Lena Dunham’s Girls opens on its creator and star eating the way you don’t often see a woman eat on TV: brow furrowed, cheeks full, spaghetti cascading towards the plate, left hand free to catch any strands that might not quite fit in her mouth. Dunham’s character, 24-year-old Hannah Horvath, is having a meal in a restaurant with her parents, but there’s something of the break-up, or sacking, about the set-up. ‘How can I phrase this?’ Hannah’s father says, one hand circling like a politician’s. Often enough, sitcoms begin with main characters being dumped, or discovering they’ve been cheated on, or losing their job: it gets the story going, and gives you a chance to root for the protagonist from the start. Dunham’s version – she wrote and directed the episode – doesn’t aim for your sympathies in quite that way. Hannah’s parents are cutting her off. They’ve funded two years of Brooklyn living and unpaid publishing internships, ‘and that’s enough’. Hannah doesn’t take the news well: don’t they know how the economy is now, how all of her friends are still living off their parents, how close she is to becoming the writer she wants to be, how lucky the two of them are that she isn’t, say, a drug addict? Besides, she’s their only child, so they can afford it: ‘This feels very arbitrary.’ When they won’t budge, she announces that she can’t see them again before they leave town, because ‘I have a dinner thing, and then I am busy, trying to become who I am.’ The scene ends with her elbows on the table, fists to her now empty cheeks. Dunham has said that she didn’t want Hannah ‘to like, save a cat and then you find out she’s a brat. You know.’
Girls, which has just started in the UK on Sky Atlantic, was nominated for five Emmys and made much of by everyone from Lorrie Moore to Michael Bloomberg. Before this, 26-year-old Dunham had made short films, web comedy series and two movies – the best and best-known thing she’s done so far is the movie Tiny Furniture – in which she also plays women her own age, slouching towards adulthood or staving it off. Hannah is one in a series of alter egos. As the real-life Dunham gets glossier – profiled in the New Yorker and Vogue, in charge of her own HBO show, getting an advance of $3.7 million for her first book – the onscreen versions are still having trouble getting out of bed and putting on their knickers, let alone holding down a real job.
Tiny Furniture starred Dunham’s mother, sister and family home as well as herself, all as versions of themselves: both Dunham’s parents are successful artists, and her scruffy twentysomething form has a more marked effect amid the gleaming expanse of their Tribeca apartment than it does in the less ostentatious place she rents in Girls. When she asks for cash, her mother directs her to her purse ‘in the white cabinet’, and we see Aura, Dunham’s character, deadpan over a wall of endless identical white cabinets. The problem of how and whether to grow up is especially vexed in Tiny Furniture, where neither teenage rebellion nor post-college independence seems to offer anything like the benefits (however illusory) of staying at home: ‘I want to be as successful as you are,’ Aura tells her mother, burrowing into bed next to her.
Hannah is more ordinary than Aura, and her parents are small-town academics rather than flush New Yorkers. She is more a ‘voice of my generation’, as she tells her parents with equal parts defiance and embarrassment. Graduates are like this now, the show implies – at least, the ones whose parents have enough cash to keep them afloat in New York. They’re taking quite a while to figure out what they can do and how, and meanwhile they have an awful lot of spare time; their expectations are higher, their prospects lower than ever before. It’s this suggestion of timeliness, of everygirlness, that has got Dunham in trouble online, accused of universalising her own narrow, privileged experience and erasing everyone else’s: television seems to bring a burden of representation that would be absurd if applied to an indie film like Tiny Furniture. Girls has also been accused of racism for its overwhelmingly white cast and for some stereotyping in the few very small parts played by non-white actors; Dunham has promised to make the next season of Girls more racially diverse, but the problem of privilege isn’t one she can solve: it’s essential to what she is doing.
The second scene of Girls begins with the sight of Hannah sleeping with one arm and leg draped across another girl in pyjamas. This is Marnie, Hannah’s best friend and flatmate. We soon find out that of all the show’s young women, Marnie is the closest to having a real job, as an assistant at an art gallery: she’s more uptight than Hannah, wears knickers without holes in them, fills the apartment with what Hannah calls ‘weird grown-up stuff’ and covers the rent when Hannah’s parents withdraw their support. Yet it’s clear that Marnie is no more the grown-up than Hannah is – asleep in Hannah’s bed, her mouth is open, revealing the plastic retainer covering her teeth, as if she were a teenager who’d just had her braces off. Soon the two of them are in the bath, Marnie shaving her legs, Hannah eating a cupcake. In low tones, they discuss the failings of Marnie’s puppyish boyfriend, Charlie, who’s in the other room. He sleeps on his own in Marnie’s abandoned bed. Evidently, the girls’ lives revolve around each other: they confide and tease, they scream and fight, like lovers, or schoolchildren.
Their privilege creates a useful kind of limbo around them, offering Dunham a way to solve a conundrum this sort of TV show always faces: how to show the women becoming close, falling in and out of love with one another, talking and meandering together as only teenagers would normally have time to do. Jane Austen traced the intimacies and tensions between women together in the house all day long, but sitcom writers routinely have their career women spending more time in coffee shops and parks than you’d think they have to spare. In Girls, the parents with the chequebook resolve this problem rather neatly – and everybody seems to have them. ‘It’s not adult life,’ a male acquaintance says of Marnie, ‘if your parents pay for your BlackBerry.’ Charlie defends her: ‘She pays for half her BlackBerry!’
The other girls appear soon enough – ‘girls’ rather than women partly in honour of their prolonged adolescence and partly, Dunham says, because it’s the word rock musicians use in songs for the women who’ve done them wrong. Jessa is a roving bohemian glamourpuss with an English drawl, a fedora, big droopy eyelids and waist-length hair; her cousin Shoshanna, the youngest, is perky and naive in pink. One thing Dunham seems keen to avoid, or to tackle head-on where necessary, is the consumerist cuteness of pop-culture representations of groups of young women shopping together, gossiping and longing for love together, giggling over cocktails or delicious treats together. And so a weapon against conventional girliness is Dunham’s crude humour; advising Marnie during their bathtime scene, Hannah suggests of the unfortunate Charlie that maybe ‘you’re sick of eating him out. Because he has a vagina’; another character wins an argument with the exit line: ‘Your dad is gay.’ Some of these moments seem to bear the imprint of Dunham’s executive producer Judd Apatow, best known for a slew of hugely successful manchild comedies like Knocked Up, all slobbish male bonding and dirty jokes, underpinned by a saccharine message about pretty women teaching the men to grow up and settle down. Dunham likes dirty jokes, but she’s not so keen on neat story arcs or family values: it’s the Bildungsromanesque conversion to ‘adult responsibility’ that Dunham’s girls are so good at evading.
Dunham knows how to use her body for comedy – to project total conviction when diffidence would seem more appropriate, and vice versa. Hannah’s whole character is like that, under and overconfident by turns, and her haplessness serves as a delaying tactic, giving her time to decide what she really wants to do, and always leaving an opening for her to undo or disavow it. She is deeply committed to her own incompetence, sexual and professional – or both at once. And since Dunham doesn’t present herself according to the codes of TV sexiness, a lot of what goes on between punchlines seems very unstaged – intriguing and off-putting at once. In one of her early YouTube videos, she washes and brushes her teeth in a fountain on her college campus in a bikini, until a security guard asks her to leave. ‘I’m self-absorbed,’ Dunham has said, ‘but I’m not vain.’
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