"Girls": All-consuming narcissism and entitlement are essential to its success

These "Girls" are a voice of their generation, not the voice of their generation.

HBO’s new blockbuster for the chattering classes, Girls, opens with 24-year-old Hannah Horvarth getting cut off financially by her parents, and throwing a tantrum in full view of a room of diners.

“Do you realise how lucky you are?” she asks the two professors, who are visiting their daughter in New York, and paying for the dinner on which she is chomping down.

“I could be a drug addict,” she says sulkily, stabbing her plate with a fork. Eventually, realising they are serious about the demise of her allowance, Hannah refuses to see her parents to say goodbye the next day. “I have work; I have a dinner thing, then I am busy trying to become who I am,” she adds, storming off.

In my experience there are two reactions to this. For some, a guilty laugh of recognition, for others, a moan and feeling of disgust at her boundless sense of entitlement.

And that, for me, is what Girls is all about.

Do you see this programme as a forensically well-observed insight into your life? Or do you recognise the type of person Hannah is, and remember why you try to spend as much time away from her as possible?

Lena Dunham, the writer, director, and star of Girls suggests we feel some level of sympathy for Hannah Horvarth and her sad dead-end internships and the fact she can’t fit into American Apparel jeans, but equally we are invited, over and over, to mock her narcissism and obliviousness to the suffering of the rest of the world.

Lena Dunham in "Girls"

When Hannah gets a smear test, she ruminates on the abstract possibility of whether she would actually like to have Aids to her gynaecologist. After being told that this is a “silly” thing to say considering how many women die of the disease, Hannah accuses the gynaecologist of scaring her by implying she is going to die.

The response of any of the four girls of the show’s title is always “for me...” or “well, when I...”. Their narcissism is so total, so consuming, that any attempts by others to relate episodes of their lives to the characters are met with a deft analysis of how this will affect them.

Ex-boyfriend’s gay? Well now you feel bad for not noticing. Current lover is in AA and didn’t tell you? How could he be so selfish? How can you even begin to deal with your own feelings on this, let alone think about why he turned to drinking?

A still from episode one of "Girls"

Girls' portrayal of young women as neurotic, over-privileged, and almost left useless by a society that has educated and empowered them is unsettling.

Aren’t these graduates supposed to be the ones who can do anything, $200,000 of college tuition later? Here, the endless choices available to rich, white, educated American women render them dysfunctional, so they have bad sex and get jobs for which they are hugely under-qualified, or in the case of one character, enter into a regressive state where they marry the very image of weak masculinity.

The race problem in Girls has been well documented, but this is just one symptom of a much wider issue of blind privilege that the show skewers at times but fails to address at other crucial points.

Some commentators have called Girls “gritty” and “real”. “Real” young women, in the sense they imply, don’t have $800 a month spare to pay their friend’s rent as well as their own when they get into a spot of trouble. “Real” women can’t take the day off from a job to patch things up with their boyfriends, because they would get made redundant when the next round of cuts came through.

The implied poverty of their position is temporary at the very worst for these women, and if all else fails they can go back to Michigan and live with their professor parents.

And the girls like them, our peers and even our friends, who expected they would “make it” effortlessly in a world where all the bourgeois security of property ownership, stable relationships and government support has been stripped away, are just as pitiable.

Thankfully, I think Lena Dunham is aware of that. She said in a recent interview:

“The one thing I guarantee I do know about is being middle class, half-Jewish, half-WASP in New York in 2012.”

Dunham doesn’t claim to speak for anyone beyond those socioeconomic boundaries, and she is well aware of their limitations.

In the so-called crisis of privileged women in their twenties, a generation with higher expectations of success and emotional fulfilment can still get it wrong, as they do in Girls, but how very often we get it right, with no credit at all.

Girls airs on Mondays at 10pm on Sky Atlantic HD. Find Jennifer on Twitter as @jaomahony

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Out like a light: why bad sleep poses a danger to us all

Our species has declared war on the night and sleep has been the victim.

At 4.02am on 2 November 1892, near Thirsk railway station in Yorkshire, an express train crashed into a goods train. Ten people were killed and 39 injured. Nearly a century later, at 1.23am on 26 April 1986, the No 4 reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded, killing two people instantly and causing multiple deaths from radiation. To see how these seemingly unrelated tragedies are connected requires that we understand biological time.

Our lives are ruled by time, but the alarms that drive us out of bed in the morning or tell us that we are late for a meeting are recently adopted chronometers. Life answers to a more ancient beat, which probably started to tick early in the evolutionary process. Embedded in our genes are the instructions for a biological or “circadian” clock that regulates our sleep patterns, alertness, mood, physical strength, blood pressure, and more.

Normally, we experience a 24-hour pattern of light and dark and this aligns our day to the Earth’s rotation. The clock is then used to anticipate this rotation and fine-tune physiology and behaviour before these conditions change. Temperature, blood pressure and cognitive performance all decline as you wind down to sleep. Before dawn, these processes are slowly reversed in anticipation of the new day.

The daily sleep cycle is the most obvious of these rhythms. While asleep, we don’t eat, drink, make money or have sex, so we have relegated the sleep state to a lowly position on our list of priorities. At best, we tolerate it; at worst, we regard it as an illness in need of a cure. Such attitudes are not only wrong, but dangerous.

Though sleep may involve the suspension of most physical activity, the brain is consolidating memories and solving problems; it co-ordinates the removal of toxins; promotes cell division and tissue repair; and rebuilds metabolic pathways. In short, without sleep, our performance and health deteriorate rapidly.

Our species has declared war on the night and sleep has been the victim. The unintended consequences of cheap electric light are twofold. More light at night, together with forms of entertainment including social media, have eroded our sleep time by as much as two hours every night. On top of this, many of us are trying to sleep at the wrong time. Those with night shifts work when they are sleepy and try to sleep when they are not. The body clock fails to adjust and remains synchronised to the natural light/dark cycle.

Shortened sleep and working against biological time have been linked with many health problems. These include lapses in attention and uncontrollable micro-sleeps; impulsiveness and loss of empathy; memory impairment and reduced creativity; immune suppression; higher risks of Type 2 diabetes, infection, cancer and cardiovascular disease; weight gain; and a susceptibility to depression, anxiety and mood instability.

In our quest for instant gratification, it is unlikely that we will stop doing what we like when we like. However, understanding the consequences of bad sleep will help us to reprioritise sleep. Perhaps, one day, the self-inflicted tired will be viewed with the same contempt as that for smokers huddled outside a building. Employers need to recognise that employees with disrupted sleep will be less productive. Why not introduce more health checks and offer advice to those at risk? As night-shift workers are more likely to have heart disease and Type 2 diabetes and to be obese, firms could provide food that reduces these risks. Finally, technology could be used to alert an individual that they are falling asleep both in the workplace and during the drive home.

So, what happened at Thirsk railway station in 1892 and Chernobyl in 1986? These disasters and others like them were linked to excessive tiredness, people working at the wrong biological time and a breakdown in procedure. James Holmes was the signalman at Thirsk. The day before the crash, he had been awake for 36 hours, caring for his daughter, trying to find a doctor and looking after his grief-stricken wife when the baby died. He reported to the stationmaster that he would be unable to work the next night, but no replacement was sent and he was forced to do his shift. He fell asleep, and he had forgotten that the goods train was on the line when he allowed the express through.

After the crash, Holmes was found guilty of manslaughter but given an absolute discharge. The railway company was blamed for ignoring him, and for failing to use procedures which would have detected that he had fallen asleep.

Russell Foster is Professor of Circadian Neuroscience at the University of Oxford

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution