Anyone catch the new HBO series “Girls”? I would be interested in your take. “Girls” is a hip/dark comedy about four 20something women living in downtown New York City (TriBeCa) and especially about their sex lives, family lives, and career lives (or, when it comes to careers, their lack thereof). Does the basic four-girl formula remind you of any other HBO series? Yes, the similarity with “Sex in the City” is deliberate. And the first episode even includes a planted reference. One of the girls describes herself as “basically a Carrie with a touch of Samantha.”
“Girls” has been heavily reviewed by the “media” media, with strong opinions leaning both ways. The pro reviewers say it’s smart, realistic, and wryly funny. The con reviewers say it’s cold, emotionally flat, even depressing. Certain figures on both the cultural left and right say that its depiction of sex debases women (see this from Frank Bruni in the NYT and this from William Bennett). Maybe both sides are correct.
Another big knock on this show is the utter lack of diversity: All four of these girls are white and from affluent families. Interestingly, this is true not just of the characters but also the actresses themselves, who are all daughters of privilege, starting with Lena Dunham (born 1986: the lead actress, writer, and director). So it’s not like “Glee,” and it doesn’t have a strictly representative, push-every-PC-button cast. Is this a problem? I don’t think so, but some may disagree.
Still others are saying that the show represents a “fresh” and “zeitgeisty” voice for the Millennial Generation. And that’s the question I want to address. Let’s get past the fact that these are all white, educated, urban, secular, blue-zone daughters of privilege. My question is: Given who these girls are, do they project an accurate representation of today’s coming-of-age generation?
I’ll give you my own verdict: Mixed.
On the one hand, these “Girls” are recognizably Millennial in a great many ways. They are special, whiny, entitled, protected, conventional, and risk-averse. They are, for the most part, very close to their parents and take their parents’ support—emotional and financial—for granted. They are basically sensible, and there is very little desire to “push the edge” in any deadly or dangerous way or even to shock their parents.
“Girls” has nothing in common with that Gen-X classic “Rent” (the girls even joke about this). Nor does it really have much in common with “Sex in the City,” a show starring one late-wave Boomer (Samantha) and three first-wave Gen-Xers (Carrie, Charlotte, and Miranda) who revel in pushing the edge and scandalizing middle-class norms. The sex in “City” is attractive, bordering on soft porn. The sex in “Girls” is none of the above. True, the protagonists of “Girls” are younger. But they don’t even have the meanness (or affluence) of “Gossip Girl.” One suspects that “Girls” would rather not bother with sex, if only they were not expected to indulge. (According to the CDC, fewer are bothering.) And they would like nothing better than to join the secure middle class, if they only knew how to apply.
Another nice post-Great Recession note is the constant reference to the relative poverty of these girls compared to their Boomer parents. They know there’s no way in hell they will ever enjoy the professional success of their parents—or ever afford the housing and living standards of their parents. Survey data confirm this impression: 20something children of affluent parents are especially likely to live with their parents and especially likely to doubt their ability ever to match their parents’ material success. Generational poverty was also the subtext of Lena Dunham’s earlier movie, Tiny Furniture, the acclaimed indie experiment that brought her to the attention of HBO.
So what are the off notes? Why do I render a mixed verdict? To my ear, what’s missing is any note of confidence, ambition, achievement, or optimism. These too are basic elements of the Millennial peer personality. The vast majority of Millennials whom I meet and talk to all have plans and ambitions. Many have family or career mileposts they hope to attain by some date. True, many of these plans and ambitions are unrealistic. But they have them just the same. Even four and one-half years after the onset of the Great Recession, according to surveys (see Pew: “Young, Underemployed, and Optimistic”), Millennials are still going for the gold.
Yet I see nothing of the kind in these “Girls,” none of whom appear to have any long-term plans or hopes or great expectations or dreams. They are mostly situational in their orientation, moving from day to day, problem to problem, with no aspiration driving them. This, I think, is why some critics find the show simply unwatchable. It’s one thing to show alienated risk-takers defying norms. And it’s another to show young optimists who take on the world and who then must cope with setbacks and disappointment. Both are good plot lines. But what about fundamentally decent and well-adjusted young people who just don’t have any ambitions? No sense of future, but also no desire to transgress? I would call this a perfect formula for boredom.
I don’t know why the show comes across like this. Maybe this is what “hipster” has come to mean for Millennials: witty and sardonic, yet also comfortable and passionless. Or maybe we can see here the influence of uber-Xer Judd Apatow, who is the producer of “Girls.” This guy has made so many very funny movies. But maybe here he’s the one who forces every scene in “Girls” to feel fraught and jaundiced, as in such Xer classics as Soderburgh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape. You can sometimes laugh (or just smile) at the characters, but you can never laugh with them. “2 Broke Girls” may be down-market network TV, but at least you are invited to join the fun. After a couple of hours of watching “Girls,” the viewer yearns for just one wise crack from Max (Kat Dennings), a girl who is actually striving (verb, intransitive) to go somewhere.