I used to live in New York, and I’ve told many people that if there’s one thing I learned, it’s that to live there you have to be a hustler. If you’re not extraordinarily lucky, you either have to be really good at what you do, so good that you don’t have to worry about doing anything but that one thing you want to do, or you have to do whatever else it takes to stay there. Work three jobs. Do two jobs at one job. Or sacrifice everything and live with nothing but the barest essentials to keep doing that thing you love there (Bill Cunningham comes to mind). I love New York. I would move back if I could, but I’m not a hustler. I’d have to be able to live the way I do in other places, and I’m not good enough at anything to make the money I need to live the way I want without sacrificing everything else in my life in the process. So I visit.
Having only seen one episode of GIRLS, it seems like this is one of the lessons in the journey of twenty-four-year old protagonist Hannah, played by creator and producer Lena Dunham. The rising action of the series is set from the first scene of the first episode, when her visiting parents report that after two years of post-collegiate financial support, they are cutting her off. A set of humiliations follows that highlight how rudderless Hannah is, from being screwed out of her unpaid internship by her patronizing boss to being screwed from behind by a charmless young man. She hopes to erase the pains of the day with a cup of opium from a pompous dinner guest, and instead ends up charging into her parents’ hotel with the manuscript of her memoir, demanding they continue to fund her (“$1100 a month for the next two years”) until the work is complete. When she wakes up, alone in their room the next morning, she finds out they’ve left her without even room service. Her only recompense is an envelope with $20, the same they leave for the housekeeper.
Opening both, she takes the housekeeper’s too. Hannah has started her hustle.
There’s a lot that GIRLS gets right for the age and the place. The natural low-key lighting. The slapdash apartment and clothing styles. The awkward yet easy-come-easy-go sexual experiments of the early twenties. One of the things that piqued my interest about the show in the few weeks before its broadcast premiere were the debates about Lena Dunham’s body. HOLLYWOOD ELSEWHERE blogger Jeffrey Wells unleashed a minor controversy when he claimed that Dunham is too fat and that too much of the show’s narrative weight rests in her body issues. Considering that my dissertation is on corpulence and celebrity, I disagree with Wells and think that her fleshier body is a welcome and more realistic image than what we normally see for sexually active young women on television. From the first shot of the first scene, Dunham seems to be announcing that corpulence is one of the ways she’s distinguishing Hannah.
The shot opens with Hannah in close-up but off-center, shoved into the bottom right corner of the shot, breathlessly stuffing spaghetti into her mouth. As the scene continues, she and her father voraciously shovel down food while Hannah’s mother encourages them to slow down. From the start this positions Hannah against her mother and toward her father, an issue which springs up later when her mother is also the instigator for stopping Hannah’s money flow. Hannah is portrayed as consuming carelessly–including sex, drugs, and money–and food does seem to be a primary way that’s characterized. Eating a cupcake in the shower seems to be the ultimate example of this.
Being a cupcake lover myself, I cannot condone this: too much risk to the delicious, delicate cakiness.
And yes, that’s Hannah’s roommate and best friend in the shower with her, Marnie (Allison Williams). The main reason to give this show so much attention is the desperate need for better drawn female characters and female friendships on television. This seems to be a promise at the core of the show. Nonetheless, that promise in the first episode is instigated on a rejection of previous generations of women, a rejection that is problematic in my feminist reading of female characters in media. It starts with the mother. The mother is ultimately the main antagonist in the episode. Her desire for a lakehouse undermines Hannah’s livelihood, and it’s this need for money that makes her lose her job prospects in the logic of the show. The show might be setting Hannah up for the lessons she learns in the rest of the series, and there might be a critique in there about what happens when Baby Boom parents make their Millennial children into investments, but the issue remains that the mother is the source of Hannah’s problems. SEX AND THE CITY is the other source of generational rejection. The show makes it plain that it intends to skewer the SATC image of women in the city through Zosia Mamet’s character, Shoshanna. Yet GIRLS seems to owe too much to SATC for the contrast to have a bite. Yes, the ages of the characters are different between the two shows, yes, GIRLS takes place in Brooklyn, and yes, the “label love” seems absent, but otherwise, both shows are still essentially about four very privileged white women learning their way together through life and love in the big city. GIRLS may seem grittier, but don’t forget that SATC is the show that brought us “funky spunk” and “tuchus-lingus”, as well as regular humilations like falling facefirst on a catwalk or needing a friend to remove a tricky diaphragm. And let’s face it, the women in GIRLS don’t need Manolos and Fendis: at this point living in New York, even Brooklyn, is expensive enough–as Hannah herself reminds us–to be its own label.
And that gets us to my final point about this series and its premiere, is how much it’s predicated on unacknowledged privilege: the privilege that comes with education, the privilege that comes with class, the privilege that comes with whiteness, and the privilege that comes with being the very well-born child of parents with connections to the New York arts scene. A fellow Tweeter posted that GIRLS was providing a critique of the internship economy, but how far can that critique go when it comes from someone who has done do so very little so far to have earned it? We need more female creatives producing their own shows on television. There are so few that to diminish the accomplishments of one seems to have a ripple effect on the possibility of others. But getting this show on a premium cable channel as a young white woman in her twenties feels like Lena Dunham’s hustle. Hannah took a twenty from a housekeeper. What chance might someone like Dunham have taken from someone else who has probably worked longer and harder with less opportunities (and rewards) than she seems to have already had?