The Girls of the Millennials
On my second date with the mergers-and-acquisitions lawyer who had hit on me at Film Forum after a showing of The Battle of Algiers, we got to talking about the show Girls.
He said he liked the character of Marnie because he “knew people like her,” meaning slightly uptight and needy women. I said that I identified most with Jessa and Hannah—and that I cringed at Hannah’s situation as an unemployed, narcissistic writer, wondering if I, living hand-to-mouth in Brooklyn while penning personal essays, memoirs, and blog posts, was any better off than her. (For the record, my parents do not pay my rent.)
To which the lawyer replied, “Well, you’re like fifty-eight thousand times hotter than Lena Dunham!”
We didn’t make it past our third date. It was clear that, aside from physical attraction (note to Lena Dunham: I think you’re very pretty, and he was definitely just saying that to get under my skirt), there was not much holding the lawyer and me together. This became a certainty for me when he told me the story of the $15,000-per-month apartment that his firm paid for when he worked for three months in Hong Kong. $15,000 is not too far off what I have earned each year since I graduated from college about seven years ago.
My dates with the lawyer got me thinking about my situation, and why I’m putting myself through years of scraping by to be, ultimately, a writer—someone who will most likely never earn as much as a lawyer. At first, going out with him and hearing about his high-end lifestyle made me self-conscious about our class differences. But then I remembered something I often think whenever I’m scrutinizing my life with some level of negativity: at least I will always know what it’s like to rely on myself through a time of struggle. Whatever happens in the future—a salaried job, a mortgage, a family—I will never doubt my own ability to survive by my wits, and I will always know who I am and what I stand for. Ultimately, I would take that kind of self-understanding over a relationship with a high-earning lawyer—or a $15,000-a-month apartment—any day. And that realization came to me in no small part because the lawyer and I had got to talking about Girls.
[pullquote_right]We finally had a female heroine who cared about something besides Manolo Blahniks.[/pullquote_right]
For all the accusations of white privilege, the prudish disgust, the constructive criticism, and naïve wistfulness for “privileged poverty” that the show Girls has sparked since it debuted in April, it cannot be denied that the show is a gift to Millennial-aged women living in cities everywhere. Because the way we talk about Girls is the way we talk about ourselves. When we criticize the contradictions in the show’s plot and characters, we are analyzing our own positions somewhere amidst self-loathing and egotism, entitlement and dedication, tolerance and insularity.
The conversation around the show reveals how hungry Millennials are for dialogue about our lives and, in particular, women’s lives. The show has given us an opportunity to dissect Millennial femininity in the wake of feminism’s third wave and in the midst of the recession, and it has revealed that at least one aspect of so-called “Millennial entitlement” may actually turn out to be a strength: the ability to speak up for ourselves and assert our opinions. In fact, one 24-year-old Emma Koenig is making a career out of voicing her Millennial anxieties and mundane pining, publishing a book, to be sold in Urban Outfitters, based on her blog “Fuck! I’m In My 20s.” Koenig’s blog shares things like crude drawings of a bloated, ugly person, next to the statement: “How I feel around other women.” Her posts are confessional (the “Why are you crying today?” checklist), banal (the “I am a sucker for” list), and often naïve (the “Friend vs. Girlfriend?” investigation), and they exploit the performative Millennial obsession with social media (“In 15 minutes I’ll stop staring at Facebook and do the dishes”). Now Koenig will profit from these inane, relatively superficial portrayals of urban, educated twenty-something living. And you know what I say to Emma Koenig? You go, girl.
When Girls debuted, critics at both The New Yorker and New York magazine hailed the show’s audacity and candor, as well as Dunham’s decision to cast herself as an imperfect, self-deprecating, angsty protagonist. Finally, we had a female heroine who cared about something besides Manolo Blahniks, and who was far from ideal in physique or career.
But then there was backlash. It’s not the truth, said numerous writers: this is a depiction of fantastical white privileged poverty, featuring none less than the daughters of wealthy and influential culture-movers like playwright David Mamet and NBC anchor Brian Williams. In response to this criticism, and in defense of the show, Ben Adler, writing for Next American City, pointed out that the idea of Millennials living in some post-racial bliss was itself a fantasy—how could we live in such a utopia, only slightly more than one generation after school segregation ended, and inheritors of a society that drastically marginalizes communities without means? Wrote Adler,
[quote]Girls is a fairly accurate portrayal of the social segregation that is rampant in our society. Some viewers might be upset by the ugliness of that image, but they should not blame Dunham for it.[/quote]
Next came a surge of personal essays by women in their twenties who found themselves strongly identifying with certain aspects of Hannah’s personality and life—and experiencing anxiety alongside this identification. “Stop comparing me to Lena Dunham!” voiced one writer on Nerve. But then she watched the show:
[quote]Was I really, like Hannah, a spoiled, lazy, entitled, self-absorbed pissant? I had to find out, so I caved and caught up with Girls. Almost immediately, I realized that the answer was a resounding yes.[/quote]
In the aftermath of the first season of Girls, there has been a surge in stories about Millennials and our struggles. On The Billfold, Karina Briski wrote a personal account of applying for food stamps and feeling the confusion that arises when dealing with privileged poverty and other peoples’ harsh judgments of it. I related to Briski’s conflicting feelings of legitimate need and class consciousness: recently, my Medicaid application was denied, and I thought, Well, here goes a third year without health insurance.
Watching this conversation enter into pop culture and the media has felt strangely intimate, because I can’t help but see aspects of myself in Lena Dunham’s characters. It has also felt vindicating. In a radical and aggressive way, Occupy Wall Street brought socioeconomic issues to the forefront of public debate on behalf of Generation Y; Girls is doing the same thing in a way that is charming, attractive, entertaining, comical, and still poignant and relevant. We need more cultural products that allow our generation to discover, dissect, and debate our reality; we should hope that Girls and Koenig’s forthcoming book are only the start. For a generation that loves to (over)share, there is nothing better than learning how to do it eloquently and in a way that allows us to grow by exposing our problems, desires, and abilities. Maybe talking about Girls won’t help me land an attractive, wealthy lawyer boyfriend, but in the end, it’s probably going to do something much more important and lasting.