The politics of girls

Like most white people of educated, liberal backgrounds, I believe firmly that the pinnacle of HBO programming and television in general is The Wire, a sprawling, hyper-realistic study of the war on drugs in inner-city Baltimore. While watching Girls, HBO’s much-anticipated comedy series, it occurred to me that I might be viewing the inverse of The Wire: a microscopic, hyper-realistic study of white people from educated, liberal backgrounds in gentrified Brooklyn.
Girls has, of course, already generated lively controversy in pop-cultural circles, probably because the vast majority of its audience and the people who write about it are white people of educated, liberal backgrounds. The main character Hannah, a liberal arts college post-grad, spends the first episode slinking around Brooklyn in a self-pitying funk because her parents have decided to stop subsidizing her unpaid internship at a hip publishing company by covering her rent, utilities and cell phone bill. After her publishing company refuses to take her on for a salary, Hannah quits, reflecting: “I’m going to have to take a job at like, McDonald’s, now.”

Hannah’s implicit declaration that no jobs exist aside from writing or working at McDonald’s, as well as her later theft of her parents’ tip for the housekeeper at their hotel, immediately offends the liberal conscience—her actions reek of the certain kind of privilege that spawned the familiar hashtag #whitegirlproblems, the kind of privilege that has become the obsession of those who possess it. We (and by “we” I mean white people of educated, liberal backgrounds; with my choice of pronoun I betray myself) are eternally calling out ourselves and each other on our liberal hypocrisies and bourgie foibles. To be honest, I think this is largely what motivates the outrage over Girls—this compulsive need to acknowledge privilege, to let everyone else know that we are aware.

But what purpose does this hyper-self-aware social consciousness serve? None; I would say on its own, it does about as much good as complete ignorance. At worst it placates our sense of guilt, solidifies in our subconscious the supposed inevitability of racial and economic injustice. I don’t have an issue with Girls; I think it’s an incredibly well-acted and incredibly honest portrayal of what happens to be a specific demographic—maybe it’s time that HBO’s target audience saw itself reflected in the programming they consume. But, it does make me pretty uncomfortable, in a way that I think it will some other Grinnellian (especially female) viewers uncomfortable. Lena Dunham, who wrote and created Girls and plays Hannah, graduated from Oberlin, Grinnell’s Ohioan cousin. Does the same fate—adrift and hopelessly-self absorbed in Brooklyn—await us?

Again, I generalize. Many Grinnellians are not white, or upper middle class, or HBO subscribers. Many are first-generation college students. A good amount hope to become doctors, lawyers or scientists in other parts of America besides New York. However, in this economy more and more young people are struggling, and the proportion that can afford to languish in post-grad ennui is becoming slimmer. It seems like as good a time as any to stop obsessing over privilege. Of course, a certain amount of self-awareness is necessary, and healthy, but the levels I’m observing right now are unproductive. Why not channel that neurotic energy into addressing issues of socioeconomic inequality here at Grinnell? If you see the Lena Dunham route as inevitable, Grinnell is probably the most diverse living environment you’ll see in a while. Maybe now is the time to try to reach out across the class divide. At the very least, you can educate yourself about it by watching Seasons 1-4 of The Wire.