"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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Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details: almeida.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear