Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun (but that’s impossible in today’s economy)

My DVR decided to make it especially difficult for me to watch the season finale of Girls, refusing to record it at least three times before I gave up and hunted it down on OnDemand (props to HBO for getting it up there so quickly). I was shocked to see such a typical Hollywood ending for the show, even though it was most definitely a season, not a series, finale (it was renewed by HBO weeks ago and notes about casting are already floating around). The final scenes reminded me of a combination of “Love, Actually” and “When Harry Met Sally.”

This observation is not meant as a compliment. For me, what was so appealing about Girls was how anti-Hollywood it was. New York City has always been Hollywood’s version of Oz (see “When Harry Met Sally” again) – all big and shiny, a place where women are thin, heels are tall and dreams are as big as you can imagine. The stories taking place there since the city cleaned up its act are modern day fairy tales – “Sex and the City,” “Working Girl,” “When Harry Met Sally,” “Spiderman,” even “Smash.” If Hollywood ever decides to remake Mary Tyler Moore, she’ll be throwing up her hat in Times Square, not Minneapolis.

And then there’s Girls. Granted, the show takes place in Brooklyn, rather than Manhattan, and Park Slope and other chic neighborhoods not withstanding, to many people, New York City is Manhattan and Manhattan only. That may be the show’s first crime, albeit a minor one. And it’s a crime that hints at the show’s biggest injustice – it portrays New York, and its young citizens, as they are, rather than as audiences want them to be.

Girls is not “Friends.” All the friends in “Friends” were Hollywood thin and gorgeous, living in huge, beautifully furnished apartments with no obvious source of money. And their problems were the glamorous Hollywood fairy tale type, with pet monkeys and dinosaur exhibitions, rather than anxiety and soul-killing dead-end jobs.

The biggest complaint since Girls premiered last year has been about show creator/lead actor/writer/producer/director Lena Dunham’s appearance. Apparently the actress (or her character – it’s difficult to distinguish the issue) is too fat for any man to want to have sex with her. I’m sure if you stuck her among Sarah Jessica Parker, Cynthia Nixon, Kristin Davis and Kim Catrall, she might have trouble getting a date. But plunk her down in Middle America, and Lena is actually thinner than the average woman. In the real world – in the real Brooklyn – there are millions of women shorter and heavier than Lena and THEY ARE ALL HAVING SEX, TOO. If you don’t believe me, watch Jerry Springer.

The second issue is the girls’ employment statuses. In the first episode, Lena’s character Hannah meets her parents for dinner and is told she is being financially cut off. A writer her entire life, Hannah protests that she is “the voice of my generation…. Or at least a voice of a generation.” Later in the episode, it is revealed that far from slacking off all day, Hannah has a writing internship that is more than happy to exploit her creativity but balks at actually paying her. To support herself and stay in New York, Hannah has to take a barista-type job – certainly not the type of employment her parents sent her to college for.

Her friends aren’t doing any better. Best friend Marnie, whom I inferred was some kind of art history major or something similar in college, has a go-fer type job at an art gallery, which she lost this season. She was then forced to rely on her looks and take a hostessing job at a high-end restaurant/bar, that only hires very attractive girls for this position and forces them to work for tips. Jessa, who does not seem to have a college degree but has traveled the world extensively, is forced to take a nanny job. And I’m not sure exactly what Shoshanna does, but she won’t be reading and marking up Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” any time soon.

This employment situation is so painful to watch because it is so real. Ten years ago, students did their internships in college and were able to find entry-level jobs after graduation that led to real careers in the industries in which they wished to work. This is no longer the case. Now students are expected to intern, for free, post-graduation, doing mostly grunt work in order to build a resume and make contacts that might, someday, eventually, get them a real job in the field they went to college to study. And in the meantime they are paying off a hundred thousand dollars in student loans and working at Starbucks in the evenings and on weekends just to have enough cash to scrape by.

This is the situation talented writers like Hannah find themselves in now. I would never recommend a talented young writer major in English, communications, journalism or any major that concentrated on writing as the final product, rather than a skill that complemented the product. No one is paying for writing any more. And as for art history, I’m not sure anyone ever paid for that.

Girls is so painful, so controversial, so talked about because it’s so real. We see Hannah and point fingers at her muffin top while ignoring the fact that it’s so much bigger than our own. We watch these post-college kids struggle with jobs and relationships and turn away because our children in fact have it much worse. Hannah, after all, did manage to get a book contract (although I’m sure her advance was not nearly as big as her portrayer’s was). Marnie’s boyfriend Charlie is now a millionaire thanks to inventing an app. Shoshanna has a nice apartment. Jess, I’m sure, has landed on her feet somewhere. Despite their money woes, no one is living on the street, or worse, returned home to the rents like so many other people their age have had to do.

I hope that ten to fifteen years from now, shows like “Girls” and the upcoming ABC sitcom “How to Live with Your Parents for the Rest of Your Life,” are seen as an anachronism from a tougher bygone time, much in the way we see grandparents from the Depression who save their tin foil. But I fear that the real anachronism will be for the days when idealistic young people were able to move to New York. And when they looked as thin as Lena Dunham.

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