The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
Apr 212012

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.

Your opinion?

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  • Dragline

    I’ll be curious to see how many Millennials actually watch it, given that is on a pay television channel.  HBO seems conscious of the problem — see

    But I would suspect that only ones living at home where the parents are paying for it will bother.  And maybe not for very long.

  • Tara

    pmsl i’m a millennial and i’ve only just heard of it from you haha, i dont watch tv, not that i have the time to watch it! I’d rather watch stuff online and hang out on fb and twitter in the evenings! The program sounds lame anyway.

  • Dondi

    Jeez Neil! You really hate Gen-Xers don’t you?
    It’s also typical Boomer hubris to claim that a show written by a high-millennial woman, and at least semi-autobiographical, isn’t millennial enough. But you get around the Cognitive Dissonance of criticising your beloved Millennials by blaming Gen-X producer Apatow.Nice work!And as for preferring 2 Broke Girls?The mind boggles.Full disclosure: I’m a London-based mid-to-late Gen X and my girlfriend is very much Millennial and we both like the show (as do many of our friends; some born as early as ’70 and as late as ’90); mainly for its unflinchingly honest and humorous portrayal of young women. We were remarking on how we hope it signals a New Honesty in women’s depiction of themselves in TV fiction that could one day reach the levels of Louie rather than the mindless retro-grade solipsism and empty consumerism of SaTC or Desperate Housewives.Sadly I doubt it will get a second series because as with most quality tv these days there just isn’t the audience for it.I notice you also accuse Mad Men of ” Gen Xers playing dress up”. I think that is a massive over-simplification. Especially as the show seems to reference aspects of your own Fourth Turning work (which I greatly enjoyed btw).So, why do you hate Gen X so much?

    • Dondi: Sorry I didn’t see your post earlier.  For the record (I feel like Nixon here), I don’t hate Xers.  Bill Strauss and I once wrote a book called “13th Gen” 
      back in 1993 (back before Doug Coupland had even invented “X”), in which we allowed Xers to pillory Boomers and for which were mercilessly attacked for defending “today’s hopeless slackers.”  I think Gen-Xers exceed all other living generations in their resilience, their wit, and their out-of-the-box creativity–to name but a few of their virtues.  I have always insisted that generations are different, but that no one can be deemed better than any other.  On the other hand, I have also always come down hard on older generations who, once they take over as pop-culture creators, try to recast the rising generation in their own image.  That’s what I believe many Xers have tried to do with Millennials.  And occasionally Xers try to do it prior generations: And that is what I deem to be a real problem with Mad Men.  I realize I am a minority opinion here on a show which everyone else thinks is brilliant.  Still, I just wish the Mad Men producers spent as many millions making sure that show’s vocabulary and mannerisms were true to that era as they do on perfecting the cut of every suit and tie and the logo on every cigarette box.

      • Dondi

        Thanks for replying with such good grace Neil.  

        I agree with you that;  “…no one generation can be deemed better than another.” and that disdain is often foisted onto the new generation by the previous one.  My (misplaced?) ire was piqued by what I deemed to be a certain anti-GenX tone to some of your recent posts and I should probably have read 13th Gen before jumping in two-footed. I still feel that your take on Girls is incorrect though. I feel Dunham cuts to the quick of 21st century solipsism and selfishness with an unflinching honesty that’s often hard to find in popular culture and her show is a welcome release from the simplistic binary depictions of gender that often litter female-centric TV.I find your work fascinating and believe that you are certainly on to something, although I am always cautious not to allow data to act in service to the thesis and remain perhaps more sceptical to theories that I instinctively adhere to than to one’s I don’t;  if that makes sense.As for Mad Men; yes there are certain linguistic and behavioural anachronisms, but it is a drama and not a documentary, therefore  I think it seeks more to examine the human condition on a macro level rather than simply portray a time-capsule exhibit of 1960s culture. Weiner’s ongoing analysis of post-war American dreams and nightmares is equally scathing towards all of the generations involved whilst also highlighting their strengths. If you can look beyond the meticulously reconstructed surfaces there is an almost Lynchian dissection of modern ennui and self-deception heaving at its core.Keep up the good work;  minds as keen as yours seem in as short a supply as ever.P.S. Are you familiar with the work of documentary maker Adam Curtis?  I think he would be right up your street.

        • I agree that “Girls” has its moments–an acquired taste, perhaps, but a show having a great deal of subtlety.  I never said it was bad.  I agreed that it got many basic things right about this generation.  But I also thought it was in some ways off the mark, in particular its staged air of directionless ennui.  I look at a lot of focus groups and surveys, and that’s actually something I’m seeing less of in young adults.  I also suspect, but of course cannot produce, that this is something that’s being projected onto the characters by older producers/directors.  I meant nothing more than this.

  • Mttdrn83

    Good analysis of the show.  However, I don’t like this notion I get from you that Millennials and Hero generations in general are supposed to hate sex.  I also don’t like the implication in your theory that sex is only something to be enjoyed by young Prophets during an Awakening and now that we’re in a Crisis we must go back to being buttoned-up, uptight, and puritanical about the subject.

    • To the contrary, I think every generation loves sex.  (Certainly no generation has ever hated it; if there were, that would have been the last generation.)  Yet each generation’s approach to sex is different, and is different in ways that connected everything else that is new in that generation–what it thinks about family, personal risk, friendship, commitment, long-term planning, and so on.  The growing youth aversion to personal risk-taking and their rising interest in commitment are especially significant, because they have been plausibly linked to the 20 percent decline in the share of 15-25 year-olds engaged in *any* form of sexual activity over the past 15 years.  (These are not my numbers; they are the CDC’s.)  This trend is remarkable because no one predicted this youth trend 15 years ago, and most pop culture creators are still unaware of it today.

      Far from evidence that Millennials don’t enjoy sex, I believe their approach is mostly healthy and balanced–and most probably they are enjoying sex more.  In fact, many of the reviewers of “Girls,” positive and negative, observed that it depicted these young people as *not* enjoying sex at all.  I agree that it depicted Millennials this way.  And I think it is a false depiction.Finally, I certainly do not believe that the “hero” archetype is puritanical.  Hero generations are, quite to the contrary, dedicated to the creation of an ordered, affluent, and secular world in which all of humanity’s natural needs are met, from food to housing, security to sex.  By contrast, the word “puritan” (starting with John Winthrop’s original “Puritan Generation”) has always been associated with the Prophet archetype in midlife.  It is associated with a deep distrust of pleasures too closely tied to “this” world.

      • Mttdrn83

        If Heroes did not enjoy sex, then what would explain the personal lives of JFK or Frank Sinatra?  It appears Boomers were the first Prophet generation coming of age to embrace pleasures of the flesh rather than shunning them.  I believe some G.I.s still had puritanical beliefs about sexuality left over from their Missionary parents and Boomers rebelled against those outdated and repressive beliefs, hence the last Awakening’s “sexual revolution”.  I believe we are a better society because of it and now have a much more open and healthy attitude about sex despite the attempts of conservatives and reactionaries to turn the clock back to the 1950s.