"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

Donmar Warehouse
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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

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