It was the YouTube video heard round the world. Infamous, offensive, bizarre, stupid, viral (2.6 million views and counting) — it seemed like every human being with a computer had something to say about it. The clip earned 19,000 “dislikes” and 15,000 “likes.”
But here’s the thing about Lena Dunham’s “My First Time” campaign ad: Barack Obama is still president, women voted for his reelection by an eleven-point margin, and Dunham just got a $3.7 million advance on a book she’s writing. Democrats killed it in November, and the girl who proudly proclaimed that Obama took her voting virginity has a contract for a third season of her HBO show — and two Golden Globes, natch.
You could use this as a point of departure for talking about any number of cultural phenomena — the rapidly widening gulf between the Republican and Democratic bases, the sharp divergence between Millennials and their parents when it comes to social mores, the dark side of increased youth-voter turnout (young people are obviously too stupid to vote, no?). But instead, let’s talk about gal stuff.
It seems increasingly clear that Dunham is on to something — that her critical and commercial success isn’t a fluke. In a talk she gave with her mother at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, she seemed to acknowledge that she’s a cultural bellwether of sorts. BuzzFeed reported that, in the talk, Dunham responded to a common question she hears: Is she a feminist?
Turns out the answer’s yes. “What feminism is about is equality and human rights,” she said. “For me that is just an essential part of my identity. I hope the show contributes to a continuance of feminist dialogue.” Intentionally or otherwise, Girls provides an unsettling look at that dialogue — a dialogue about rights, women’s place in society, and the role of government — and might help show why the ideals of limited government and fiscal restraint are so lost on so many young single women.
But first, let’s talk about why this matters. As I alluded to earlier, it’s no secret that the conservative movement seems to have a young-lady problem. Whether conservatives are going to war against women or not, most young women don’t seem particularly impressed by the Republican party in general or by any one of its candidates in particular. In fact, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that all the single ladies voted for Obama — fewer than a third of them supported his opponent.
Some Republican strategists like to say the party doesn’t have a woman problem, but just a single-woman problem. Be that as it may, Americans are marrying later in life, and a growing number are choosing not to marry at all, so the importance of the Single Lady Vote will only grow — the Guardian reported that unmarried people are already the majority of voters in 15 or 16 states.
Dunham’s show may be emblematic of why conservatism flounders when it comes to young single women — it’s not a magic decoder ring, but it sheds a lot of light on the gaping (and growing) disconnect between the GOP and unmarried women under 25. For those of you who don’t stay up till all hours of the night watching HBO, Girls is kind of like Sex and the City for the kiddie set. It follows the convoluted stories of four young female friends (the titular girls, I guess) living hip but harried lives in Brooklyn. At its best, the show presents an almost saccharine-sweet view of female friendship. Its protagonists (headed up by Dunham’s character, Hannah Horvath) have lots of heart-to-hearts in the bathroom, while on cocaine, etc. Their relationships are dysfunctional in that special manner that only HBO can capture (Hannah gets angry when her best girlfriend and her ex-boyfriend, the latter of whom she thought was gay, sleep together; Shoshanna realizes simultaneously that the thirtysomething guy she’s been dating is a huge loser and that she’s in love with him; Jessa gets married, but it lasts for only a few episodes because her in-laws frown upon her laissez-faire attitude toward heroin — stuff like that), but there’s an overarching sense that the protagonists care about one another and that they’re going to tough it out because of loyalty, empathy, etc. Hooray. Also: How inspirational.
#page# What’s less inspiring is an exchange at the end of the second season’s second episode. Hannah has been dating a Republican (a black one, no less), and it’s going great. But when he tells her he didn’t like one of her essays very much — and provides a critique that sounds pretty reasonable — she attacks him for being a member of the GOP. They break up, and she leaves in a huff to vent to her friend Marnie and Hannah’s gay roommate, Elijah. They sensibly ask her what happened, and she pounces. “Your rights happened, and your rights happened,” she says, jabbing her index finger at the two in turn, and adding that she “can’t be with someone who’s not an ally to gays and women.” They look a little perplexed but thank her awkwardly.
It’s a great moment for a lot of reasons — the inarticulate tension as Elijah and Marnie silently acknowledge that Hannah is trying to pull all sorts of wool over their eyes, Hannah’s willed ignorance about her inability to take criticism, the overt and almost laugh-out-loud silliness of thinking that dumping a boyfriend can be part of a freedom crusade — but what’s really striking about it is the comfort level each of the characters seems to have with astronomical pettiness.
This flamboyant triviality runs through the show — its characters are consumed with all things trite. It’s a world where the most serious political statement you can make is dumping your boyfriend of a few weeks. It’s also a world where the word “rights” can be used to justify almost any kind of behavior, no matter how childish. That’s why it’s telling that Marnie and Elijah thank Hannah for ending her relationship for them; the subtext seems to be that though Hannah is acting in bad faith, she’d be some sort of hero if she weren’t.
This leads us to a fun question about any work of fiction: Where does the author end and the character begin? Hannah Horvath and Lena Dunham obviously aren’t the same person. But when an author’s work is as jarringly semi-autobiographical as Dunham’s (in her breakout film, Tiny Furniture, she cast her mother and sister to play her character’s mother and sister), that question becomes especially difficult to answer. One thing is for sure, though: Dunham isn’t creating an alternative reality. Instead, she’s cramming as much verisimilitude as possible into every shot. She takes her characters seriously, and we should too.
Here’s why that’s pretty scary: In the world Lena Dunham sees, rights have precious little to do with John Locke, Nature and Nature’s God, or equality under the law. Instead, her characters seem to buy into the most progressive understanding possible of the relationship between individuals (in particular, women) and the state — they believe that government exists to make sure everything works out okay, to help you pay for birth control, and to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act so the jerks who dump you at least won’t be making more money than you do. In a world of random hook-ups, backstabbing former significant others, and decidedly unglamorous career options (barista, restaurant hostess, or trophy wife?), government is the one thing that’s always there. Your best friend might sleep with your ex-boyfriend, your parents might threaten to stop paying for your iPhone, and your boss might touch you inappropriately, but at least Barack Obama will always help pay for your sex life. That seems to be Lena Dunham’s understanding of rights. In her characters’ world, rights are nifty little presents from the government that Republicans want to take away because they hate the gays.
It would be comforting to suppose that Dunham thinks more seriously about these issues than her characters do. But this would be a stretch, given that Dunham regards Girls as an important contribution to the feminist dialogue about empowerment.
If Dunham is indeed reflecting a tectonic shift in the public’s understanding of rights, and if, as her character suggests in the show’s first episode, she is the voice of her generation, then one could seriously argue that we’re doomed. If the two-thirds of young single women who voted for Obama think about rights, responsibility, and freedom with as little seriousness as Hannah Horvath does, then American culture may be moving up a creek.
Of course, that’s a pretty alarmist thing to say, and it may not be true. But the fact that so many young American women decided to have their First Time be just like Dunham’s is far from encouraging.