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The female protagonist as writer: HBO’s Girls

Lately I’ve been re-watching Girls. It was a series I originally came to – perhaps like everyone else downloading it in Australia – through the furore raging on most of my favourite US sites. The Hairpin, Salon, Grantland, The New Yorker, et al. had run essays on it, and so I was vaguely familiar with the ubiquitous press shot of four white, pretty, New York girls sitting on a park bench. ‘Isn’t it just a twenty-something version of Sex and the City?’ I dismissively said to a friend who was recommending it to me one night. ‘No, they deal with that in the first episode’ she told me.

And so, one evening earlier this year, I lay back to that ever-promising sound, the static-y click of the HBO title intro, and let myself be drawn into Lena Dunham’s version of New York.

Due perhaps to the title of the series – which implied that it would be far more representative than it had ever intended to be – Girls was condemned for depicting too narrow, too privileged, too white a perspective. As the ever-brilliant Molly Lambert put it on Grantland, ‘because the show is called Girls and not, say, Cupcakes, it sounds like it is going to be more universal than it actually is.’ The show has drawn criticisism for its depiction of women, of sex, but most troublingly, its lack of anyone among its cast other than college educated white girls. As Jenna Wortham wrote in the piece that kicked off the controversy, ‘My eyes traveled up their phosphorescent legs to their faces and back down again. My heart dropped and I swallowed once, hard. Girls. White girls.’ The race issue is indeed a concern, and Dunham herself has said that she will seek to redress the imbalance in the second season.

In all the essays I read however, Girls is routinely compared to Sex and the City. This is understandable, given both examine relationships, sex, female friendship, and the trope of four (again, white) women living in New York. But there is another, more glaring but less examined similarity – the creative occupation of their two central characters, SATC’s Carrie and Girls’ Hannah. Their depiction of the female protagonist as writer.

My friend was of course, right. In the opening episode Dunham rather brilliantly mocks Sex and the City, with the naïve Shoshanna – a SATC movie poster plastered to her wall – babbling to the ever-cool Jessa:

‘You’re funny because you’re definitely like a Carrie with some Samantha aspects, and Charlotte hair. That’s, like, a really good combination.’

and as she continues of herself:

‘I think I’m definitely a Carrie at heart, but like sometimes, sometimes Samantha kind of comes out. And then when I’m at school I definitely try to put on my Miranda hat.’

It is no accident that the one SATC worshipping character is a virgin – highlighting again the unrealistic aspects of the iconic late-90s show.

We never hear Shoshanna’s views on where Hannah fits in the kaleidoscope of potential SATC traits. She doesn’t have Charlotte hair, she doesn’t have Samantha aspects – although even Samantha might be appalled by much of what Adam (Hannah’s sort-of-boyfriend who’s into the type of dirty talk that makes you thankful he doesn’t have housemates) says to her. But as a writer she’s definitely no Carrie Bradshaw, and for that I think we can be grateful.

As is well known, we were never meant to relate to Carrie & co. It was a Manhattan fairytale, and her life was as unrealistic as her ballerina costume in the opening credits. This is why the Cinderella narrative in the first SATC film – I’m afraid I just couldn’t subject myself to the second – worked so well. Of course no one can afford to live on the Upper East Side in designer clothing from head to toe, with no other job than a weekly 500ish word sex column.

But is Dunham’s Hannah an any more accurate representation of being a writer than the brightly coloured fantasy world of Carrie Bradshaw?

In the opening moments of the series we learn that Hannah writes personal essays and, at 24, is writing a memoir.

‘I’ve done four of the essays, and I’m just kind of polishing them up. My hope is that it’s gonna be nine but, you know it’s a memoir, so I have to live them first.’

In a particularly damning article on the new series, John Kubicek wrote, ‘There’s nothing particularly special about Hannah’s life, no reason that her memoirs would be remotely interesting.’ Well, perhaps that’s true. But, then again, that’s the point. Hannah herself recognises this, and though her request for $1,100 per month for two years from her parents is laughable, you get the feeling that she does realise that she has to do a lot more living before she can be the type of writer she wants to be – as Jessa shouts at Hannah one afternoon, ‘I am not a character from one of your novels. Stop staring at my face so hard.’

That’s essentially what this show is about, and what makes Hannah a far more interesting and convincing protagonist than Sex and the City’s Carrie – her attempts to live the sort of life worth writing about.

At a book launch for Hannah’s writing nemesis Tally Schifrin, we learn that Tally’s boyfriend killed himself, and that this is the subject of her newly published book. Hannah says, deadpan. ‘I know, she’s so lucky,’ while her friends wryly console her, ‘Your boyfriend should kill himself. You deserve it.’ It’s funny and knowing because none of them, in their small privileged lives, have had the sorts of tragic things occur that might make a book-length story yet.

Hannah does wish to experience the sort of life that would make her a better writer, and Jessa herself advises, after Hannah has explained her boss’ sexual harassment,

‘You should hump him’

‘Why?’

‘For the story Hannah!’

Hannah then tells Adam that she almost had sex with her boss that day, ‘for the story’. Later, when she walks into his bedroom to find him violently masturbating, he says to her: ‘Do you want to stay until I finish. You know, for the story?’

Hannah is not appalled by Adam’s sexual proclivities, she watches him like a scientist watches an object under a microscope. He’s interesting, he’s opening her up to new experiences. She has five more essays to go and she has to live them. She crafted a story from a guy who hoarded a semester’s worth of Chinese take-out boxes. What sort of tale might come from a man who likes to fuck you while pretending you’re a child prostitute with a cabbage patch lunchbox? 

Where for Carrie it all came neatly together at the end of each episode, her three friend’s dramas that week dovetailing into a more general observation on life and love and relationships, neatly answering whatever it was Carrie ‘couldn’t help but wonder’ that day, Hannah is still discovering it. We don’t have Hannah’s voiceover telling us what her conclusions are, what she learnt that episode about any of the ‘bigger issues.’

In perhaps the most oft-quoted moment of the series, Hannah tells her parents, ‘I don’t want to freak you out, but I think I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least…a voice, of a generation.’ It seems to me that what makes Girls interesting, and more real than anything Carrie did in her six seasons and two films, is Hannah’s wish to live a life worthy of being written about. Yes, she is white, she is privileged, she is educated. She represents a particular part of life in New York, and indeed, she says it while high on opium. But I’ll keep watching next season to find out the ways in which she discovers whether it’s true or not.

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  • 1
    Posted November 16, 2012 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    The fact she was high on opium is funny too, since the Romantics saw it as a ‘creative’ drug and yet she came out with that lame speech, rather than ‘Kubla Khan’, for instance.

  • 2
    Bethanie Blanchard
    Posted November 16, 2012 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    Ha yes there’s so many winks to the audience in that speech, such as the way she collapses on the floor and mumbles ‘I might die, like Flaubert in a garret. Don’t look at me’

  • 3
    moonkid
    Posted November 16, 2012 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    Absolutely spot on, Bethanie. It’s a show about first-world problems, the primary problem being how to be interesting when your life is pretty ordinary. And it manages to make that stuff really interesting and entertaining, which is both impressive and rather meta.

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  1. By 51. READ. LOOK. THINK. | JESSICA STANLEY. on November 23, 2012 at 12:18 am

    ...] her smooth, radiant face can crumple like a paper bag.” Claire Danes and Generation Cryface | The female protagonist as writer. | “If it’s no longer shocking that a powerful man would have an affair with a younger, [...

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