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HBO and Lena Dunham’s Girls changed television this season. In it’s vast departure from how Sex and The City (on the same network, no less) portrayed single women, it opened doors for original, indie voices to bring to life some truly original characters. Although both half-hour shows look at women’s lives from very different angles, it would be a disservice not to acknowledge SATC’s influence on Girls, if only as a catalyst to show the talented Ms. Dunham what not to do.
Where SATC categorized its characters into neat stereotypes that women in New York and across the United States tried to fit into (“I’m so Charlotte!” “I’m definitely a Carrie.”), Girls went a step further to introduce characters who were not only complex, but allowed room for real characters. Dunham pays homage to her predecessor in the pilot episode when she has Shoshanna, a neurotic fast-talker, mention the show in her first scene. The SATC poster on Shoshanna’s wall is a wink and a nod to Sarah Jessica Parker’s star vehicle and invites - almost demands - comparison. When I look at Hannah or Shoshanna or Jessa or Marnie, I don’t relate to them in the way that I tried to with Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda, or Samantha. I remember myself in my twenties more original, more true. Instead of trying to fit into a box: the writer, the slut, the professional, the priss, Dunham’s characters show themselves in how they relate to each other. The main character Hannah might be a writer like Carrie Bradshaw was, but in her actions toward her friends, her roommate, her boyfriend, and her parents, she demonstrates the self-absorption that often accompanies writers. Dunham follows the first rule of effective writing: show, don’t tell. She lets the viewer learn over time who the characters are, to form opinions that vary in a true to life way.
Girls is brave in that it trusts the viewer to dislike the main characters. Sex and the City, even as it showed the emotional turbulence that the main characters experienced at the hands of their men and their quest to find true love, gave it’s four girls love interests that could fill a fantasy calendar. There was Aiden, the sexy carpenter whose biggest downfall was that he loved too honestly, too much. There was Mr. Big, the sexy millionaire who took just long enough to come around that Carrie could finally settle down, turning her fashion obsession into interior design for their posh penthouse. Even Steve, Miranda’s on-again, off-again and finally husband, though not traditionally handsome, followed her through each season like a love-starved puppy, licking up any bits of attention she deigned to throw at him. The same with bald, sweaty Harry. The masculine ideal of SATC was an emasculated male figure who carried packages of shoes and the rent, their eyes perpetually downturned in apology.
Not so Girls, who went quite another way. Though it’s only Season One, it’s easy to see that the male characters have a depth that was lacking in SATC. Adam, Hannah’s (possible) love interest is a departure from the sit-com boyfriend firstly because he is not traditionally attractive. This could be played for laughs, but rather it seems it is played for reality. Hannah, unlike traditional female leads, lacks the svelte figure that marks who the audience is supposed to love. Though she is flanked by pretty friends, Hannah’s looks seem to be as much of a statement as the contrasting sex scenes. Although the sex scenes in SATC were often played for laughs, they showed the toned abs and perfect breasts of the main characters. This made the show only that much more difficult to relate to. Even if we were having as much sex as the show portrayed, there was no way we looked like that. In the pilot episode of Girls, after an earnest discussion with her BFF/roommate Marnie about the hierarchy of communication modes to facilitate the “hook-up”: texting vs. Facebook, etc, Hannah finds herself in Adam’s apartment. The Brooklyn Heights walk-up is even unhip in its Brooklyn un-hipness, not even cool in an uncool way. But to Hannah, it is Mecca. It’s where she wants to be, with this guy she wants to be with. Adam is lanky and weird, a serious hipster dedicated to the selfish art of being a guy in his twenties. He accepts Hannah’s adoration. He allows her that. And he takes advantage of it, shown in the pilot episode of anal sex in which he counsels Hannah to “play the quiet game.”
And she does.
Yet, by season’s end she has not only made Adam her boyfriend, but she has already moved on from that shiny goal. She got him, but now she’s not so sure she wants him. She had set her sights on having a relationship, so in her face by her roommate Marnie’s and Charlie’s, that her tunnel vision hadn’t allowed her to see that the relationship she had attempted to mimic had been over for some time and that Marnie was not only liberated from it, but was now liberating herself from Hannah as well. In a breakup scene that rivals any on the big screen, Hannah and Marnie air the tensions that have been building since the first episode when Hannah runs late to the party she insisted Marnie throw for Jessa because she is at Adam’s having ugly sex. The fight is about rent paying and diary reading, but mostly the tension is over who owns the victimhood rights to their friendship. When Hannah admits that she doesn’t care about being a good friend, Marnie wins the prize in a sad and poignant scene that rings true. But it also allows for Hannah to have reason to grieve in the honeymoon period of her relationship with Adam. For Hannah must suffer in order to be a true artist. And live in Brooklyn. So she has that locked down.
The thing about 20-year-olds is that they are haven’t figured out who they are or how to be a friend. They aren’t good daughters or employees. They lie. They eat fast food. They do not have sculpted abs. And they most certainly cannot afford designer clothes, shoes, apartments or boyfriends. Not the twenty-somethings that I know. Or was.
20-year-olds take themselves very, very seriously. Hannah’s aspirations of being someone’s girlfriend seem trivial on the small screen. Yet, there is little doubt that this is no joke to the character. Her earnestness: “I might be the voice of my generation. Or of a generation” is preposterous. She isn’t what her generation wants to be. They want to be a Kardashian, all pillowly lips and hair that hangs over the curves of a perfect body. Yet, what her generation actually is and should own, is clever. They think, act, and speak with the self-consciousness of a socially networked nation who must boil down the minutia of their lives into entertaining 140 character quips. And here’s the thing: they succeed brilliantly. They have finally surpassed the need for physical perfection by celebrating the quick, the clever, and the now that was over even as I typed it. In a feat of irony, Lena Dunhan has then become an important voice.
In a setting such as this, with childhood quickly receding and adulthood coming in fits and starts, Girls succeeds by showing the ugly. Not only in the physicality of its 24-year-old writer/producer/star, but in the reality of its portrayal of girls in the 2012s: trying to grow in a Twitter culture, self-conscious and self-absorbed but never, ever self-aware.