A Dissent on Girls

What the HBO series leaves out about the lives of young women


Lena Dunham’s Girls, which returns for a second season next week, was going to be the show that gave us the scoop about the way young women live today—or at least, a certain segment of young women: upper-middle-class elite-college graduates living the would-be artsy life in hipster Brooklyn. The show features a quartet of female friends, and comparisons to Sex and the City, HBO’s original Zeitgeist comedy hit, were inevitable (and invidious). Girls was going to be younger and hipper and incomparably more authentic. Carrie and friends floated in a single-woman’s fantasy world of cosmos, limos, and Manolos, with nothing on their minds but men and marriage. Hannah’s cohort would show us what it’s really like to be unattached and semi-employed in New York City.

From the moment it debuted last year, the show and its precocious creator (Dunham is 26) were showered with acclaim. Girls was nominated for five Emmys, including Best Comedy Series and writing, acting, and directing honors for Dunham. And indeed, the program does a lot of things very well. The script is sometimes brilliant and always clever and lively. The characters’ erotic sorrows and adventures are convincingly drawn. Dunham’s use of nudity—specifically, her own nudity—is more or less revolutionary in an age that gets more “lookist” all the time. Some scenes have been memorable: Hannah confronting her old college boyfriend, who turns out to be gay; her roommate, Marnie, being staggered by a threateningly thrilling (or thrillingly threatening) come-on from an older man.

Still, there are problems. The series is maddeningly uneven; a great scene or episode will be followed all too often by a flat one. The writing leans on exaggeration and caricature to keep up interest and win laughs. Zosia Mamet’s character, Shoshanna, an absurd, jappy college student who gets little airtime and nothing interesting to do, and who doesn’t seem to know the others all that well, is essentially superfluous. The series’ picture of the city is still prettified—all those leafy Brooklyn streets as well as no cockroaches and almost no subways, the two ubiquitous realities of life below the upper crust in New York.

But the show’s biggest shortcoming is what it leaves out of its supposedly honest portrayal of today’s young women: their working lives. Hannah is an aspiring writer who drifts between un- and underemployment; Marnie works at an art gallery; Jessa, the fourth friend, a globetrotting bohemian, takes brief employment as a nanny. Compared to the amount of energy the show expends on the girls’ relationships with one another and with boys, boys, boys—classic Sex and the City stuff—almost no attention is given to any of this. In other words, to the characters’ professional aspirations (as well as what they actually do for most of the day): to their skills, their intellectual or moral or creative interests, their social ambitions, their dreams for themselves as self-reliant individuals rather than as people defined by their relationships with men. When we do see them at work, the situation almost always bends, as if by gravitational law, toward sex: Hannah being groped by her boss; Marnie’s come-on, which happens at an opening and is delivered by a hot young artist; Jessa’s flirtation with the father of her charges. We haven’t yet discovered what Marnie’s dreams are, or what Shoshanna studies.

The omission is especially misguided given that young women have started to outnumber their male peers in so many professional fields (and outperform them by most measures of educational attainment), and that more and more of them are choosing to forgo marriage or even long-term relationships altogether. The young women I know—and as a recent professor, I know quite a few—are intensely engaged by their work. Girls, allegedly so contemporary, already feels dated.

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William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here. He is a contributing editor of the magazine.


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