Girls Not Coming of Age
If Girls is a portent, we’re in trouble.

The cast of Girls (HBO)


Betsy Woodruff

I feel a little silly writing about Girls, because it seems that every social commentator in America has weighed in on it by now. It’s sexist, it’s racist, it’s nepotistic, it’s too hard on women, it’s too hard on men . . . There’s probably a Women’s Studies grad student somewhere writing her dissertation on Girls criticism. So when my editor asked me to write about Lena Dunham, single-woman culture, and “What does it portend?” I wasn’t sure whether there was anything new to say. But the results of November 6 — and particularly the way the demographic represented in the show voted — point to a disturbing new angle.

For starters, as with any other contemporary work of art (and I use art in the loosest sense of the word), it’s impossible to tell whether Girls is reflecting or shaping culture. But given how popular the show is and how much scrutiny it has drawn, it’s worth speculating as to which is the case. And for the sake of Western civilization, let’s hope it’s the former. That’s because if Dunham’s vision is prophetic — if it’s helping to forward a larger cultural shift, rather than just depicting a self-contained subgroup — then I think it’s safe to say it’s all over for us.

But before getting into the “The end is nigh” stuff, let’s backtrack a bit. For those of you who are really good about not watching TV, Girls is a wildly popular HBO show about four young women living in Brooklyn and trying to “make it,” whatever that means these days. It’s produced by Judd Apatow (that’s important, and I’ll get into it in a bit) and created by and starring Lena Dunham. If you used the World Wide Web in the last month, you may know her as the tattooed brunette who made the “Voting for Obama is like losing your virginity” ad. Her show just got renewed for a third season, and she got a $3.7 million deal for her first book of essays, successfully lowering the self-esteem of 26-year-olds everywhere.

Dunham has been very forthcoming about the show’s influences. New York magazine reported that she gave her writers a syllabus of books and films that included My Summer of Love. The inclusion of that film is telling, and it helps make sense of Dunham’s project. And that, ultimately, can help us understand how that project just might be an indicator of the decline and fall of the American experiment. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

My Summer of Love is a gorgeously filmed, disarmingly scripted love story about two teenage girls living in a rural British town. The film is lovely and delicate until the last 30 minutes or so, when it kind of makes the case that romantic love is fundamentally homicidal. In a way, it’s about the ache of growing up — but it doesn’t really suggest that you cure the pain of adolescence by growing out of it. So that’s one thing to keep in mind when approaching Girls.

The next important reference point, at least for my reading of the show, is Judd Apatow’s corpus. He’s mostly famous for writing raunchy sex comedies, and Girls seems to fit into that tradition. But I think there’s a fundamental difference between Apatow’s work and Dunham’s. You can argue that, at its most basic level, the primary concern of Apatow’s work is coming of age. And he seems to see independence, restraint, and responsibility as fundamental components of successfully moving from adolescence to adulthood. His work suggests that those are good things .

In fact, the endings of Apatow’s most popular movies all feel a bit like Leave It to Beaver (spoilers ahead): The 40-Year-Old Virgin ends with Steve Carell’s character waiting to have sex until he’s married; Superbad ends with hormonally crazed high-school boys choosing relationships over drunken hook-ups; Knocked Up ends with the father of an accidental baby deciding to get his life together so he can help raise her. It’s almost cartoonishly moral. And that’s not even touching on Apatow’s best work, Freaks and Geeks, a sadly short-running TV show which is basically a panegyric to the Midwest, healthy family relationships, and getting good grades. Freaks and Geeks celebrates the developing ability of its protagonist, Lindsay Weir, to make good choices. It’s about growing up, and its take on coming of age is that it’s a pretty good thing to do.

Apatow and Dunham have a lot in common: Both avoid wisecracks, caricatures, slapstick, and wacky sidekicks. If you’re looking for zany adventures and rollicking good times, look elsewhere. Their work shows zits, greasy hair, dirty clothes, and rolls of fat. Girls is jarringly intimate, noted for the number of scenes featuring characters going to the bathroom. And Apatow’s characters all look like normal people — even Katherine Heigl (Katherine Heigl!) looks somewhat gross for most of Knocked Up. Their work is funny the way real life is funny. They’re subtle and observant and surprisingly tender.