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Why Are We Taking Lena Dunham’s ‘Girls’ So Personally?

For a show that’s getting almost universally excellent reviews, Lena Dunham’s new HBO series, Girls, has already endured more than its share of criticism. In a piece that she takes pains to clarify is largely positive, GOOD’s Nona Willis Aronowitz writes that she “couldn’t get past that all four main characters were white — and not just white, but fresh-off-the-Mayflower, straight-haired white, girls who dated all white dudes and had all white friends and did white things like attend a gallery opening with a white wine in hand.” At Salon (which also has an excellent essay on Girls and female friendship by Rebecca Traister), Irin Carmon pairs it with Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress in another generally praiseful piece with the trivializing cover line “First world problems.” Even Emily Nussbaum allows her praise in a New York magazine cover story that calls Girls “the ballsiest show on TV” to be tainted by the prediction that some viewers will complain “that it’s navel-gazing, that it’s juvenile, that it’s TMI.” She even throws in Dunham’s own self-criticism, about “the rarefied white hipster thing.”

Without even getting into the show’s few outlying detractors — an attention-seeking editorial fellow at Mother Jones pulls out “hipster” in the first paragraph and apologizes in advance for only liking the “hot” cast member; Katie Roiphe continues to confuse sexual ambivalence with “old-fashioned moralism” — it’s clear that even those who wholeheartedly enjoy Girls also feel a bit conflicted about it. And the ambivalence isn’t limited to critics; the “first world problems” Carmon names (and their lightly misogynist cousins, “white girl problems”) have come up in just about every discussion I’ve had with friends who haven’t seen more than a trailer and some subway ads.

In a way, this isn’t surprising. If there’s one thing 20-somethings, creative types, and feminists — who are writing most of the reviews of the show and will probably make up most of  its audience, too — all have in common, it’s that we can’t help tearing down our greatest representatives.

Yes, Lena Dunham represents many of us, at least to some extent. I may have a more diverse group of friends than her protagonist, Hannah, and I’ve never had the luxury of working a full-time, year-long, unpaid internship with the monetary support of parents whose only financial burden is the desire for a lake house, but nearly every moment of the first three episodes rings true to me. I know all of these characters — the put-together girl who seems to have everything but is not-so-secretly bored with her life (Allison Williams’ Marnie), the flighty, fauxhemian world traveler (Jemima Kirke’s Jessa), the sheltered virgin who sees New York as one big Sex and the City live-action role-playing game (Shoshanna, played by Zosia Mamet), the awkward, neurotic wannabe writer (Hannah). Hell, I’ve even been a few them. Not since I was eight years old and convinced that Punky Brewster and I were actually the same person have I identified so strongly with the characters on a TV show.

Not everyone will see this much of themselves in Girls; men, non-Millennials, people who don’t live in a big city, and those who’ve never had the privilege of becoming overeducated and underemployed almost certainly won’t. But the simple fact that so many of us from all of these categories have spent so much time comparing Dunham’s show to our own experience says something important: that it’s speaking to us in a way that most shows depicting and aimed at young people don’t. We are having a much different, and much more personal conversation than we had about this year’s other new shows about 20-something women. Instead of criticizing 2 Broke Girls for its focus, however realistic, on “white girl problems,” we had to complain that its non-white characters were viciously and cartoonishly stereotyped. It didn’t even occur to most of us to argue that Zooey Deschanel’s New Girl character, Jess, accurately represented any young woman; the discussion was about whether we found her Manic Pixie Dream Teacher fantasy appealing or grating. We’re making demands of Girls that we would never make of, say, Gossip Girl – a show that reflects the experience of exactly no one, not even idle-rich 21-year-olds in Manhattan.

This is a good thing, actually. It means that we finally have a representation of 20-somethings on TV that’s worth not only fighting over but nitpicking. It’s not a perfect or a universal representation, but it’s hard to imagine any work of art or entertainment that would be. In fact, the oft-quoted distinction an opium tea-afflicted Hannah makes in the pilot, between being “the voice of my generation” and “a voice of a generation,” suggests an examination of whether any artist has truly spoken for all Americans of a certain age. Were F. Scott Fitzgerald or Jack Kerouac really making revelations that applied just as much to women and people of color and the abjectly poor of their generations as to its educated white dudes? It’s almost as if we’re holding Lena Dunham accountable in a way that these earlier Voices of a Generation didn’t have to be because she’s already somewhat outside the mainstream — a young woman whose body isn’t magazine-perfect in a world where the everyman is not only white, heterosexual, and well-off but also, well, male. Perhaps we feel like those of us who don’t fit that default have to compete to be represented on TV, and that if someone like Dunham wins, everyone else loses.

Maybe I’m being naïve, but I don’t believe this is a zero-sum game. It isn’t one show’s responsibility to be all things to all people; it’s television executives who should bear the burden of better and more completely reflecting their wide range of viewers. The best thing to come out of this backlash is Millennials’ (and women’s) vocalized desire to see more realistic and diverse depictions of our generation. Now that I have Girls, I finally know what it feels like to have an entire TV show that seems to have been made just for me, which makes me appreciate how vital something as trivial as a sitcom can be. When pop culture acknowledges our existence, we feel understood, and that identification is powerful when most entertainment has so little to do with our lives. Girls doesn’t speak to everyone, but everyone deserves a Girls of their own.

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