EDIT: Please read this. Read it instead of my thing, whatever. There are so many good articles and opinions circulating since the pilot aired on the 15th. This one is goes right to the real problem, in my opinion, which is not Girls specifically, but the systematic exclusion of people who aren’t white from being content creators in the film and television industry. I harp on class in the following article, but I think with class, the issue is more the practical barrier to entry, not cultural discrimination in the guise of marketability.
Girls and Tiny Furniture
What’s the old adage about advertising? How a product has to hit you three or four times before you’re even aware of it? Lena Dunham’s been floating through my atmosphere for two or three years now, but when she dropped Girls on HBO, she finally pierced that dull windowless shell that is my brain.
I heard about Tiny Furniture when it came out a few years ago. I tend to go for stuff about sad, confused girls, so I thought hey, I should probably see that. Then, through whatever conflation of circumstances, I didn’t. I didn’t see Tiny Furniture until three nights ago. And now, here we are.
“Girls” is Probably Good for Women
I don’t want anyone to mistake me on this first point. Dunham is obviously charming and brilliant. She oozes charm and brilliance. While she’s far from the first of such women, she is part of a critically important but sorely understaffed movement of female storytellers who actually tell the truth about women.
When you see a character like Dunham’s “Aura” from Tiny Furniture, and presumably “Hannah” from Girls, you recognize the rather startling contrast between her and women on television who are really just kind of voicing what someone else has imagined for them. They aren’t women, but personified “woman”, in the sense that they act and think and talk like some of weird nuclear fission of media echo, male gaze, and reality.
I’m tired of seeing characters who are all “oh I’m so doofy-goofy, I can’t get a boyfriend and my boss is a jerk and I have this weird tendency to sublimate my emotions in hilarious ways, and my mom keeps harassing me about children, oh my goodness society, how do I be a real woman?”
If you’re going to write a character like that, just warn me so I can do anything other than watch your show, anything at all, like organize my tax documents or refresh my twitter feed, or anything that makes me feel more authentically connected with the world than your dumb non-person character.
To be fair, the distinction is subtle, and it’s really hard to write a female character without accidentally parroting every female character who’s ever come before. It’s not even the specific content of her thoughts or deeds. It’s how they move between her and the world. Yes, lots of people beat themselves up and feel pathetic when they haven’t met expectations. But Lena Dunham is amazing, and she has convinced me, because her feelings show from the inside out. She’s not the Liz Lemon-style butt of every joke. She reflects an actual internal dialogue with herself. Unlike so many characters, she doesn’t take those traits we accuse women of when we see their public faces – like neuroticism, neediness, over-analysis, flakiness – she doesn’t take those things home with her and continue to portray them in her private moments. That’s the difference, and it’s a big one. It’s especially rare in comedy.
What Aura from Tiny Furniture conveyed to me was that process of understanding yourself in relation to others. It’s that thing where you don’t really care but you do kind of care. And after things go badly, you realize that you care a little more than you thought you did, but even still, it wasn’t really about that guy or that job or that friend. It was about you and about how life keeps following that trend of not working out. So even though you roll with the punches and keep returning to your safety place (whatever that is), and even though you know you’ll ultimately be okay, because you’re a cool chick who has her own stuff going on, underneath it all is the gradual increase of frustration that you never seem to be loved in the way you wish you were, and that you were holding out hope that this one punch would be pulled, and it wasn’t. But again, it’s not even the punch that counts, it’s the rolling. Right? Because who was he? At the end of the day, he doesn’t even factor into your life, and you know it. It’s the rolling. And that’s what Dunham accomplishes in those quiet moments when a tiny tremble crosses her face and is gone. That’s so real, man. It’s near perfect in that clarity.
There’s that, and then there’s that small miracle of a normal-looking person becoming intensely beautiful after a few scenes. It’s really a no-brainer that Apatow would produce this show. In Tiny Furniture, she could walk around in her underwear looking like a real person, and it wasn’t even a thing, it wasn’t even a weight thing, it didn’t even figure into the plot, that’s a major shift. It’s one of those instances where you don’t even realize how tense you’ve been until someone tells you to relax, and then you realize what you’ve been putting up with this whole time, which, in this case, is staring at girl’s asses on the screen who have three inches of space between their plasticine lily stem thighs. So that, in itself, is welcome, so welcome.
The Voice of a Generation?
Okay, so I just said all that. I hope we can understand now that I like her. Here’s my problem.
There’s a line in the Girls trailer where Dunham, as Hannah, says something that sort of sums the whole thing up.
“I think I’m the voice of my generation,” she says, and then self-consciously recants. “At least I am a voice. Of a generation.” And even though she seems to correct herself, the media is taking her seriously. Duhnam seems pretty intelligent and able to spot herself on this topic:
“I think that people don’t always love seeing a certain kind of privilege shown on screen, even if the creator is self-aware about it, which I tried to be. I tried to make it clear that this character was not necessarily appreciative of all she’d been given, and that all she’d been given wasn’t necessarily a gift, because it prevented her from having a work ethic and it prevented her from other things.
I hope that there’s room in our society for an exploration of class in that way that goes beyond. I like a movie like Raising Victor Vargas, that’s one version of New York, but I think there’s also room for a movie about the kids who grew up taking too many different kinds of piano and dance lessons in Tribeca. I hope that the artistic landscape can accommodate all of that and that I’ve approached it in a way that’s self-aware enough that people know where I’m coming from. But of course there will always be detractors and I was prepared for that. Sometimes I’m my own detractor.” – The Awl
Yes, but also, I have problems with how we are asked to sympathize, and with whom. Am I to believe that rich kids with over-involved parents don’t have enough stories about them? And what does it mean to be the voice of a generation? Who gets to decide that? Kanye West has already famously claimed to be the voice of the generation. Time tried to ask who that “voice” was and came up with some author both popular and literary, like Jonathan Safran Foer, who, like Dunham, speaks mostly in fictional autobiography.
But if there’s one thing I hate, it’s trying to cull the characteristics of an entire age group (the 20’s, currently 70 million of us in the USA) into one lump sum, which can then be used as an an ugly shorthand for casting both praise and aspersions, blame and victim-hood, on an entire cross-section of experience defined only by birth date. There are many many voices, and most of them are silent. Poverty and discrimination create a lot of silence where there should be a lot of noise.
This is particularly dangerous in our current climate. It’s not Lena Dunham. I want her to keep doing what she’s doing, and I can’t wait to see Girls. It’s the people who use her as a weapon, and how easy it is to turn her into one. Her persistent character is an upper middle class girl who expects to be bankrolled by her parents while she lives in Brooklyn. Her parents are educated and stable, still married, and biological. She graduated college with some fruitless theoretical major, and her biggest problem is finding a boyfriend and knowing what she’s going to do with herself. This is the narrative that has been pounded into my skull for years. When I look around, when I see what I actually see, it’s hard to miss the blaring incongruity between fact and fantasy.
First, income breaks down a bit like this. Half of tax-filing households make about $42,000 or less. For those filing as a single or as head of the household, the median is about $19,500 or $25,500, respectively. They could never afford a lifestyle like this for themselves or their children. In fact, that’s not even a possibility until you start tapping the top 20% in income distribution. Not to mention that myself, and most of my friends, spent most of our first years out college working crappy jobs to put food in our mouths because our parents had nothing to give. And that relentless three-job lifestyle is only now beginning to let up. We don’t expect anything to be given. We’re just trying to keep it all from being taken.
The Dunhams of America are real, but they are a slim segment of the population. This slim segment of the population is swelling with noise, swelling to fit the frame, blotting out alternative realities. This slim segment of the population (over-privileged, white, no work ethic, no problems) is becoming metonymic of all of us, and goddammit, I object.
That Strange Mix of Privilege and Exploitation
If I’m correct in assessing the trailer of Girls, the crisis that kicks off the pilot (you know, the one that doesn’t matter after a few episodes), is that Hannah’s parents are cutting her off, and subsequently, she can no longer afford to work for free at whatever gainful internship she’s acquired. The New York Times ran an piece on internships, based on a book by Ross Perlin where he called them a “curious blend of privilege and exploitation.” I stumbled across the sentiment again, in a completely different context, when Mother Jones posted a picture with the headline “Scoop: White Kids Work For Obama”, which they summed up with:
“The reality is that any bias in weeding out volunteers is likely more of a means-test: Volunteers for political campaigns are necessarily college-age kids with enough financial backing to allow them to work full- or part-time (and overtime, in some cases) without pay and with little if any opportunity for advancement. That gives well-off white kids a boost, I suppose.”
It does seem like the people able to participate in unpaid work, risky work, cause-work, work-for-opportunity work, those are the Lena Dunhams. Those are the people who most loudly represent Occupy Wall Street, because they can. I’ll go one step further. In our society at large, Lena Dunhams are the mass story-tellers because, at this age, they are the only ones with the tools to do so.
It’s an incomplete story. Yet it’s so easy to condemn. Twenty-somethings have delayed adulthood. They lack work-ethic. They grew up being showered with praise. They are too snobby for grunt work. They maintain websites with the smirking one-note tribalism of Thought Catalog. Those who actually live this experience think that it is, indeed emblematic of their entire generation. So they slap it on a Tumblr and corroborate the story of every economic analyst who tries to condemn us.
Yes, journalists and editorialists love to pretend that they know who we (that amorphous cluster of 18-29 year-olds) are. They conflate the advantages of the top 20% with the needs of the bottom 40%, and so of course it makes no fucking sense why a 25 year old NYU grad on her parents health insurance (because her parents can afford health insurance) would be bitching about anything with any sort of urgency whatsoever. I think we need a vastly more sophisticated way of understanding class and race, and how those things break down.
Maybe it’s crude to attempt to subject a segment of society to even more segmentation, carefully sorting ourselves like laundry. But right now, we have the “1%”, the emblematic bad guys, and we have the “99%”, which, depending on who you talk to, are either Latino bus drivers dying of a festering chest wounds or a bunch of spoiled twats who don’t want to work at Starbucks. I think we need a little more definition here.
We need to have conversations about class that don’t involve being accused of ignorant sluttery because you aren’t combing the land fills in Mexico. Conversely, we need to have conversations about class that don’t focus solely on concerns of college graduates struggling to pay their loans.
Who Are We?
What’s real in all this? I would be interested to know, really. I’d be interested to know how my generation breaks down in terms of socioeconomic status and shared cultural language (that last part is pretty important, also). As I said before, though we’re pretty terrible about understanding reality with any sort of nuance. Actual data seems to indicate that most people have much less money than anyone representing their generation on television. I look around and see that almost all of my friends are white college graduates (or certified in something and gainfully employed, but that’s also the exception). So what I hear, buzzing in my ears, is a massive groundswell of people invisible to me. Would that I were a statistician! Right? Will somebody please parse this data for me and tell me who’s out there?
Therein lies another paradox, because while I feel privileged near the top (culturally, that is – in my single-mom household I grew up in the bottom 40% with a couple of leap years into the 50-60% range), and cut off from alternate narratives, it appears that we almost all use social media and the Internet. What does that say about accessibility and everyone’s ability to tell stories that reach a mass audience? More importantly, how does it screw with my thesis?
While connectivity in the digital age is a very very important step, I don’t think cheap laptops and access to the Internet have necessarily destroyed the barriers between the lower class and broad, culture-shifting communication. There are other factors at work here. There are quite a few steps between having a Twitter account and having a book deal, and as recent news has proven, insinuating that technology is enough to lift the tired masses will get you canned as a jackass.
One positive trend that I see in film and television is, at least, a sense of microeconomic realism. Waitresses don’t live in luxury Manhattan apartments anymore. Columnists don’t inexplicably live like they pull in half a mil every year. I don’t think it’s really possible anymore for money to be a non-issue in movies and television. Everyone has to explain themselves, because viewers do the math. Now, in movies like Bridesmaids, we see a grown woman moving in with her mom because her business has gone under. We’ve got 2 Broke Girls and Sh*t My Dad Says. Even “Girls” confronts financial realities directly, even if Hannah’s conditions are pretty utopian.
I think that’s a very good thing. It helps viewers place themselves. Even if we don’t identify directly with Hannah, we understand how she operates.
I just really want to get away from this idea, which is an excuse, that we are all doing fine because hey, Lena Dunham is the voice of our generation and she’s got no problems. The same authenticity and connection that Lena Dunham gives to women, because she’s not Carrie Bradshaw, is the authenticity so badly needed for people who fight the daily battle of keeping the lights on. That includes people in their twenties, including the ones who, contrary to popular belief, can’t run home to mommy.
The creative class is the class that speaks for everyone. This is why we need to present more creative opportunities for people all across the spectrum. We rarely tell stories about the poor, or the disenfranchised, and when we do, it’s not in their voice. There are real, honest, and extremely well-researched attempts into capturing the obstacles of those living in the margins, the minimum wagers, the migrant workers, the generational criminals, and so forth. But I don’t think any of that could really form a sufficient narrative until it came from those people themselves.
It’s an opportunity, not a chore, to tell good stories by truthfully depicting America, and not just the upper crust. Limitations make for good plot fodder. They don’t have to be depressing. In fact, two weeks ago I just wrote about how a horror director at SXSW used the socio-economic status of his characters to impose practical obstacles to seeking help. While I don’t think he actually pulled it off, I thought this was the strongest argument he had for why they did what they did. Comedy happens here too, as we’ve seen sitcom after sitcom pick up the recession thread. And drama, my god, drama. Think about what’s at stake! Think about how much harder that drama could hit if it came from someone who knew the story inside-out!
There are ways to make a creative opportunities more practical for everyone. We just have to get a little bit more, well, creative, about opening those doors. I don’t just suggest this for the sake of an agenda.
I suggest this because there are millions of people out there looking for themselves represented in mass storytelling, and coming up empty.
Instead, their lives are told back to them by someone else. What a waste.