Girls in the Years of Living Dangerously

“Why don’t you place just one crumb of basic human compassion on this fat free muffin of sociopathic detachment, see how it tastes.” 

Ever since the auspicious debut of the HBO show “Girls,” I have been trying to figure out why I continue to watch something that actually makes me physically uncomfortable. Is it the awkward nudity, mechanical sex, or the myriad of ways a person can ponder her own naval? Is it the portrayal of the family-friendly Brooklyn as the hipster mecca? Or is it the manner in which Lena Dunham illuminates the biggest affliction to plague friendships between modern females, where a girl can either lower her expectations, or dismiss all her frenemies and potentially forgo the bulk of human contact altogether? It’s like watching a car crash, but in slow motion, and the only person who doesn’t see it coming is the dilettante behind the wheel. Willful negligence doesn’t look good on anyone. For those of you who haven’t seen it, “Girls” follows the missteps of four young women as they navigate work, friendships, sexual liaisons, and fledgling independence in modern day New York City. If you think this description sounds a lot like “Sex and the City,” the similarities end there. Though the show appeals to the real life young women who were weaned on the escapades of Carrie Bradshaw, “Girls” would be the distant cousin with the unfortunate tattoo, who drinks too much and “accidentally” hits on your boyfriend. She might also have an STD from that one time (okay many times) she used the “pull-and-pray” method of birth control. The show is a mash up of loose morals, bad decisions, even worse behavior, and some bitter truths to wash it all down. My mother, who watched only one episode, was horrified. I told her that Dunham, who is the writer, director, and star of the show, was aiming for satire but as a literature professor, she was unconvinced. Disaster and humiliation are standard fare. Dunham has been both praised and scorned for the amount of time she spends in various stages of undress. In her portrayal of Hannah Horvath, Dunham has challenged the viewer’s expectation that only skinny and impossibly beautiful women should be sexual playthings. A svelte and purring seductress, she is not. Hannah and her flippant band of entitled twenty-somethings are all deeply confused, unsure of whether it’s casual sex or meaningful relationships that they want. And Shoshanna, who comes across as very “princess of long island,” was not afraid to call out the other girls for their narcissistic tendencies. With her signature rapid-fire delivery, she blurted out the following monologue…


“You guys never listen to me. You treat me like I’m a f—king cab driver. Seriously you have entire conversations in front of me like I’m invisible. And sometimes I wonder if my social anxiety is holding me back from meeting the people who would be actually right for me instead of a bunch of f—king whiny nothings as friends!”


You can imagine that if Shoshanna is the voice of reason, then Marnie, Jessa, and Hannah are all damaged in some way: Hannah suffers from OCD, Marnie is the control freak on a downward spiral, and Jessa is the token “free spirit” who was kicked out of rehab for terrorizing the other addicts. They have no concept of how their behavior looks from the outside. As a viewer, I can say that the discomfort ranges from moderate to severe, with moments of complete hilarity that only partially eases that dirty feeling inside. In short, it is a spectacular mess.

 
These girls have plenty of problems to overcome on their way to dominating New York, or at least finding their place within it. In the finale for season 3, Hannah proclaims that she wants to “find a hole in the world, in the shape of me, and just fill it up.” But I think the biggest obstacle for all the girls are the roles they play in the pursuit of their own success. They are passive and suffer from a virulent case of “affluenza.” While Shoshanna is too young to know what she wants and Jessa is too stoned, drunk, and/or high, Marnie aspires to sing out loud, in front of people, and Hannah is a budding writer. Hannah is the most vocal about her ambitions, but is also quick to self-sabotage when the rest of the world is slow to realize the bright shining genius that burns within. Of course, there is some irony in the fact that Lena Dunham herself is quite successful and occupies a nice sliver of pop culture that has been cut to fit her measurements exactly. Dunham, who did a hilarious spoof of her own show for SNL, would give her alter-ego Hannah many reasons to be jealous, if only there was a universe where they could coexist.
Lena Dunham Interview Magazine
While one could argue at length about the merits of the show, or lack thereof, Lena Dunham has accomplished something that is of great value: people like to talk about it. During a chance encounter with Rob Reiner at “Sundaes & Cones” in the East Village, the well-known actor, director, and producer asked my friend and I what we thought of the show. Even the ubiquitous James Franco put “pen to paper” to share his feelings with the readers of the Huffington Post. So whether you love it, hate it, or experience some uncomfortable hybrid of the two, chances are you have an opinion. Dunham has done her job because the ultimate goal of any show is to get you to watch and so regardless of what your opinion is, she has hit a collective nerve. For me, the real reason that “Girls” is relevant is not for the characters’ likability, because they’re often not, but because there are young women who actually see aspects of themselves in the characters. These girls are flawed, exhibiting impulsive and sometimes irrational behavior. They get pimples and have blow-out arguments; while they have the ability to see the shortcomings of others, that same clarity is missing when they look at themselves.

“American sociologist Kathleen Shaputis labeled Millennials as the boomerang generation or Peter Pan generation, because of the members’ perceived tendency for delaying some rites of passage into adulthood, for longer periods than most generations before them. According to Kimberly Palmer, “High housing prices, the rising cost of higher education, and the relative affluence of the older generation are among the factors driving the trend.”  – Wikipedia


“Girls” is not a show about aliens or vampires who are put in improbable situations. The impossible situation is life and how to be successful in New York City without trying too hard. They all find out the hard way that temper tantrums are not an effective tool for getting what they want. I only recently figured out why I feel compelled to watch every episode as soon as it airs. Even though the show is highly dramatized, for a lot of women it captures the feeling of total free-fall that happens when they’re finally released into the world, like white doves hurled from a speeding train. They think that they’re going to soar but those first moments of flight are not pretty. Mine was accompanied by a full blown panic attack. Growing into an adult is hard enough, but for me it happened at the exact moment that sustainability became a buzz word. Concern for the environment was no longer the exclusive province of hippie democrats, but multinational organizations were using it to display moral conscience. The economy was also in a tailspin. There was a collective realization that not only had we made poor decisions as a society, but that we were continuing to do so. I personally felt a sense of betrayal. Having spent most of my life as an appendage to various learning institutions, I had no other option than to trust in a flawed system that, as it turns out, was fighting its own battle to survive. All of a sudden I felt as though I was supposed to do something differently, but wasn’t quite sure what. So life went on and I worked hard to afford Manhattan’s rent, relaxing with friends as often as was possible, given long days at the office and the stipend that was trying to pass itself off as a livable wage. In New York City, the concept of being paid overtime is a myth and as a young twenty-something, I was part of the most under-appreciated demographic, though I am now beginning to understand why.
KD, Dre, and I blue
When my friends and I were their age.
The young women of “Girls” are not supposed to solve the problems of the world and we would all stop watching if they tried, but Marnie, Shosh, Hannah, and Jessa are at the age when they’re supposed to start making intelligent life decisions and they’re all tripping through life instead. There are moments when you can almost feel the desperation they have to regain some of the stability that they’ve lost. Like many of their contemporaries who went to college, they assumed that the world not only owed them a job, but one that would keep them in the lifestyle to which they had become accustomed. Their budding sense of individuality was nursed in the same incubation tank as social media, which tells us that any thought a person has, is worth sharing. So even though self-absorption is pretty common nowadays, these girls take it to a whole new level. They are careless with friends, lovers, even themselves. I wouldn’t even trust any of them with a cactus: Marnie would over water it, Jessa would throw it out the window and potentially injure someone, Hannah would injure herself, and Shoshanna would talk to it incessantly until it would spontaneously start shedding needles. They are young women who have had the freedom to act like man-children and have somehow managed to become the worst of both. But its not entirely their fault. No one ever pulled any of them aside to say that they have a responsibility to their fore-mothers, who fought for the freedoms we currently enjoy. We have opportunities that our grandmothers and great-grandmothers could only have dreamed of, but that are also the result of their efforts. I have never been told that I cannot do something just because I am a woman, but men and women are still inherently different. With the passing of the torch, our challenge is to succeed in a world that was designed by men, while maintaining the characteristics that make us unique.
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In the nineteen forties, less than a hundred years ago, women were only encouraged to work in factories to replenish the diminished labor shortage during WWII.
So while the behavior of these girls is problematic, it is also symptomatic of systemic faults within our society, coupled with a gender based identity-crisis (please note that I am not trying to absolve these girls of responsibility for their actions, especially because that is something they already excel at on their own). We live in a world that is constantly evolving and so we often don’t see the consequences of progress or a technological advancement until it’s already deeply ingrained within the societal structure. Take smoking for example. The habit was widespread until it was discovered to be the leading cause of lung cancer. The majority of the so-called progress that has happened within my lifetime is related to the computer and how we communicate with each other. So even though we have more opportunities to be social, the interactions being mediated through technology often promote feelings of detachment, alienation, and isolation. Oftentimes it can be hard to tell where a person ends, and the machine begins. Louis C.K. may not be the most eloquent man, but I love his argument against giving smartphones to children (or just all human beings in general). And since it is only a matter of time before we become the establishment that we once felt so free to criticize, I feel that it’s important to address what these issues are.
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SOWING THE SEEDS OF DESTRUCTION IN 7 EASY STEPS

Ego, Narcissism, & Entitlement

“I think that I may be the voice of my generation, or at least a voice, of a generation.”  – Hannah Horvath

The feeling that each of us has, of being at the center of our own universe, is not new. The prevailing ideology of our current civilization has always been based upon the idea that competition is of greater value than cooperation. From childhood, it is ingrained in us that some people are better than others and so that we must always strive to outpace the herd. And by being “better,” we are then owed a reward, some real life trophy, whether its fame, money, or some other prize entirely. Andy Warhol once said that “in the future, everyone will be world famous for fifteen minutes” and as a result of the recent strides made by technology, that future is now. The result is a system that is in complete contradiction to the laws of nature. The truth is while we are all better at doing certain things, we all have weaknesses in other areas. Take the human body for example. Each organ is of vital importance to the well being of the whole but what if the liver was soaking up all the praise? The heart might develop an inferiority complex and start to think that it would be happier if it too could become a liver, unaware of all the toxic waste that the liver has to sift through. It goes without saying that this scenario would be a complete disaster. The health of all living things depends on the cooperation of each part, from every organ to the white blood cells, fulfilling its own unique function to the best of its ability. When we fulfill our potential, we feel satisfied. But when we sacrifice our most essential selves in service to false ideals, we expect the rewards to fill that void, but the euphoria is fleeting and drives us to consume even more. So while I appreciate the message of books such as “The Secret,” which is about the power we all have to manifest the lives that we want, the truth of the matter is that some desires should remain unfulfilled.

The Popularity Contest

“I thought this would just be a nice opportunity to have fun together and prove to everyone via Instagram that we can still have fun as a group.”  – Marnie Michaels

If you don’t know yourself, or what your innate talents are, then there is no shortage of voices that are willing to make that decision for you. You might think that you graduated from High School, but you really didn’t. Social media is great for stalking celebrities or reconnecting with that great friend you made that time you went backpacking through Europe, but it also perpetuates those feelings of anxiety of being liked by one’s peers, literally. Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn all have “like” buttons so that your online profile could be used to judge your popularity. And the more time you spend listening to your peers, the less likely you are to develop your own voice. I recently stumbled upon a video of Patti Smith, in which she dispenses some wonderful advice to the up-and-coming generation: “I’ve done records where it seemed like no one listened to them… and you just keep doing your work because you have to, because it’s your calling.” 

Criticism

“It is really amazing that all three of you have accomplished so little in the four years since college.”  – Shoshanna Shapiro

There are two types of criticism, the constructive kind that comes from experience and of wanting to genuinely be of service to another person, and the destructive kind that appears to illustrate how superior you are (Inflated Ego) by pointing out the failings in someone else. Unfortunately, this is never black and white, but a sliding scale depending on how inflated the Ego actually is.

Crippling Insecurity

“I am old enough to know that all of this bullshit, comes from a very deep, dank, dark toxic well of insecurity, probably created by your absentee father.”  – Ray Ploshansky

Insecurity is an insidious emotional state that we have all experienced at some point. It happens when we compare ourselves to others, a behavior which is encouraged by the media and advertising. It happens when a friend or colleague offers criticism, regardless of whether or not the feedback is constructive. As Theodore Roosevelt once said, “comparison is the thief of joy,” but insecurity can also arise out of guilt. If you have been given every opportunity and are still not happy, then you might feel empty and inadequate.

Confusion & Anxiety

“I wanted you to tell me what’s wrong with me. It just feels like it’s time for me to take responsibility for what has happened in my life and you are someone who likes to tell people what’s wrong with them anyway, so shoot.”  – Marnie Michaels

Thanks to the internet, we are currently living in the “Age of Information,” but there is probably a lot more misinformation currently in circulation. This has resulted in selected hearing where we choose to accept only the information we want, and then discard the rest. Unfortunately, most of the time our filtering process has nothing to do with quality, but rather an acceptance of that which enables us to rationalize our preexisting view of the world. This becomes problematic when we try to see outside this bubble and risk losing the false sense of security we took such great pains to protect.

Apathy

“Why don’t you place just one crumb of basic human compassion on this fat free muffin of sociopathic detachment, see how it tastes.”  – Ray Ploshansky

As a society, we haven’t quite decided what to do with emotions. You’re supposed to develop a thick skin to succeed in business, which is now considered real life. We have this view of any emotional display as being on the same level as a fit of hysteria, but having no emotions is a trademark of the psychopath, so what is the appropriate level of feeling for a fully functioning member of society? When I was 28, a man died at work, down the hall from my office. He had a heart attack while sitting at his desk. I had never talked to him but saw him frequently and the whole event felt completely surreal. I watched as one of my colleagues tried to resuscitate him and I somehow ended up on the phone with the man’s wife. The paramedics were on their way and when she asked if he was dead, I had no idea what to say. He wasn’t moving and all trace of life was gone. I was in the midst of this real life tragedy and yet, there are tv shows that have seemed more real. By living with so much stimuli, I feel as though my innate emotional response has been tampered with. It was more like a persistent state of shock that was only punctuated by brief moments of feeling. And now that so much of our communication is mediated by technology, we are even further removed from each other and our surrounding environment.

Despair

“Where did you go and who am I supposed to talk to if you won’t answer your fucking phone! That anorexic Marnie, fucking Shoshanna, or my stalker ex-boyfriend? It’s not like any of them want to talk to me and I don’t blame them because I cut of all of my fucking hair…”  – Hannah Horvath to Jessa’s voicemail

This is the penultimate stage when you are at odds with yourself, aka “Rock Bottom.” This is the moment when you realize that you need to make a change, that your methods of achieving your goals have not only failed, but might also be counterproductive. If handled correctly, this can turn into a pivotal moment where people learn from their mistakes and take the necessary steps to avoid repeating them. But if the ego is still the same self cannibalizing beast that is plagued by confusion, insecurity, and anxiety, then it is unlikely that personal growth will occur. Wash, rinse, repeat.

If these young women were just hurting themselves, then that would just be unfortunate, but the real tragedy is that this behavior will only further inflame the already contentious relationship we have to the natural world. Now that the third season of “Girls” has finished, my Sunday night belongs to “Game of Thrones” and the documentary series on Showtime called “The Years of Living Dangerously.” For the latter, the marriage of frightening realism and beautiful imagery is used to tell the multifaceted story of climate change. James Cameron and Jerry Weintraub have successfully demonstrated that for better and worse, we are all connected by the consequences of our actions. We can no longer pretend that we exist in a vacuum. The mantra of “every man for himself” is a prevalent theme of “Game of Thrones,” and it is no coincidence that the show boasts more brutal deaths per capita than any other program on television. “When you play the game of thrones, you either win or you die” and the body count is still rising (though I am ecstatic by the recent and sudden departure of Joffrey Baratheon, child king and spawn of incest). So while “Girls” may be a welcome source of comic relief by comparison, it is actually more frightening than any fantasy horror show when you realize that this is the first generation to be tasked with the responsibility of fixing a society with deep-rooted and systemic flaws. And while technology has sped up the process, it is just a tool without any innate moral sense. It reflects and amplifies our intentions until they become indisputable facts.

“I am sure that each generation can say that their time was the best and the worst of times but I think right now we are at something different. It is a pioneering time because there is no other time in history like right now… It is unique because technology has democratized self-expression – everyone has access, an access that they’ve never had before … Right now we are going through this painful adolescence – what do we do with this technology – what do we do with our world – who are we – but it also makes it exciting.” – Patti Smith

So yes, we are the architects of our own reality and the crisis we now face is man-made. Ultimately, our problem is one of ideology and as long as we only focus on bandaging symptoms, the root cause will continue to generate problems until they take on a life of their own. Dr. Frankenstein was likewise overwhelmed by the strength of his own creation. That is the “point of no return” and we are approaching it much sooner than anyone would like to admit, Hannah Horvath least of all.

Author : Ashley Rabin