Fading privilege: Girls
HBO’s hit comedy-drama Girls depicts a white, educated middle-class America in the midst of its own demise, writes Mark Fisher
This article is a preview from the Summer 2014 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.
During an episode in season three of Girls, the US comedy-drama created by Lena Dunham, the main characters dance to the track “Age of Consent” from New Order’s album Power, Corruption and Lies. The album was released 30 years ago, and there’s something about this scene that captures the out-of-time predicament in which the characters find themselves. For Girls – which centres on the lives of four twenty-something women in New York – is perhaps the first television series to be about “graduates without a future”. The journalist Paul Mason coined this phrase to refer to the generation of university graduates who will be worse off than their parents. Thrown into a condition of precariousness-without-end, these graduates will be denied the stable employment, rising incomes and comfortable retirement that their parents expected.
Some have complained that Girls is a series about a privileged elite; that its focus on an almost exclusively white milieu fails to adequately represent the diversity of New York. These accusations aren’t unjustified. But Girls isn’t about New York as such. In many ways, it is about privilege, or about a group painfully discovering that their privileges don’t count for as much as they used to. Three of the lead characters – Hannah, Marnie and Jessa – met at a Liberal Arts College (the fourth major character, Shoshanna, is Jessa’s cousin). They expect to be working as writers or curators; instead they find that any creative work they do is intermittent or pursued alongside casual work in cafés and bars. It’s not for nothing that the café Grumpy’s – where a number of the characters work for a time – becomes perhaps the most important location in the series. The four women might be privileged, but they are no longer privileged enough to get the work they thought was destined for them, which is now reserved for those who are even more comfortably off.
The New York setting and the fact that it is about four women means that, since it was first broadcast, Girls has been dogged by comparisons with Sex and the City. But the comparison immediately draws attention to how much has changed in the decade since Sex and the City finished. Watch Sex and the City and Girls back to back and it is readily apparent how cartoonish the former was. The characters in Sex and the City were middle-aged women living out a perpetually extended adolescence; the characters in Girls are women just out of adolescence struggling to survive in a newly harsh adult world. From the perspective of post-crash austerity, Sex and the City’s late ’90s/early 2000s milieu of unthinking consumption and easy sex seems as far distant as the Roaring Twenties. But Girls retrospectively reveals that the key fantasy that structured Sex and the City had nothing to do with sex (or, for that matter, consumerism). Work was the central absence in the series; something that the characters were rarely seen doing, the silent background to their pleasures and misadventures.
In Girls, work will not recede into the background. Of the four main characters, it is only the self-destructive bohemian Jessa who isn’t troubled by work – which isn’t to say that she escapes doing it, only that she doesn’t worry about work defining her. The three other characters, however, are constantly seeking a status that eludes them. Shoshanna, still a student, is ambitious but highly anxious (she falls into a conflict with sometime boyfriend Ray, the manager of Grumpy’s, about what she sees as his lack of drive). At the beginning of the series, Marnie works as a gallery assistant, but she soon finds that her position has disappeared, and is forced into casual work. But the most important, and painful, struggle in the series is Hannah’s quest to be a writer.
The tone is set by Girls’s very first scenes, in which Hannah (played by Dunham, the series’s chief writer) is informed by her parents that they will no longer support her. The excruciating exchange plunges us into the television mode that the critic Adam Kotsko has called awkwardness. The defining affects of awkwardness are embarrassment and intense social unease. The increasing prevalence – both culturally and socially – of these emotions is a consequence, Kotsko argues, of the disintegration of clearly defined norms and expectations. In the wake of struggles against racism, homophobia and sexism, the social world is full of all manner of potential sources of extreme embarrassment. We (sometimes) know what we shouldn’t do, but we are seldom clear on what we ought to do. This instability and anxiety are intensified when work too is insecure.
Television series such as The Office, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Peep Show, and films by directors such as Judd Apatow, explored the confusion of this new comedy terrain. There is a direct connection with Apatow, who produced Girls. But there is an obvious contrast between Girls and most of the already existing series and films in the awkwardness genre. Instead of the self-deluded blundering of The Office’s David Brent, the lack of social graces of Curb’s Larry David, or the feckless male bonding we see in Apatow’s films, the awkwardness here is focused on women and their relationships with one another, in an environment where friendships are strained to the limit and cannot be counted on to endure.
Hannah’s being forced to support herself casts her into a series of awkward situations. Jessa responds to Hannah’s being cut off with outrage; don’t Hannah’s parents know that she is an artist? Hannah’s lover, Adam, says that he is independent – apart from the money he receives each month from his grandmother. Hannah then decides she will assert herself at the publishing house where she interns for free. If they won’t pay her, then she will leave. Fine, the boss tells her – leave, there are plenty of people standing in line to replace her. Hannah goes for a job interview. It seems to be going well; Hannah and her interviewer start bantering together; surely she will get the job. But Hannah ill-advisedly makes a joke about the interviewer being a rapist. The atmosphere immediately sours and stiffens. As is typical in the comedy of awkwardness, Hannah has transgressed a boundary which, before she crossed it, seemed vague – but once she has stepped over the line, the protocol suddenly becomes very definite. Casual work brings casual oppression. When Hannah gets a humdrum office job, she has to endure sexual harassment that is wearily tolerated by the other workers.
Girls is not only about work; it is specifically about the conditions for creative work in an austerity economy. Hannah sees herself as essentially a writer: writing is something that she has to do, everything else is optional. This is something that we believe – which makes for another strong contrast with Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw, whose affluent lifestyle was implausible even during the boom years, and who treated writing as some incidental lightweight musing she did between choosing shoes and pining for the One. Relationships are important to Hannah, but writing is what defines her. The series follows Hannah’s unsteady path towards realising her ambition. We watch Hannah perform public readings of her work, and see her delight at being signed up to write an e-book sour, as it becomes clear that the publishers are going to demand self-exploitative revelations from her. Then there is the slow descent into abyssal misery and obsessive compulsive disorder when the words dry up, and she cannot complete the book.
The most compelling thread in the third season again concerned Hannah’s work. When she takes on a job writing advertorial for GQ, the first few days of corporate security are heady. She stuffs her pockets with the snacks and the confectionery that the writers get for free, and, when she receives her first pay cheque, she is amazed that it amounts to much more than her rent. But Hannah cannot adjust to the grim treadmill of coming up with perky promotional puns. She looks at the fatalistic submission of the other advertorial workers. They still think of themselves as writers but they no longer produce any actual writing outside the corporate babble they are required to turn out for the magazine. The thought of accepting this horrifies her; she rebels, and is peremptorily fired. Is this an act of bravery or of reckless stupidity? A typical dilemma faced by a graduate without a future.
Girls is available to view in the UK on Sky Atlantic