There's a spate of new television shows with the word girl in the title—even though the girls in view are all decidedly over age 21. There's New Girl, the Fox comedy where doe-eyed Zooey Deschanel plays a klutzy teacher living with three guys, a Three's Company for the 21st century. There's the Bravo reality show Gallery Girls, a vapid and catty look at seven young women clamoring their way into the art scene of New York City. And 2 Broke Girls is like the all-female counterpart to Two and a Half Men—a raunchy half-hour comedy about men ogling women's breasts, but see, it's written by women instead of men. Ah, the sweet liberation we've waited for.
Though they differ in tone, these new shows share a common thread: They focus on unmarried women (or girls, if we must) in their 20s and 30s trying to land a career, and a meaningful way to live, in a time of tricky economic realities for many young Americans, and of choices previously unknown for women. That is also the theme of the smartest and most divisive show of them all, the 2012 HBO series Girls.
Written and directed by 26-year-old Lena Dunham (with help from executive producer Judd Apatow), Girls follows the postcollege travails of Hannah Horvath (also played by Dunham), an aspiring writer culling material for her forthcoming memoir, four chapters of which are written—"the rest I kind of have to live," she tells her concerned parents in the pilot episode. Guided by a mantra of feeling and experiencing everything she can, she's busy "trying to become who I am"—either obnoxiously self-centered or simply too introspective for her own good, depending on whom you ask.
Hannah, her three girlfriends, and their boyfriends and lovers live in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, a place where NYU grads can open a business that will take your normal-sized ties and turn them into skinny ones (this is true), and where the population of young, wealthy 30-year-olds has doubled since 2000. It's a place of well-camouflaged privilege: Hannah and company lack secure jobs, hopping from unpaid internship to barista gig. Yet somehow they pay the rent, party, and wear stylish if awkward ensembles, trendy in a disheveled way—which neatly sums up Hannah's whole way of life.
Girls is a fitting title, then, because it portrays four women teetering on the verge of adulthood, not knowing which way they will or should fall. The coming-of-age story is an old faithful, and Girls follows in this sturdy tradition. What's new about the show is that these women, like many real-life ones, are working from a rough script. The lines that signal "womanhood" are absent, coming later or not at all, or look quite different from the lines our mothers followed.
Girls is Dunham's attempt to offer a new script, one that diverges from the chick-lit comedies her generation grew up on. As she told NPR host Terry Gross in 2012, "I don't see any of myself in [chick flicks and chick lit]—none of my actions have ever been [determined] by the search for a husband, or wondering if I was going to have a family someday, or wanting to live in a really great house, or thinking it would be really great to have a diamond …. [T]here's a kind of female character that doesn't make sense to me."
So, what does this new script for womanhood look like? And is it worth taking to the stage?
A Tall Order
One thing is for sure: The new script includes a lot of sex and graphic talk of sex, both as commonplace in the characters' universe as the weather or dinner. Herpes, abortion, sexting, and the fear of virginity all appear within the first few episodes, and Hannah is frequently naked, whether in bed or walking around her apartment. But this is not the perfectly toned bod of Sex in the City's Carrie Bradshaw or that show's glamorous Manhattan sexcapades. Rather, the sex scenes in Girls are uncomfortable, for both the female characters and the viewer—a disturbing look at relationships in a pornified culture, where many young men take their sexual cues from fantasy and have never learned how to date a real woman.