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Monday, April 15, 2024

Column: Who are the Ladies?

By JORDAN S. CARROLL

After only a few episodes, HBO’s new series “Girls” has kicked up a flurry of controversy, criticism and (appropriately enough) navel-gazing. By The New York Post’s estimate, one in five “Girls” viewers tweeted about it on its premiere night. And, it seems, they haven’t stopped.

Debates about the show range from whether it adequately represents women to whether it’s too white to whether the leads are good “role models.” What’s striking to me, however, is not so much the questions raised but why this show has hit such a nerve.

“Girls” follows a group of post-college, twenty-something women living in New York City. In the pilot, the protagonist Hannah (Lena Dunham) finds herself without an income after her parents cut her off and she discovers that she is unable to parlay her year-long publishing internship into a paying gig.

The show, created by Dunham, portrays life as a young woman in an unglamorous and often uncomfortably realistic way. We watch as Hannah deals with body anxieties, bad sex, an emotionally abusive relationship and worries about sexually transmitted diseases.

While these are all certainly “relatable” problems, “Girls” refuses to allow audiences to easily identify with the characters. It’s true that Hannah proclaims herself the “voice of [her] generation,” but she does so in a druggedly confused moment and immediately second-guesses herself. Even as the show pulls us into the character’s lives, it works to maintain an ironic distance.

A particularly telling moment comes when Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) tries to give Hannah advice about her hideously awful non-boyfriend using a vapid self-help book titled Listen Ladies. Hannah’s bemused response to this is, “Who are the ladies?”

Other programs like “Sex in the City” seem to demand audiences fit themselves into an offered character category, an exercise Shoshanna ridiculously tries to rehearse in the pilot. (“I’m definitely a Carrie at heart, but sometimes Samantha kind of comes out. And when I’m at school I definitely try and put on my Miranda hat.”) “Girls,” however, portrays young women as resisting or falling out of any given role or position. As Hannah’s friend Jessa (Jemima Kirke) puts it, “I’m not the ladies!” Asking the characters to represent the audience then exactly counters the ethos of the show.

But the show’s refusal of viewer identification isn’t just the mark of heightened realism or character complexity.

“Girls” goes further to deliberately make audiences squirm by rendering the protagonists unlikable. Many reviewers have stopped there, condemning the cast as a bunch of vacuous hipsters. But I would argue that this strategy of revulsion shows us something about what it’s like to be in early adulthood after the financial crisis.

The unemployment rate for Americans ages 18 to 29 is 12.4 percent — considerably above the national average of 8.2 percent. Many of those lucky enough to have a job have found themselves underemployed — unable to find a career position or even a job that pays the bills. Now, more than 21 percent of adults live with their parents and we can be sure that an even greater number depend on them for financial assistance.

Some have called the Millennial generation a “Lost Generation” or “Generation Limbo.” Locked in a holding pattern, many graduates remain suspended between adolescence and adulthood, college and a career.

“Girls” dwells on this feeling of in-betweenness — the inability to fit anywhere or cleanly inhabit an accepted position. That’s what makes the show so unpleasant for some viewers. As Noël Carroll points out, the “category-jamming” hybrid has long inspired laughter, uneasiness and even disgust. Privileged yet penniless, educated yet clueless, Hannah and her misfitting friends speak to the emotional and financial insecurity of a declining class of young professionals and, by extension, an entire age-group still deep in the recession.

In other words, the awkwardness viewers feel when they are unable to immediately identify with some of the “Girls” only provides a taste of what it is like to be a member of Generation Limbo.

This explains the ferocity of the backlash against the show. For some, “Girls” strikes too close to home, but for others it calls up a free-floating hatred toward the young. Blaming the victim, as always, more trollish political elements brand Millennials as parasites, work-shy and infantile.

This controversy shows us the genius of the show which is its ability to uncover these seething tensions and presenting us an aspect of young women’s lives that is all too often ignored. Even if they were to aspire to be ladies, Hannah’s cohort is forced to remain girls.

JORDAN S. CARROLL is a Ph.D. student in English who can be reached at jscarroll@ucdavis.edu, point blank.

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