'How should I appear to be?' : On Lena Dunham's Girls

First, let's get a few things out of the way: I'm a white American female. I went to a private liberal arts college. I'm a (struggling) writer. I'm in my mid twenties. Very probably if the target market for Girls took singular physical form it would look exactly like me. I also understand that a portrayal of a world in which everyone is like me is ridiculous. I understand the exclusionary, maybe dangerous implications of such a portrayal, and I understand the need for criticisms of it: that Girls is too self-centered, too small-minded, fails to represent or even acknowledge huge swathes of society, emphasizes a certain kind of privilege. But this is, nevertheless, the show we've been given: the show in which four straight white college-educated chicks from comfortable economic backgrounds try to forge a life for themselves in a big city. So. The point of Girls, as its name, I guess, is meant to indicate, is that the women depicted in the show are still uncomfortable about their "adult" status. They're wriggling around in this tight new skin, trying to figure out how to be. They're all grown up, except they're not, because no one ever really is. That's the joke, right? That we'll still be thinking, "but I feel like such a fraud!" even when we're successful, when we're experts, even when we're in our thirties, or our nineties, for that matter. We're always still kids, always just faking it.

The anxieties that the women in Girls experience are, largely, anxieties of comparison - the virgin is uncomfortable because her peers are mostly not virgins; the writer is peeved that someone she took a writing workshop with in college has already been published. Some of them are my anxieties, too: when Marnie worries that she's barren because she's been sexually irresponsible a few times and has never gotten pregnant, I'm forced to acknowledge that, however irrational it sounds when it's actually said out loud, I've had this exact thought; I know what it's like to think that way about things entirely beyond your control. Again it's about comparison; all the anxiety boils down to this fear of having to deal with a situation which is unique or un-mappable, a situation that our worst enemy or our best friend isn't also in: why is what's happening to her not happening to me? how do I deal with something different?

On the other hand, there's this scene, with Marnie and an artist. They've left a gallery opening to go for a walk together; they're standing at an entrance to the High Line. She's got a boyfriend, but she's flirting, or fawning - it's difficult to tell exactly which. She tells the artist she's not going to kiss him. He tells her he might scare her the first time he fucks her, because, "I'm a man, and I know how to do things. See ya later."

Cut to Marnie, marching through the gallery to the bathroom, locking herself in, reaching under her dress to touch herself.

What? Is this an earnest commentary on what people our age are meant to feel - turned on by the firm promise of real adulthood, of real men (or women)? Is it a commentary on the ridiculousness of the way we're condescended to? Or is it just a really, really bad call on Dunham's part? So yes: Girls is hit or miss, sometimes downright awful; it relies on shorthand in the form of caricature; it's self-consciously self-conscious to a painful extent; it's got moments - like the Marnie/artist scene - which are utterly baffling.

Sometimes it's hit and miss in the same moment. The very first episode - and therefore the series - opens with Dunham's Hannah, at a restaurant, being told by her parents that they can't continue to support her financially. There's a disconcerting instant - why are her parents supporting her? they've just been congratulating her on how well her job is going - before we understand that the job in question is an internship - unpaid, of course. The scene is indelicately handled; Hannah's infantile responses - "But I'm your only child, it's not like I'm draining all your finances!", or, "This is nuts. I could be a drug addict. Do you realize how lucky you are?" - do seem to warrant her mother's final pronouncement: "No. More. Mo-ney," she says, slowly, as if speaking to a baby. The scene seems to condense all kinds of potential (and potentially serious) problems and anxieties into a single, glib instance; it worries me how easily this could be construed as proof of the idea that there's a prevalence of whiny, lazy privilege amongst people under the age of 30.

Which I think is largely how it's been read, either critically (gosh those twentysomethings are entitled!) or sympathetically (yeah, I'm four years out of college and still doing unpaid internships!) - both of which are valid but rather surface interpretations. Because the meat, the heart, is this: here we see, laid bare, the two-faced self, the self that understands intuitively the role of marketing even in times of desperate insecurity, the self split by a desire to look good and a desire to acknowledge a sinking, desperate kind of doubt. One face tells one story, the other another: there's the young woman, two years out of college, working at a publishing house in New York City, writing a book, being positively encouraged to continue, making it; and then there's the young woman, two years out of college, without a job, without a book deal or a finished manuscript, relying on her parents in order to sustain herself, adrift. They're the same person, and neither version is any truer than the other, really.

And this is where Girls does get it right. Last year, after the first episode had aired, and every writer, blogger, and clown with a pen had rushed to dissect it, I tweeted this:

"Wow, just fell down the "responses to HBO's Girls" rabbit hole. Almost feel like I don't need to see the show - like it's been created to be 'viewed' remotely, via the medium of hype/criticism."

I have, now, obviously, seen the show, but I don't think I was wrong: I think the beauty of it, if you can call it beauty, is that it exists beyond its material form. It's viewable even if you never watch it.

There's a point in the third episode where Hannah, back from a reunion with an ex-boyfriend, sits on her bed, composing a tweet. We see the screen as she sees it, the empty box, the potential.

"You lose some, you lose some," she writes. Delete. "My life has been a lie, my ex-boyfriend dates a guy," she writes. Delete. "All adventurous women do," she writes. Tweet.

So we literally see Hannah editing (or creating) her own image, forging a version of herself designed explicitly for consumption. What she decides to tweet is not revelatory or even meaningful on its own - but the expression that forms on her face as the words appear on the page suggest Hannah feels she's hit just the right note. "I am busy trying to become who I am!" Hannah tells her parents at the start of the show, and here we see the evidence of this: we see her, hard at work, trying to become the person she is. And even if no one else is listening, she's said the kind of thing that person would say.

This performance isn't notable in itself - we do it all the time, even those of us who never touch a computer or a smartphone, who revile "social media". But to see it acted out like that is, I think, notable. Perhaps Girls is not significant for being devoid of color, or for having been written by someone who was just 12 when Sex and the City first aired: perhaps it's significant simply for being the first show of its kind, the first show to have been created in and for a world in which the careful construction of a tweet is as much a part of an encounter with an ex-boyfriend as the actual meeting itself.

Girls gets a lot of things wrong: but it does get this right, almost exactly, painfully right. The biggest anxiety of all, it seems to suggest, is not the one about how to be, but how to appear to be. How to enact that appearance. How to look like the person you want to be, even if you're not that person, even if you never can be, because, remember, underneath, like the duck gliding serenely across the pond but paddling furiously underwater, we're all faking it anyway. Girls is bigger than itself; it is also its critical context, a product of its own hype. You could watch it, I guess, without having read a thing about it, but I think you'd be missing something. I think it was created deliberately for an audience who watch with the noise turned on, who contribute to that noise - I think that's its natural environment. I think you can read about it without watching it, and still be watching it, but it would be harder to watch it without reading about it and still be watching it.

p.s. I haven't seen any of the second series yet