Girls: don’t believe (all) the hype

Lena Dunham’s show about self-absorbed Manhattan hipsters is funny, but not sparkingly original to UK audiences.

David Bowden

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So you’ve heard the rumours. You’ve seen the interviews. You’ve encountered the backlash. You’ve read the umpteen tweets and blog posts and magazine articles and newspaper spreads and columnist spats about racism, intersectionality, representation and privilege. But the real question is: have you seen Girls? Do you even know what it is?

It is fair to say that the US comedy drama has come with its fair share of hype. In fact, that may be doing the show a considerable disservice. Girls has come with so much hype that the Guardian is probably close to setting up its own 24/7 live news feed simply on the hype.

It’s difficult to remember that its writer and star Lena Dunham began the year as a virtual unknown: with one small-budget indie film about a neurotic and self-obsessed upper-class Manhattan family (Tiny Furniture) to her name, alongside a couple of short films which were minor YouTube hits. She approaches the year end as a regular fixture in the Daily Mail‘s celebrity pages and having just signed a $3.5million book deal, which is not usually the fate of offbeat and lo-fi filmmakers in their mid-twenties.

Girls has been the vehicle of her meteoric rise. Backed by HBO and produced by Hollywood A-list director Judd Apatow (Bridesmaids, Knocked Up), it is carefully positioned to be Sex and the City recast for a younger and more knowing Generation 2.0: in effect, SATC for a generation of twentysomething women who grew up watching a show about the fabulous shopping-and-fucking lifestyles of affluent Manhattanites.

Dunham’s sketching of that tension between fantasy and reality drives much of Girls forward, and certainly gives it much of its comic bite. Rather than successful career women embracing the freedoms afforded by wealth and liberal social mores, the cast of Girls are college graduates struggling to get a foot into a recessionary job market dominated by precarious unpaid internships and unrealistic expectations; recreational shopping rather loses its lustre when you can download your entertainment for free and your parents pay for the rest; sex and relationships, rather than a route to quasi-spiritual nourishment, are often unsatisfying, disappointing and mundane.

One of the girls, Shoshanna, is an innocent virgin who clings to her teenage fantasies: she’s also a big SATC fan. It’s a pointed joke that offers a useful insight into Dunham’s waspish humour and Girls’ success. Where SATC aimed to be an exaggerated piece of aspirational and hedonistic froth, Girls knowingly positions itself as all about the real: real bodies, real sex, real girls. Its humour is crude and earthy: one episode centres on bohemian good-time girl Jessa missing her abortion appointment to get drunk and hook up with a random in a bar; Dunham’s character Hannah is engaged in a kinky and casual sexual relationship which manages to be banal rather than empowering; another character is hopelessly bored by her doting and considerate boyfriend.

Judging from the deluge of media coverage, Girls has done a pretty effective job of nailing the interests, hang-ups and insecurities of today’s young women. Emily Nussbaum dedicated a long essay in the New York Times to explaining why Girls was ‘a retort to a culture that pathologises feminine adventure’ and was perceived by younger viewers as FUBU: ‘for us, by us.’ New York mayor Michael Bloomberg has even touted himself for a cameo. In the UK, before it started airing on Sky Atlantic in October, feminist-FUNNY-CAPITALISER-in-chief Caitlin Moran declared, ‘the absolute, sticky ordinariness of it makes it revolutionary’.

Predictably, of course, all this excitement led to a pretty vicious backlash, both by older male viewers who disapproved of this sort of thing and young feminist writers who disapproved of this sort of thing. By the time of its second episode being aired, the New Yorker could already put together a pretty substantial blog on the controversy surrounding its lack of racial diversity. Even by the standards of US cultural discussions on race, it was still startling in the intensity of its outrage, a trend which was even more eyebrow-raising when it erupted in the UK. As Tim Stanley noted in his recent excellent programme, Family Guys: The Story of the American Sitcom, it is a debate that is fairly particular to US culture.

The row about Girls failing to be sufficiently representative has a delicious irony to it, given that Dunham’s shtick lies in painting a grotesque portrait of what she perceives as her own generation’s defining trait: frenetic self-absorption. Or, at least of her generation of white, upper-middle-class cosseted New York bohemians, who are struggling with poverty and recession yet couldn’t entertain giving up the failing media career, going off to work at McDonald’s, and (as one of the grating boyfriends insists) ‘becoming someone’s slave’.

While some of the criticisms were valid, there was the inescapable sense that some of the critics were missing the joke when they claimed that their particular life experience wasn’t represented by Girls. Dunham, as her character Hannah (an aspiring writer) puts it, wants to be ‘the voice of my generation. Or, a voice of a generation.’

Yet while the self-absorption is not necessarily a political shortcoming, it could well be a fatal artistic one. Girls is refreshing in its funny and frank treatment of a certain type of comfortable young hipster, but only in the context of its many safe and sanitised rivals in the US: there’s not much in Girls to surprise a viewer who saw Nineties British drama This Life, or even the excellent undergrad comedy Fresh Meat. It achieves brilliantly what it sets out to be – SATC with a contemporary bite – but, for the show’s own sake, don’t believe any more of the hype than that.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

Watch the trailer for Girls:

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