The Hustle of GIRLS

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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5 comments
  1. Kelli Marshall said:

    “The mother is ultimately the main antagonist in the episode. […] 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.” And yet, Mom’s the only one with whom I identify. This, I think, is a problem. “Getting this show on a premium cable channel as a young white woman in her twenties feels like Lena Dunham’s hustle.” No doubt that is a feat, and something for which the young woman should be commended. But I wonder how many viewers and critics are conflating Dunham’s real-life achievement and the pilot, praising it because they’re actually routing for HER success? (FWIW, I think many of the male TV critics on my Twitter feed do the same for Kyle Killen and AWAKE… Since LONE STAR didn’t work, they’re desperately hoping that this one will.)

  2. Amanda said:

    Thanks JJ. Your analysis of the show points to exactly what I thought it would be. Perhaps I’ll watch it later and add more, but it sounds rather painful. Thanks for your astute commentary.

  3. Anna Gunn said:

    I like a lot of what you said, and I agree she’s got advantages few people have, didn’t have to work after college, got to go to college and fancy school in the first place, etc., and was far, far more likely to succeed as a result, but I reread your last paragraph about three times and..are you really saying she didn’t work hard and earn in some way her place at the helm of a show? I think she was able to be in line for the opportunities and others definitely aren’t getting to that line, as stated above. But I feel like she deserves a little more credit. She wrote and directed a movie. Yes, someone could have given her everything up to that point, but a lot of people liked that movie and even those who didn’t tended to agree she had a unique voice and that it was at least competent and maybe even great. That’s the reason she has the TV show, no? Did her mother know all the critics and the criterion collection? Does she know me or my other friends who responded to that film that it’s hard to see as anything but her movie, her writing, her performance, her voice, etc?Basically, I agree with what you say about privilege (though I do think she’s commenting on that through the show..it seems to be all about exorcizing the guilt and discomfort of feeling like (or being) a stupid, undeserving person who just gets to have all this stuff). But I think it’s kind of awful to take the one thing she did do write and direct a movie- and make it sound like she didn’t do that part, and just breezed past a line of people who did, right onto her own TV set. You know who really did breeze past lines and get handed jobs? Ben Lyons and Dustin Hoffman’s kid and every other privileged person ever. And most of them probably insist they didn’t get any help and never address any of it through their work. She actually did the creative work herself, and she actually acknowledged a lot of this stuff in the work, whether or not she did it the way everyone wishes she did. Her work is completely about that. It’s a big red arrow pointing at that. And weirdly enough, she actually did a good job. All while she was also very young. She’s not perfect, and her world view probably reflects that. But it sounds from reading this like the only thing a person of privilege can do is not anything. Other than maybe getting a job that’s way less special than she got and not talking to anyone about it. If nobody made me do that sort of thing, I probably wouldn’t either. And it would probably piss some people off but if I thought I were a writer, I’d probably write. And then if it turned out I was actually good and someone offered me money for a movie, I’d probably take it, and then a TV show, too.I’m not glad it’s such an uneven playing field, but we wouldn’t be talking about this show if she were just some rich girl who gets whatever she wants. She would have made some bad shorts, maybe a bad movie, and i wouldn’t have seen any of it. I’m glad she decided to be just unashamed enough of the circumstances of her birth to write Tiny Furniture and this show. I am sure i’m not going to like or agree with everything she does, but I am glad I get to see it and I think she deserves a little credit. She can’t be another class. She can’t be reborn. So she makes herself a character who steals and has no sense of a larger world and puts her body on the screen and gets shredded as much as she has been praised. That’s a good start. Maybe when she turns 26 she’ll do even better. Maybe when she’s 40 she won’t be so young and well-received and thus piss people off less.

  4. Jennifer Lynn Jones said:

    Thanks for reading and commenting. A few others have also given me some useful points to consider that parallel your thoughts here, and I appreciate it. There are a few things to note about that final paragraph. One is that in many ways, I can admire hustlers, those people who find a way to make it with whatever talents and abilities they have. She has a lot. She’s obviously very driven and determined and taken the best advantage of the opportunities that have come her way, and in many ways, done well with them. I don’t necessarily begrudge her that. Two is that media production is a zero-sum game, especially when you’re talking about getting your project onto a channel like HBO. Someone gets a green light because others got a red light. There are not endless amounts of money and time for lots of people to make the show they want. And while there are compelling moments in the premiere, and some reasons related to research that I’ll certainly continue to watch, I’m not sure that this show needed to be made. Again, yes, we need more female creatives in charge on tv, and yes, we need more shows about female characters and friendships, but I don’t know that this is the show that will get us somewhere new and different enough to make it worthy for her project to get a green light over another. I think that her demographic is lucrative, and even with her other accomplishments, what she can do with that demo–and has already done, if you look at all the discourse on just the premiere–is very valuable to HBO. So I still stand by the need to point out the material conditions of the production, and how they relate to identity and privilege, because I think they’re still important in understanding why we get what we do on tv, and why some people get to see themselves and their experiences reflected, and some people don’t.

  5. "Anna Gunn" aka Erin Hill said:

    Sorry. i’m late coming back here but…when i read “i’m not sure that this show needed to be made” my mouth fell open.My problem was never with the idea of critiquing the material conditions of production. That is, in fact, my personal academic mission, which I write about every day. My problem was with the way these problems seemed to be laid at the end of yoru blog at the door of Lena Dunham personally. Now with your clarification, my problem is with the idea that one of the few shows on this channel right now, if any (Veep stars a woman and has some important female personnel but is also mostly straddling the gender divide and is not dealing with much at all so far) is the one that maaaybe didn’t “need to be made,” because it’s not advancing some very specific or, i guess very universal mission or plan for where “we” need to go. Who is we? Where are we going? Is it only related to race or does class, age, gender, size, disability, etc get in, too? Isn’t this the exact problem people have with Girls…that the critical buzz seemed to be saying “this is who ‘we’ are and where ‘we’ are going and get on the train or we leave you behind”? Might one way (out of the hundreds required) of getting somewhere new and different be related to the very critique of privilege Dunham is offering? Might this show be about youth/generation as much as gender or race? I wrote about Whitney and how I think it actually sets “us” back in a number of extremely disturbing, corrosive ways, and if you think that’s the case with Girls, that’s a different debate (which i’m ready to have, too, by the way, though i think this one is more relevant here). But it seems like, by your logic, we should not even ask these questions because Dunham is unfairly privileged over others who would also offer important perspectives, and might take us even further in the right sorts of new directions, creatively or in terms of socio-political progress, than she would. as i said, you have no argument from me that absolutely there are people who should ALSO have shows on HBO and who probably should have gotten them long before dunham, and who might be even more important to moving these issues forward than she is. my point is that a) these issues are still inextricably linked b) Lena Dunham didn’t make those decisions, and therefore c) hers is actually the last show of the ones on HBO that we should be deciding whether or not we need right now. I work in the industry and I am an academic. I posted anonymously before because I wasn’t sure how much I wanted to wade in just yet, and wanted to see where the show might go. But i can tell you that whichever hat I’m wearing, my only bar that must be met when entering into a debate on whether we “need” a certain type of show is that it not be the only show of its kind (in terms of perspective, tone, representations of what is treated in front of the camera, and by whom behind the camera etc), and that it not be written and directed by a person who, as much as she seems to you like some certain kind of very familiar new york girl, is very different from 95% of people in writing rooms right now. And I can’t understand how we’re leaping from the very valid discussion of “this show’s lack of diversity is problematic, and this highlights larger issues of diversity in hollywood” to one in which we’re theorizing a zero sum game under which we the one show on HBO that tries to do at least some of the things a lot of people in these debates seem to want more of, and that does more than any of the other shows to point to its own privileged underpinnings, to problematize them, and to motivate discussion in this area while it also tries to be a comedy tv show for people to consume and become invested in. I love game of thrones, eastbound and down, gervais, and Veep but i actually don’t need them, because I could go watch a bunch of other shows that are (somewhat) like them from the past or on other channels. I have a feeling that, by that logic, i also don’t need the newsroom. I’m kind of interested in some of the soapy, female-centered concoctions on the networks right now and am glad one of them stars a women of color and seems to be doing some interesting stuff there. Do i need scandal, revenge, AND a new procedural starring a beautiful brunette scientist? Not all of them, i guess, but i’m not saying “why is revenge on when such and such project that better advances something in terms of representation is not?” Because it is not the type of game you describe and if it is a one-for-one exchange, my vote would be for something more like what got taken off HBO to make room for some of the newer shows: Bored to Death. That show seemed fine, but it is not getting us anywhere new and different by these criteria. Unless we’re thinking in terms of the larger ideas in the show. But it seems like we’re not. What i need less of, all i need less of, are shows that are sold and written by men who grew up in LA in very specific circles and who speak the same language and therefore are just “easier” to have in the room than people from other backgrounds whose jokes and stories from childhood might require more explanation, and might make people nervous to dive in and riff on. I need fewer shows that are greenlit by the same kinds of people. Women are VP’s of casting and sometimes even creative heads of production but i still see male domination. This is doubly, triply, quadruply true in terms of racial diversity in the writer’s room and the executive suite. But these exclusions should not be put in competition with one another, but with the other 95%. And why something didn’t get made shouldn’t be reduced to “because Lena Dunham’s show did” any more than people who come into the system via those few remnants of the 70’s civil rights and feminist efforts to address institutional causes should be blamed for OTHER people who don’t get those precious opportunities. What should we be blaming and talking about and questioning? The way film schools, appreticeships, internship programs, diversity talent and writing programs, agency trainee programs and assistantships, and channels through which one submits oneself to the overall system operate. Also: corporate hiring practices and diversity initiatives (or the lack thereof, though most networks and studios have a specific executive in charge of exactly this), DGA sponsorship rules that continue old forms of cronyism and patriarchy, WGA outreach efforts, and the ways in which all of the mythology surrounding who wins and who loses in these complex, interlocking industrial sub-cultures frames all of this as the triumph or failure of the individual. I can tell i’m repeating myself, but there is so much more going on than “plus one dunham=minus one more valuable viewpoint.” And I can’t help feeling like your comment, with its zero sum logic which seems to be trying to address the commodification of Dunham over others by HBO, implicitly commodifies Dunham and “others” in the very ways that we as academics should resist and problematize. I can’t see the logic in saying “we don’t need this one show about and by a woman because if it weren’t there, that spot would be assigned to another minority/marginalized group.” I’d liken it to academics in the 80’s saying “the cosby show doesn’t move racial issues forward in as progressive a way as I’d like. we should get rid of it to make room for South Central.” How about, let’s not trade one new voice for another. Let’s attack the institutionalized privilege at the heart of this (and not in the manner of Newsweek’s facile cover, which was sort of cute, but which actually channels very important discussion in very unproductive, snarky ways that ridicule beneficiaries of the system as individuals. Let’s not decide who should go first here at all, because then we’re playing THEIR game. The same crappy game that says “if we can find a woman who is ALSO a person of color to be our diversity hire, it’s a twofer and then we don’t have to hire any more. Problem solved! For everyone BUT white dudes who went to Harvard Westlake.” I am just so disappointed that this is the turn this story is taking, rather than launching a discussion of WHY girls had to be all things for all people. Because this is a conversation that we absolutely need to have. This is a conversation that I want to have BADLY. This is a conversation that I am having in my classroom right now with a bunch of students, and that I’m trying to take to production students in LA specifically. This is, in fact THE conversation that I quit my production job to have. And if i forget to come back here, I apologize. I also apologize if my comment is strongly worded, and I hope this won’t be misinterpreted as me cradling Lena Dunham in my arms and saying “how dare you!” For me it really is about bigger things, with Dunham serving as an entry point to this conversation we should be taking to others. I thank you for continuing to draw attention to these issues and I hope to have a blog about these issues (though not as much about girls), at my wordpress “both sides blog” in a few days. I feel like i just wrote it so I may re-purpose some of my words there.

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