When I feel low, I sometimes watch the opening scene from the first season of HBO's Girls. The main character's parents tell her she's cut off over dinner, and Hannah's incredulous reaction to the idea she should pay her own way only two years after college, paired with her earnest belief that she is a groundbreaking memoirist, is the perfect antidote for my sulky mood. Whatever problem I'm plagued by snaps into perspective and I remember to laugh at myself.
Otherwise, I might look like Hannah.
Girls, which just began its third season, is often criticized for indulging privileged people's problems. But the show actually critiques first-world entitlement.
The SNL skit about Blerta, the fifth "Girl" from Albania whose third-world problems reduce the other characters to whiny rag dolls, was hilarious, but ultimately went after low-hanging fruit. Girls creator Lena Dunham doesn't endorse her characters' behaviour or ask us to feel sympathy for them; she wants their personalities to expose our own weaknesses.
The four main characters have exaggerated flaws that plague them in relatable ways. Hannah's narcissism deludes her in the professional world. Marnie's uptightness makes her unbearable in social situations. Shoshanna's naiveté taints her relationships. Jessa's flakiness prevents her from being a good friend. The way these qualities play out in realistic situations (first day on the job, first time being in love) act as a warning for the viewer: if you follow this behaviour, you will turn into a nightmare.
Take Hannah's obsession with her career. She unabashedly advertises the fact she is writing a memoir to everyone, which is embarrassing for a couple of reasons. One, because she just turned 25 and two, because the first rule of being a young writer is not to brag about your writing.
When Hannah bashes Marnie's relationship in her diary (which Marnie's boyfriend then reads), instead of apologizing she cluelessly asks "If you had read the essay and it wasn't about you, do you think you would have liked it?" She is shameless, absolutely shameless, yet also totally relatable.
While I don't go around telling people I might be the voice "of a generation", I'd be lying if I said I don't sometimes wonder why the New York Times hasn't hired me yet. I can usually remember the 500 or so reasons pretty quickly, but there's a narcissistic writer in me too. Watching Hannah's feral ego run wild is a reminder to stay humble.
When it comes to exposing ugly truths about privileged white people, no show does it better than Girls. When Dunham was condemned for the lack of diversity on her show, she served up a big fat reality check: you don't erase racial divisions by graduating from liberal arts college.
Lena Dunham's Style
In season two, Hannah dates an black man named Sandy (played by Donald Glover). She brings the relationship to a catastrophic end by mistaking her ivory tower enlightenment as a get-out-of-racism-free card. When Sandy calls her out for being just another "white girl" who moved to New York, got a fixed-gear bike and started dating a black guy, she responds earnestly: "I never thought about the fact you were black once ... I don't live in a world with divisions."
Dunham reminds us that just because you're educated doesn't mean you aren't part of the problem. There was one black person in my class of about 300 at a small liberal arts college. I've worked with four. My closest friends are all white. Nothing diverse about that picture.
But it's not just the heavy stuff that attracts me to Girls. The show is catharsis. Watching Hannah and Marnie's idealism bump up against the realities of the workplace resonates painfully with any millennial starting his or her career. A year into her internship Hannah asks to get paid and her boss takes the request as a resignation. "When you get hungry enough, you're gonna figure it out," he says with a smirk. Marnie loses her job at an art gallery when her boss casually fires her after an expensive lunch. These moments make me re-live the sting of learning that no job will ever love me back.
Of course Girls won't inspire every viewer. As a white-ambitious-middle-class-20-something woman trying to "make it" in a big city, I am the target audience. The New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum writes that one of her younger colleagues described the show as "FUBU: 'for us by us.'"
While art strives to tell universal truths, it's ultimately a matter of taste. No matter how much I try to love Ernest Hemingway, I just find his writing pompous and aggressive. But that doesn't mean he didn't create masterpieces; it just means they don't resonate with me. People are too quick to confuse art they don't like with art that isn't good.
To say Girls is simply a show that encourages privileged white people to moan about their "problems" is to believe Seinfeld was truly a show about nothing. That sitcom was a critique of the nasty impulses we all have but suppress better than George, Elaine, Jerry and Kramer. It was a warning that if we indulge certain feelings, we could end up in orange jumpsuits.
I don't think anyone became meaner by watching Seinfeld and no one will become more privileged by watching Girls. We will simply become more self-aware, and critics should thank Lena Dunham for that.