nor the focus of their conversations with one another.
Girls: the premiere
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 04: (L-R) Actress Zosia Mamet, actress Jemima Kirke, actress/creator/executive producer Lena Dunham, and actress Allison Williams attend the HBO with The Cinema Society host the New York premiere of HBO's "Girls" at the School of Visual Arts Theater on April 4, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images) Photo: Stephen Lovekin
Dunham hits us with the “money” question in its opening scenes, as Hannah sits opposite her parents in an upscale Manhattan restaurant. They’ve been paying her way for the past two years, we learn – food, health insurance, Brooklyn rent, everything – and they’re cutting her off. It’s time for Hannah to quit it with the unpaid internships and get herself a paying job.
It is a scene that is at once alarmingly privileged (they paid all her bills? for two years?) and oddly emblematic of the post-GFC economy, in which employers in many fields pick from the most talented graduates not for entry-level jobs, but for unpaid internships that in many fields are replacing them... and in which who ends up with the holy grail of actual paid employment is less a matter of who has the most talent, than who can sustain themselves for the longest without a pay cheque.
How what Americans now refer to as “the Great Recession” is impacting young adults Dunham and Hannah’s age – and how it will impact them in the future – has been a subject of ongoing consternation and commentary. Yale economist Lisa B. Kahn has found that Americans who graduated from university in the midst of the early 1980s recession earned 30 percent less in their first three years than young people who started their careers in a strong economy. Fifteen years later, they still suffered from an 8 to 10 percent wage gap. In the Netherlands, a group of under 35s calling themselves the G500 are joining major political parties en masse in the pursuit of intergenerational justice – on issues including student debt, social security and renewable energy.
The show's creator and star Lena Dunham.
But within that precarious economy, Hannah and her friends occupy a markedly privileged position. Other recent graduates might move back in with their parents while they look for work; Hannah’s funded her to live in New York City for two years. Her no-strings-attached sex friend, Adam, receives $800 a month from his grandmother, because “you should never be anybody’s slave”.
When Jessa, a British-accented bohemian who speaks about poverty with the ease of someone who has never had to worry about, tells Hannah to eschew her parents’ suggestion that she get a job and “stick to her guns” as an artist instead (“Tell them it’s what Flaubert did! Tell them that Picasso did it!”), Hannah responds by asking her parents to downgrade their financial contribution to $1100 per month for the next two years. She’s right that that’s not an easy income to live off in New York, but she’s missing the point.
Girls has been praised for its anti-aspirational ethos. And indeed, it is decidedly less glossy than most of what we’re shown on TV - from its thrift-store clothes, to its no-paying jobs, to its awkward sex scenes. But the “down and out” twenty-somethings of Lena Dunham’s New York still have far more resources available to them than most of their contemporaries, middle class or otherwise.
A scene from the first episode which aired in the US on Sunday night.
But maybe that is Dunham’s intent. After all, no one ever knew how Carrie Bradshaw paid for that apartment and those shoes on one column per week. We know exactly how Hannah and her Girls pay for theirs.