So my friend Ross Douthat has defended Lena Dunham against those obtuse conservative critics who rail on and on about her annoyingly stupid and self-satisfied political correctness. Well, it is true that her efforts at being a public intellectual, including her book, are just bad in any number of ways. But, for all we know, all that posturing might be cover. As Ross points out, various conservatives are fans of her HBO show Girls, which, as Ross explains, does show very effectively that the expressive individualism displayed by her characters is just not making anyone happy. I am actually one of those fans, and I’ve written about the show in several places. I don’t think I’ve been very persuasive. Hoping that the problem is turning out to be simply that my timing was off, I’m bringing my case before the conservative public again. Here’s a heapin’ helping from one of my articles, which is, as you will find out if you click on the link, followed by a brief presentation of trajectory of the show’s season two:
We could also wax indignant about the show’s vulgar language and disgusting incidents. Maybe Girls goes too far, but for diagnostic purposes good art can exaggerate what’s revolting. And everything that is genuinely revolting here is portrayed that way. We see time and again, for example, that there’s little more degrading than casual sex in the absence of love. When we’re shown an abortion clinic, or women contracting STDs, or a string of pathetic hookups, and whiny, brittle, pretend marriages, we see the stupidity and misery of an abysmally clueless life. The show’s bitter, intended irony is this: while these girls are so proudly pro-choice, they lack what it takes to choose well.
What’s wrong with these Girls (and their boys) is that they lack character. Their easygoing world of privilege has saved them from any experiences that might build it. Their affluent parents are hardly “role models,” and they’re too flaccid to give their kids the “tough love” they need. Aristotle was right: your skill at soundly using your moral freedom depends a lot on how you were raised.
We also see plenty of evidence that what these girls really want is meaningful work and personal love. But they have not the first clue on how to get them.
Their education has failed them — another piece of realism. Hannah majored in film studies at a school in Ohio that we know is really Oberlin (Dunham is an Obie). Her major was neither “liberal” nor “vocational.” She learned nothing that would help make a living, but she did glean enough vanity to make her unfit for the “entry-level” jobs for which she barely qualifies. She also fancies that she can earn a living as a writer. While her prose style is pleasing, she has nothing “real” to write about. She didn’t read with passionate care any “real” books in college. Her education taught nothing “real” about her responsibilities as a free and relational being.
So here’s another solid takeaway from the show: few students whose majors end in “studies” have the education, talent, or discipline to succeed. In lieu of marketable skills and a work ethic, they boast a rich sense of entitlement. They spend lots of time, quite shamelessly, figuring out how to thrive as parasites. Their extended undergraduate adolescence prepared them only to scheme to stretch dependency out ever further. The girls aren’t becoming women. They do know they’re supposed to grow up, to change in a maturely relational direction. But they lack most of the resources — beyond mixed-up longings — to figure out how.