"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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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.