Last summer, a friend sent me a story from the latest issue of The New Yorker: “Hey, this made me think of you – it’s by an Oberlin grad remembering her first love – a lanky, asexual, lit-theory-type who wore long johns commando-style and subsisted on beans and rice. They even spent an ambiguous date sitting alone in his room shrooming. Sound familiar?”
Oh yes, it did. The witty story triggered some wistfulness, quickly followed by, “God, I hated that place.”
I had no idea the author, 24-year-old Lena Dunham, was the culture critic’s flavor of the month, with a hit HBO TV show, Girls, a multi-million-dollar book deal, and an Obama ad. Fancy!
Vaguely curious and now quite nostalgic, I fired up Netflix to watch Tiny Furniture, the film that launched Girls. I couldn’t sit through the first 15 minutes. I tried again and made it to 22 minutes. Dunham’s account of the classic post-college identity crisis is so thinly veiled that she cast her famous photographer mom as her famous photographer mom, her prep-school whiz kid sister as her prep-school whiz kid sister, and her whimsical, trust-funded best friend as her, yep, whimsical, trust-funded best friend. It forges a new frontier for arty upper-class narcissism.
And upper class it is. Aura, a fledging, entitled, liberal arts grad, returns to The City. She lives off her mother and fabricates feeble art. Her connections land a gallery spot for the awkward video she made of herself bikini-clad and splashing around in a fountain back at Oberlin. She quits her bistro job after she gets her first paycheck. The three-digit figure is so low that there really is no point in working, is there. Her best friend, Charlotte, supports her decision. Charlotte liked working at the bistro for a spell, but she didn’t bother to pick up her paycheck because it was frivolous when she has her daddy’s gold card in her purse. On and on.
Girls really is just Tiny Furniture two years later, which really is Lena Dunham two years later. The best friend is the whimsical trust-funded friend in Girls. The selfish player with whom Aura has a one night stand of degrading, rough sex in Tiny Furniture, is more-or-less, the selfish jerk with whom Hannah has degrading, rough sex during the first season of Girls, etc., etc. But, wait, there’s a big difference: Aura (like Lena) is the child of two well-to-do Soho artists in Tiny Furniture, but Hannah is the child of two well-off Manhattan professors in Girls.
What’s the Russian proverb? Repetition is the mother of invention, I suppose.
Thankfully, an episode of Girls is only 20 minutes long. So I watched the pilot. Hannah is cut off her from parent’s prodigious dole after two years of post-collegial support. But she pulls a fast one. One night, the dutiful daughter shows up at their place high on poppy tea and fakes fainting due to her desperate finances. This prank gets her funding back. She even steals the housekeeper’s tip for petty cash on her way out the door. Gosh, Girls is so adorable.
The core characters in Girls magically pay the bills in New York City working minimum-wage hipster jobs. Hannah is a barista (subsidized by her parents). Her actor boyfriend (really more of a fuck buddy) lives off the $800 his grandmother sends him every month. Yes, $800. In present-day Brooklyn. Perhaps he also found some magic beans on the streets of Greenpoint, grew a beanstalk, and ran off with some golden eggs to present to his landlord. Who knows?
This is not to say that Lena Dunham is not smart, witty and talented. Her New Yorker story was charming, for one. But I have just about as much interest in watching the romps of some wealthy kids on Girls as I do following the ennui of some oil-rich Texans on Dallas. It would be different if these smart, attractive women with impish sex lives had student loans to pay. That could be riveting.
Let’s think positive. Perhaps Girls will spark a reaction of new class consciousness among young women who have to work real jobs to pay the rent. The show already has spawned critiques ad nauseam about the shallow, miniscule world of spoiled white kids it portrays.
That was, in a way, my case. In college, I was surrounded by an army of Lenas. Half of the student body was Lena – affluent, navel-gazing New Yorkers disinterested in political change, disinterested in everything, really, except themselves.
I ate, slept, studied, smoked, and bathed with the Lenas. But I was the only one in my class (that I knew of, at least) who was a first-generation college student. It was a big deal for me to get a scholarship to such an elite school (It cost a mere $30,000 a year to attend way back in the early 1990s.) Meanwhile, the Lenas – who didn’t know who Sally Mae was – were fretting over their deep, art rocker boyfriends and reading Susie Bright. Suddenly, class contrasts were vivid to me.
I left liberal arts college politically radicalized and reading Studs Terkel – and with great relief. I might have obsessed over my boy dramas almost as much as any Lena, and smirked a bit at Susie Sexpert, but Girl-y I was not. I had not a chance in hell at that dream world. My life was forever indentured to Sallie Mae. Thanks, Lena, for reminding me from whence I came.
Published in CounterPunch magazine, March 2013