Not the voice of a generation

Leela Yellesetty takes a closer look at a celebrated new show on HBO.

Characters from the HBO show GirlsCharacters from the HBO show Girls

CALL ME a feminist killjoy if you will, but I'm one of those people who still objects to full-grown women being referred to as girls. Unfortunately, this isn't the only thing that rubs me the wrong way about the new HBO series Girls, directed by, written by and starring Lena Dunham.

"I may be the voice of my generation," Dunham's character Hannah declares in the first episode, quickly adding, "Or at least a voice, of a generation." It's an important qualifier.

Dunham should be well-equipped to examine the experience of young women recently graduated from college, as she fits the description herself. This is a generation whose expectations for the future have been all but obliterated by the Great Recession.

According to a recent study by Rutgers University, of those who graduated since 2006, only 51 percent have a full-time job, and 11 percent are not working at all. Of those who are lucky enough to find work, 43 percent said their job doesn't require a college degree. More than half graduate with student loan debts of $20,000 or greater. These are the circumstances in which a recent Pew Research Center report showed that, unable to find well-paying work, as many as three in 10 graduates are moving back in with their parents after graduating.

The characters in Girls, while impacted by these trends, represent a much more privileged subset. Hannah has been living in Brooklyn entirely on her parents' dime for two years, working at an unpaid internship and writing her memoir. She is shocked and appalled when her parents inform her that they're cutting her off, and she'll have to get a real job.

Review: Television

Girls, created by and starring Lena Dunham, HBO.

Her and her friends' lives seem to revolve around exploring every absurd artistic whim, partying and complaining about how expensive it is to dress like a hobo. Presumably, it's the life of people like Dunham and her costars, who all happen to be the children of prominent artists and media personalities.

For this reason, I'm a little mystified that so much criticism has been levied against Girls for its lack of diversity, since it strikes me that this narrow demographic is almost certainly going to be overwhelmingly white. Brooklyn may be diverse, but like everywhere in America, it is also extremely segregated. Reflecting that reality is not necessarily racist in and of itself, and it seems a bit arbitrary to single out this show when television as a whole has a serious diversity problem.

That said, the fact that the only Black actor in the series so far was a screaming homeless man is pretty terrible. To make matters worse, Girls writer Leslie Arfin tweeted this offensive response to those who criticized the show's lack of diversity: "What really bothered me most about Precious was that there was no representation of ME." Arfin, it turns out, has a history of making racist jokes, like referring to pooping as "taking Obama to the White House."

You have to ask yourself: Do we really want someone like that writing dialogue for characters of color?

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OBVIOUSLY, MUCH of television is saturated with the lives of the white and privileged, which even in its most disgusting opulence at least offers the promise of escapism for ordinary viewers. That Carrie from Sex in the City was able to afford lavish apartments, designer clothing and nightly martinis at the hippest clubs in town while working as a part-time columnist was insane, but at least she enjoyed it.

What makes the characters in Girls so annoying is how miserable they are about being rich, and how much they complain about it.

It's not that Dunham isn't aware of this nauseating sense of entitlement--in fact, she goes out of her way to highlight and poke fun at it--but it's more awful to watch than funny. Some lines are a fair attempt at dark humor--like when a character declares self-righteously that he lives off a monthly stipend from his grandmother, "because you should never be anyone's slave." But the scene where Hannah takes the $20 tip her parents left in their hotel for housekeeping just made me want to vomit.

It's unfortunate that the characters are so incredibly unlikable, because it takes away from some of the more interesting things going on in Girls. The show features some of the most aggressively unglamorous portrayals of sex ever seen on television. It makes for very difficult viewing--and some of it is admittedly over-the-top in its awfulness--but it feels like an honest attempt to reflect what sex and relationships are often like for insecure young women.

Which is why it's perplexing that commentator Katie Roiphe used Girls as a prime example in her controversial Newsweek cover story on "The Fantasy Life of Working Women." Her main thesis is that now that women are all empowered thanks to feminism, what they secretly crave is to be dominated--sexually and otherwise.

Perhaps this isn't so surprising coming from Roiphe, whose claim to fame was writing a book denying the existence of date rape. But Girls seems a particularly poor vehicle for her arguments.

That Hannah has a thing for an asshole who repeatedly degrades and disrespects her is absolutely true. That their sex life reflects her innermost desires is hard to take seriously. Quite the opposite, it appears to me a reflection of extreme disempowerment and alienation, brought on by society's relentless messaging to young women that their bodies should be the object of male fantasies, not their own pleasure.

Hannah at times even attempts to vocalize her own desires and boundaries, but lacks the confidence to enforce them. Dunham deserves credit for putting her body issues front and center, and it is refreshing to see less-than-model-sized bodies depicted on television.

There are other issues relating to women's sexuality that the show deals with in interesting ways. Given the conservative fury last fall over the HPV vaccine, it's good to see a character diagnosed with the virus and even discussion about the widespread ignorance surrounding it.

And the fact that a television character schedules an abortion without all the usual emotional handwringing is downright revolutionary. As Hannah's character states matter-of-factly, "What was she going to do? Have a baby and take it to her babysitting job? That's not realistic."

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UNFORTUNATELY, THE more progressive elements in the writing are undermined by some seriously offensive parts, and whether or not they are intended to be satire, they lend themselves all too easily to facile analyses like Roiphe's.

For instance, in what could otherwise be an interesting exploration of a long-term relationship that lost its spark, Hannah blasts her best friend's boyfriend for having a vagina, because he's overly obliging in bed. In other scenes, Hannah makes homophobic comments to her ex-boyfriend, and makes a terrible joke about date rape at a job interview. In her world, sexual harassment at work is "awesome" and "a great life experience."

It's one thing to have flawed characters, but Dunham strives so hard to make them despicable that it's really hard to empathize with them in the moments when we're supposed to. Perhaps the characters will mature and become more likable over time--if not, I'll be hard-pressed to care enough to stick around.

The best part of watching Girls for me was getting together an expert panel of awesome women's rights activists to view and discuss it together. Love it or hate it, the show definitely pushes the envelope and makes for thought-provoking discussions.

It is not, however, the voice of our generation. To quote my friend, Laura Durkay, who experienced living in New York as a recent graduate firsthand:

Some day, someone will make something about what it's really like to be a young person in New York: your job sucks, your commute sucks, you're up to your eyeballs in student loan debt, you pay 60 percent of your monthly income to live in a tiny, dirty shithole, you're always poor, and you probably don't have health insurance or any savings, so you're constantly terrified that one disaster will send you off a cliff into irreparable financial ruin.

On second thought, that sounds like a really depressing show. Maybe it needs vampires or something.

To which I would add: You don't even have to make up the part about vampires--just look for them on Wall Street.