Photo Credit: Joe Shlabotnik
In HBO’s Girls Hannah Horvath, a precocious Oberlin grad moves to The Big Apple, where she interns at a publishing house for two years–entirely on her parents’ dime. A reliable foundation for a privileged American success story? One would hope. But Girls is not about the guarantee of The (or even “an”) American Dream to this protagonist’s upper-middle-class demographic. It’s about their downward mobility, and by association, everyone else’s. Yet viewers and critics alike seem as deeply in denial about the show’s premise as we are about the fact that our children are unikely to fare as well as we have.
The show’s opening scene finds Hannah at an expensive restaurant with her parents, both 50-something professors, with the apparent ability, but no longer the desire, to fund what Hannah’s mother calls her “groovy lifestyle.” They announce that it’s time for the “final push,” in which they immediately and unceremoniously withdraw their financial support. Hannah’s allowance will go the way of her parents’ new lake house. (“I work hard. I wanna sit by a fucking lake!” spits her mother in retort to Hannah’s half desperate, half vitriolic pleas for continued support.) Anyone who knows a professor sees the inside joke: Were the Drs. Horvath academic faculty of the post-Baby Boom, they would fund no one’s “groovy lifestyle,” including their own, yet they seem as oblivious to this reality as anyone who doesn’t know a professor.
When Hannah presents her new situation to her supervisor, the show’s darkly comedic realism reminds us not only of the seeming futility of Hannah’s aspirations but those of her entire generation:
HANNAH: My circumstances have changed and I can no longer work for free.
ALISTAIR (her boss): In this economy, do you know how many internship requests I get a day?
HANNAH: I would assume a lot.
ALISTAIR: 50. It’s about 50, and I practically route them into my spam folder. So—if you think you have just nothing left to learn from us—
HANNAH: No, it’s not that, really—I just, you know, got a need.
ALISTAIR: Well, when you get hungry enough, you’re gonna figure it out.
HANNAH: Do you mean, like, physically hungry? Or hungry for the job?
ALISTAIR: I’m really gonna miss your energy. I think this is gonna be really good for you.
HANNAH: You mentioned that when I was finished with my book that I could show it to you?
ALISTAIR: Well, we wouldn’t have you here to read it for us, would we?
Both Alistair and the adult Horvaths smugly ascribe to the benefits of the “school of hard knocks,” that time-honored means of shaping an over dependent adolescent into a successful adult. But times have changed. And for Hannah, what’s to come is not so much school as the consistently brutal hard knocks sustained by her lumbering attempts to acquire and hold down a job, any job, to cover her half of her Brooklyn rent, especially now that the sensibilities engendered by her education are more harmful than helpful in the process. Over two seasons, viewers witness the toll of Hannah’s professional aspirations on the entirety of her well-being, from the quality of her relationships to her declining mental state. By the end of Season 2, she experiences a full-blown, thoroughly immobilizing recurrence of obsessive-compulsive disorder, in the throes of which she finds her only solace in the arms of her unemployed ex-boyfriend, an abusive recovering alcoholic who has, moments earlier, taken to drinking again.
Granted, the path has never been smooth for an aspiring young writer loosing her nascent talent upon the nation’s most competitive marketplace. But Hannah’s friends–in fact, almost all the show’s central characters–face some version of Hannah’s dilemma. Her best friend, Marnie, is laid off from her job as an art gallery receptionist only to find her dream of becoming a museum curator doused because such a position no longer exists…anywhere. During a stint as a cocktail hostess, she re-channels her energy into rekindling a committed relationship with Charlie, the seemingly aimless “nice guy” she brutally dumped at the end of Season 1. The impetus for her change of heart? He has recently won a lottery of sorts by creating a single app–“ForbidIt!”–that charges users for contacting toxic former lovers. Marnie’s trajectory is that of a Second Wave feminist, in reverse.
Hannah’s former classmate and Oberlin dropout, Jessa, accepts a job as nanny for a successful filmmaker and her unemployed husband. Their child gleefully informs Jessa of the raison d’etre for this employment opportunity: “Mommy’s writing a story about people who used to be rich but now they’re homeless.” When the job ends over the husband’s unwanted advances, Jessa impulsively embarks on a brief and disastrous marriage to an older man she meets in a bar. His greatest accomplishment beyond being born wealthy seems to have been pulling out of the stock market before the Crash. For a short time, Jessa practices her art, mostly by painting her narcisstic new husband. A few episodes later, he offers her ten thousand dollars to “just leave.” She settles for eleven, and, as Hannah’s new roommate, plunges into clinical depression before leaving New York altogether, not, as yet, to be heard from again.
The most well-adjusted, though also most cloying, of “the Girls,” Shoshanna, makes the clearest strides from girlhood to womanhood, but she’s also the only character whose money, it seems, appears from the ether. Her independence from the labor market seems to free her mental energy for personal transformation. Yet, ironically, Shosh’s 30-year-old native Brooklynite boyfriend, Ray, manager of the neighborhood coffee shop “Grumpy’s,” gives voice to the show’s detractors, and many of its devotees, with his outburst when Hannah and Marnie suggest that their educational preparation rules out working at McDonalds:
“I went to college, too! But you know where it left me? I have $50,000 in student loans! I’m sorry. But watching this is like watching Clueless!”
That audiences and critics often agree with Ray is obvious (and understandable). More often than not, the show’s greatest appeal is in the ample opportunities it affords viewers to decide which character is acting the least badly in any given episode. But sentimentalizing these characters isn’t a necessary step in taking note of their larger context. To attribute their floundering career paths to their own inherent shortcomings is the same old conservative criticism leveled at any group in an economic downward spiral, despite long-established research into the mentally destabilizing effects of economic crisis. In Girls, those under a microscope are among the one group of young women for whom we’ve expected an “exemption”—the well-heeled. And their realistic experience bodes poorly for everyone not as privileged. The fact is, 20-somethings of today are lagging far behind their parents’ generation in all markers of economic stability. And worse, they’re even less economically stable than they were one year ago.
Whether you like the show or not, it’s hard to overlook Jordan Weissman’s recent, bleak pronouncement that “Life imitates Girls.”