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.
For all her nakedness and crass talk, Hannah is at heart traditional in one sense: She wants a boyfriend. And she's willing to subject herself to the weird and degrading sexual preferences of Adam, her simian kind-of boyfriend in season one, in hopes that the hookups will turn Adam into a monogamous partner. Her "breakup" speech to him is telling: "I just want someone who wants to hang out all the time, and thinks I am the best person in the world, and wants to have sex with only me." In the world of Girls, this is a tall order to fill.
It's apparently a tall order to fill in the world of Lena Dunham, too. Speaking with New York Times columnist Frank Bruni last year, the daughter of acclaimed NYC artists bemoaned the "empowered" sexual expectations placed upon her female peers: "I heard so many of my friends saying, 'Why can't I have sex and feel nothing?' It was amazing: that this was the new goal."
"It's painful when sex, which is supposed to be the most intimate form of communication, is the least intimate form of communication," she told Gross. In the middle of season two, Hannah spends two days with a 42-year-old doctor in his lovely brownstone, tasting the comforts of monogamy and economic security. At the end of their time together, Hannah makes an astonishing admission, almost despite herself: "What I didn't realize is that I was lonely in such a deep, deep way. I want what everyone wants, to be happy."
This is a crucial turn in the series, and a crucial admission for the church to hear from an influential voice in our culture. For all the vast economic and cultural changes that have rewritten the script of womanhood, there is one truth we can't shake: We are made for relationship. In fact, we cannot fully exist without relationship. We discover our truest selves only in connection to others, in the bonds of friendship, family, marriage, and civic and faith communities. Hannah struggles to "become who I am" in part because so many of her relationships are broken: By the middle of season two, she has dumped Adam, has driven two close friends to move out of their apartment, and is reduced to trying to make out with the former crack addict who lives in the apartment below hers. She is lonely by her own making, but lonely nonetheless.
Hannah is decidedly not the archetype for every young American woman. (Dunham winks at this in the pilot episode with this line: "Mom and Dad, I don't want to freak you out, but I think that I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least a voice … of a generation.") But she is one significant archetype, and with two Golden Globes under her belt and a third season coming, her voice will become more pronounced and influential. Are our churches places where women like Dunham can know and be known? Where their ambitions and dreams are encouraged, not squelched or made to fit into old scripts of womanhood that don't speak to them? Where a story is told and retold that speaks to their deepest desires and orients them toward wholeness and self-giving instead of self-gazing?
Since Girls majors in embarrassing revelations, here's one: I secretly hope to meet Lena Dunham some day. For all the ways we are worlds apart, we are nonetheless both single, white women in our 20s who like to write and make others laugh. At some point in the conversation, I imagine, the whole Jesus thing would come up, and I could tell of the ways he and his people have kept me deeply rooted in an uncertain decade. But then I would thank her for shaking things up, for creating a show that captures how confusing it can be to be girls in this postfeminist generation—or at least to be a girl, in a generation.
Katelyn Beaty is managing editor of CT.