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HBO’s ‘Girls’: What The Real Girls Think

Today’s post comes to us from Camilla, a recent grad who weighed in on HBO’s “Girls,” a show that’s caused much discussion and debate about how it depicts Millennials. Camilla, like us, has a love/hate relationship with the show because unlike many programs, it highlights the harsh realities that Gen Y faces. It doesn’t represent all Millennials in its attempt to portray today’s tough economy, but it shows young adults’ struggles with unemployment, underemployment, and the everyday challenges they encounter, and their responses to them. Sure this is representative — or at least more than other programs — as Camilla explains, but she and her peers aren’t sure it’s a show they want to watch since it presents the low points of their lives.

HBO’s ‘Girls’: What The Real Girls Think

I think I’m the target audience for HBO’s “Girls.” At face value, it depicts the major life themes of my peers, who all just graduated from college, moved to the nearest metropolis (in my case, London, but close enough), and set about trying to figure out their lives — but mainly just how to pay their rent. No, most of us aren’t doing what we wish were doing, or earning much (or any) money for it. Yes, we might have “dated” someone without ever having gone on a date. And most of all, yes, we’re completely terrified about the economy — though still not as much as we’re terrified of STDs. All these themes ring true, but if I’ve gleaned anything from my friends’ reactions to “Girls,” the truth is not quite what our generation is looking for in our TV shows.

In the pilot episode, the star/writer/creator/whatever of the show, Lena Dunham, plays the protagonist, Hannah, a 24-year-old with an unpaid internship in New York, just about to be cut off financially from her college professor parents. The rest of the episode is her navigating the throes of work, social, and sex life, with the occasional funny comment thrown in. It doesn’t even really matter what happened next because as far as any sentient Internet-possessing being knows, the news outlets went nuts, as if 50% were given the assignment to shower “Girls” with praise and the other 50% sent a memo saying “verbally assault this show, please”. It’s clear why: “Girls” was intent on representing the period of young adulthood not shown on “Sex and the City” or “Gossip Girl.” Those are pretty big boots to fill — a lot of representation to do — and people either saw themselves (or more likely, their children) in it, or they didn’t.

My peers were divided between these two camps: we saw bits of ourselves and our lives, but weren’t sure we liked what we saw. And perhaps those of us closest to Hannah’s situation were most critical of the show. A housemate of mine — a feminist blogger, Oxford graduate, and (paralleling Hannah’s story) English Lit major who was unemployed until last week — commented: “the people who think this show radically captures the zeitgeist of unemployed graduates must be wildly out of touch with young people”. This criticism was born out of a general opinion that the show was just “depressing”, not just because it didn’t tell our stories, but because it did — it depicted what we all dread our lives could come to this year, begging for money from parents who may or may not have it to give, begging for jobs from organizations happy to employ graduates for free, and, an equally humiliating potential scenario, hoping our significant other will deign to text us back.

Lena Dunham capitalized on our common situation of having grown up in a boom but become grown-ups in an economic bust. We’re all jealous of her, in a way: she’s taken the situation we’re all in and made it into a somewhat funny and certainly lifelike TV version of her own life. What we aren’t, though, is convinced that we want to spend half an hour a week watching what is in essence the low points of our own lives.

I waited a few more episodes to write this review because I was concerned my initial reaction was too harsh, too rash, and should probably be quelled lest I find the merits of this much-acclaimed show in its second episode (title: Vagina Problems. That wasn’t my only problem with the episode). Unfortunately, it didn’t get off to a good start: another stomach-churning sex scene that probably made my housemates think I was watching pornography. You know how movie sex is often so perfect it’s unrealistic? This sex was so gross, so ‘real’, it made you wonder why humans engage in such activities at all. There isn’t much of a plot to really give away, but the rest of the episode depicted how every single girl I know feels about STDs — irrationally and obsessively terrified. There are some good one-liners (“You could not pay me enough to be 24 again” “Yeah, well, they’re not paying me anything at all”) and some bad ones (“If I wanted to go on dates, I would, but I don’t, because they’re for lesbians” — casual homophobia, cool). Most of all, though, you sit around waiting for the funny lines that improve a dull-as-can-be plot.

When “Girls” first came out and I trolled the Internet for reviews, the majority of negative reviewers’ criticism about the show seemed to be its cast of all-European descent in contrast with the multicultural makeup of NYC. This criticism, to me, reflected a lot more than racial background, although that was the main focus of these articles. Instead, it was a bunch of people hoping to see ‘their’ stories told on TV, and most of them were let down. But this is far too much weight to place on a show: no one expects “Jersey Shore” to accurately depict Italian-Americans (except the National Italian-American foundation, funnily enough), and few surgeons possess the model looks of those on “Grey’s Anatomy” (somehow, no protests from the AMA there).

Still, the mistake here was marketing “Girls” as “the story of the twenty-something today” with a not-unusual television cast of feminine, educated, upper-middle-class, straight females, none of whom appear to be a racial minority. If it turned out one of the actors was part Iroquois, or half Peruvian, would that change things? I don’t even think so — this is just about appearances. So while I agree that racial diversity, along with many, many other types of diversity should be striven for on TV, I think “Girls” was only at fault because everyone expected to see themselves on the show, and its relative ethnic homogeneity was one of many elements that didn’t reflect everyone’s lives.

This New York Times review summed it up best, saying: “[‘Girls’] has to carry the hopes of a whole class of viewers who ache to see themselves represented but who can’t all possibly fit in”. In the first episode, Hannah even pre-emptively answers this criticism saying: “I think I might be the voice of my generation. Or at least, a generation … somewhere.” So is Dunham, I think, representing a generation, somewhere. It definitely shows a section of my generation, but I’m not sure most people saw themselves depicted on “Girls” — or if they did, they didn’t admit it.

There’s an extremely accurate ‘Sh*t Girls Say About Girls’ meme making the rounds, my favorite line of which is: “How am I supposed to relate to a show about Brooklyn? I live in Queens”. So, “Girls” maybe doesn’t depict every girl, but that’s not what makes a TV show relatable; instead, it’s a matter of writing stories and characters you can empathize with despite your differences. On this point, I’m not sure if “Girls” ultimately succeeds, but I’m optimistic that it’s too soon to tell. The writing’s decent, and, admittedly, it would be hard for “Girls” to live up to the near-hyperbolic reviews —  both good and bad alike.


About Camilla

Camilla is a returning YAB member who has finished her undergraduate degree at Oxford in 2011, where she studied physiology, psychology, and philosophy. Now, she’s 21 and studying for a Master’s degree at the University College London Institute of Neurology, where she hopes to do research in clinical neuroscience and neuropsychiatry. She grew up primarily in Washington, D.C., where she attended National Cathedral School, and has also lived in Budapest, Hungary for four years. When she’s not studying the brain, she is probably painting, practicing Bikram yoga, cooking vegetarian food, or thinking about manatees. When she IS studying, her favorite part of the brain is the basal ganglia, and her favorite neurotransmitter (those chemicals that shoot around the brain sending signals) is dopamine. The recent involvement of neuroscience techniques in product development and marketing has driven her interest in Ypulse, coupled with a lifelong love of writing — and, of course, a healthy obsession with pop culture.