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Angelina Chapin

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If You Hate HBO's 'Girls', You're Missing the Point

Posted: 01/16/2014 8:35 am

 

When I feel low, I sometimes watch the opening scene from the first season of HBO's Girls. The main character's parents tell her she's cut off over dinner, and Hannah's incredulous reaction to the idea she should pay her own way only two years after college, paired with her earnest belief that she is a groundbreaking memoirist, is the perfect antidote for my sulky mood. Whatever problem I'm plagued by snaps into perspective and I remember to laugh at myself.

Otherwise, I might look like Hannah.

Girls, which just began its third season, is often criticized for indulging privileged people's problems. But the show actually critiques first-world entitlement.

The SNL skit about Blerta, the fifth "Girl" from Albania whose third-world problems reduce the other characters to whiny rag dolls, was hilarious, but ultimately went after low-hanging fruit. Girls creator Lena Dunham doesn't endorse her characters' behaviour or ask us to feel sympathy for them; she wants their personalities to expose our own weaknesses.

The four main characters have exaggerated flaws that plague them in relatable ways. Hannah's narcissism deludes her in the professional world. Marnie's uptightness makes her unbearable in social situations. Shoshanna's naiveté taints her relationships. Jessa's flakiness prevents her from being a good friend. The way these qualities play out in realistic situations (first day on the job, first time being in love) act as a warning for the viewer: if you follow this behaviour, you will turn into a nightmare.

Take Hannah's obsession with her career. She unabashedly advertises the fact she is writing a memoir to everyone, which is embarrassing for a couple of reasons. One, because she just turned 25 and two, because the first rule of being a young writer is not to brag about your writing.

When Hannah bashes Marnie's relationship in her diary (which Marnie's boyfriend then reads), instead of apologizing she cluelessly asks "If you had read the essay and it wasn't about you, do you think you would have liked it?" She is shameless, absolutely shameless, yet also totally relatable.

While I don't go around telling people I might be the voice "of a generation", I'd be lying if I said I don't sometimes wonder why the New York Times hasn't hired me yet. I can usually remember the 500 or so reasons pretty quickly, but there's a narcissistic writer in me too. Watching Hannah's feral ego run wild is a reminder to stay humble.

When it comes to exposing ugly truths about privileged white people, no show does it better than Girls. When Dunham was condemned for the lack of diversity on her show, she served up a big fat reality check: you don't erase racial divisions by graduating from liberal arts college.

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    Writer, director and actress Lena Dunham attends the premiere of 'Tiny Furniture' at The Museum of Modern Art on November 9, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by John W. Ferguson/Getty Images)

  • November 2010

    Director Lena Dunham attends IFP's 20th Annual Gotham Independent Film Awards at Cipriani, Wall Street on November 29, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for IFP)

  • February 2011

    SANTA MONICA, CA - FEBRUARY 26: Writer-director Lena Dunham, winner of the Best First Screenplay award for 'Tiny Furniture', at the 2011 Film Independent Spirit Awards at Santa Monica Beach on February 26, 2011 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

  • March 2011

    NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 31: Actress Lena Dunham attends the off-Broadway opening night of 'Mike Birbiglia's My Girlfriend's Boyfriend' at the Barrow Street Theatre on March 31, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images)

  • March 2011

    AUSTIN, TX - MARCH 12: Writer/Director/Actress Lena Dunham attends 'Girls' Greenroom Photo Op during the 2012 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival at Paramount Theatre on March 12, 2012 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images for SXSW)

  • March 2011

    AUSTIN, TX - MARCH 12: Writer/Director/Actress Lena Dunham (L) and actor Alex Karpovsky attend 'Girls' Greenroom Photo Op during the 2012 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival at Paramount Theatre on March 12, 2012 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images for SXSW)

  • March 2011

    AUSTIN, TX - MARCH 12: Writer/Director/Actress Lena Dunham arrives to the screening of 'Girls' during the 2012 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival at Paramount Theatre on March 12, 2012 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images for SXSW)

  • March 2012

    In this March 29, 2012 photo, actress Lena Dunham poses for a portrait in the Tribeca neighborhood of New York. Lena is the creator and the star in the series, "Girls," premiering April 15, at 10:30p.m. EST on HBO. (AP Photo/Charles Sykes)

  • April 2012

    Actresses, from left, Zosia Mamet, Jemima Kirke, Lena Dunham and Allison Williams pose at the premiere of the HBO original series "Girls," Wednesday, April 4, 2012 in New York. The comedy premieres April 15, at 10:30p.m. EST on HBO. (AP Photo/Starpix, Dave Allocca)

  • April 2012

    NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 04: Actress/creator/executive producer Lena Dunham attends 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)

  • April 2012

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  • May 2012

    NEW YORK, NY - MAY 07: Lena Dunham and Hamish Bowles attend the 'Schiaparelli And Prada: Impossible Conversations' Costume Institute Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 7, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images)

  • 2012

    FILE - In this publicity file photo released by HBO, the creator and star, Lena Dunham, of the HBO TV series, "Girls," is shown. Television looks like the land of female opportunity with the success of shows like "Girls" and "New Girl" and the achievements of actor-writers including Tina Fey and Lena Dunham. but making TV remains largely man's work. (AP Photo/HBO, Ali Paige Goldstein, File)

  • September 2012

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    NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 08: Filmmaker and actress Lena Dunham attends the Rachel Antonoff Spring 2013 presentation at the Drive In Studios on September 8, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Desiree Navarro/Getty Images)

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  • January 2013

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  • January 2013

    NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 09: (L-R) Lena Dunham and Zosia Mamet attend the Premiere Of 'Girls' Season 2 Hosted By HBO at NYU Skirball Center on January 9, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images)

  • January 2013

    BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JANUARY 11: Writer/actress Lena Dunham attends the 13th Annual AFI Awards at Four Seasons Los Angeles at Beverly Hills on January 11, 2013 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

  • February 2013

    LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 02: Actress/director Lena Dunham attends the 65th Annual Directors Guild Of America Awards at Ray Dolby Ballroom at Hollywood & Highland on February 2, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

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In season two, Hannah dates an black man named Sandy (played by Donald Glover). She brings the relationship to a catastrophic end by mistaking her ivory tower enlightenment as a get-out-of-racism-free card. When Sandy calls her out for being just another "white girl" who moved to New York, got a fixed-gear bike and started dating a black guy, she responds earnestly: "I never thought about the fact you were black once ... I don't live in a world with divisions."

Dunham reminds us that just because you're educated doesn't mean you aren't part of the problem. There was one black person in my class of about 300 at a small liberal arts college. I've worked with four. My closest friends are all white. Nothing diverse about that picture.

But it's not just the heavy stuff that attracts me to Girls. The show is catharsis. Watching Hannah and Marnie's idealism bump up against the realities of the workplace resonates painfully with any millennial starting his or her career. A year into her internship Hannah asks to get paid and her boss takes the request as a resignation. "When you get hungry enough, you're gonna figure it out," he says with a smirk. Marnie loses her job at an art gallery when her boss casually fires her after an expensive lunch. These moments make me re-live the sting of learning that no job will ever love me back.

Of course Girls won't inspire every viewer. As a white-ambitious-middle-class-20-something woman trying to "make it" in a big city, I am the target audience. The New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum writes that one of her younger colleagues described the show as "FUBU: 'for us by us.'"

While art strives to tell universal truths, it's ultimately a matter of taste. No matter how much I try to love Ernest Hemingway, I just find his writing pompous and aggressive. But that doesn't mean he didn't create masterpieces; it just means they don't resonate with me. People are too quick to confuse art they don't like with art that isn't good.

To say Girls is simply a show that encourages privileged white people to moan about their "problems" is to believe Seinfeld was truly a show about nothing. That sitcom was a critique of the nasty impulses we all have but suppress better than George, Elaine, Jerry and Kramer. It was a warning that if we indulge certain feelings, we could end up in orange jumpsuits.

I don't think anyone became meaner by watching Seinfeld and no one will become more privileged by watching Girls. We will simply become more self-aware, and critics should thank Lena Dunham for that.

 

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