HBO’s Girls: Truth or Daring?

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Who would have guessed that Lena Dunham would be the latest little darling of the digerati? She’s young, she’s (by Hollywood standards) rather schlubby, and until a couple of years ago, hardly anyone had ever heard of her. So why are so many people blogging, tweeting, and posting about her HBO series Girls, be it raving for or ranting against?

As Emily Nussbaum points out in her recent New Yorker article, Dunham is certainly not the first to try to give a voice to “real” young women struggling to find purpose and identity. There is a relatively long history of tales of academically rich but worldly poor women moving to the big city to make their mark. “These are stories about smart, strange girls diving into experience, often through bad sex with their worst critics. They’re almost always set in New York.” The best known of these, at least in recent years, is Candace Bushnell’s Sex and the City, which of course went on to achieve almost flagship status as a series for HBO. One can readily draw parallels between SATC and Dunham’s version, despite the writer’s assurance that the two shows tell entirely different narratives.

On one level, this is certainly true. Despite the female-centered plotlines and formidable attention to fashion, Sex and the City was still filtered primarily through a male perspective. True, the source material was written by a woman and the showrunners were both gay, but there remains a distinct essence of stereotyping and infantilization of the characters that comes as a result of an industry still dominated by men. Dunham’s Girls, on the other hand, is unapologetically autobiographical. While you the viewer may or may not relate to either the show’s characters or its agenda, Lena Dunham herself clearly does. And because she is also the show’s writer, producer, and often director, we are given uncommon insight into the world as seen through the eyes of a modern, young, aspiring woman. In fact, she plays the lead character of Hannah Horvath, a thinly veiled alter-ego who both recognizes and is frustrated by the fact that, while she may be an adult, she is not yet fully grown. Neither for that matter, is anyone in her immediate social circle, fellow alumni from her university days who are also transplants with varying degrees of success.

This is one of the major themes of Girls that Dunham, as a 20-something millenial, wants to explore. What is success and how do we know we’ve achieved it? Do we ever? By most standards, the ladies of Sex and the City would all be considered successful, particularly Samantha, the self-made salacious yet business-savvy PR agent. It’s little wonder then that so many women of Dunham’s generation seek to imitate the sort of lifestyles Sex and the City tries to depict. What those same women seem not to recognize, however, is that the overarching theme of that show was the age old patriarchal notion that no woman is ever complete without a man. The series could not end until each of the characters had found someone she could settle down with. On the other hand, there is certainly nothing wrong with wanting some sort of permanent companionship. It is human nature, after all, and we all want to feel connected and important to someone in this world.

This is the other of Girls major themes. Is he/she “the one” or is this just a lustful infatuation? Does “the one” even really exist outside of a romantic comedy? Dunham is clear in her assertion that women do not suffer for lack of libido. Even the character Shoshanna, a virgin when the series began, was champing at the bit to explore the world as a sexual being. But navigating relationships of every type is tricky and precarious. We often fall — hard, and many times — before we master the art of simply co-existing. Dunham is unflinching in her depiction of these failures, however humiliating, and takes full responsibility for them, quite unlike her Sex and the City counterparts, who usually simply rallied together to cast aspersions and blame upon the man.

For an audience, there is a certain compelling appeal to Girls. These are characters that many people can relate to and experiences many people — especially women — have undergone. Despite the protestations that the show’s setting — a diverse world city — omits the sense of any ethnicity or culture, that it is ultimately narcissistic and “navel gazing” in content, there’s still certain resonance with audiences. People like to feel connected and understood, even if that means a vicarious, fictionalized version of the same worldview. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that these same devoted observers would want to emulate what they’re watching in the same way they might have done with a more extravagant fantasy depiction like Sex and the City. They are already living through those awkward moments. They are already feeling that bleakness, that fear of the future. They are just happy that someone out there “gets” them. And that they are not alone.

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