After the season finale of Girls last weekend, umpteen blogs sounded off, Twitter reached a fever pitch and hasn't stopped since. It seems people can't seem to stop talking about this show. Since it first debuted last year, it's been discussed on op-ed pages, panel discussions, in academia, and just a few days ago, Foreign Policy where an essay on the "Geopolitics of Girls," argued that Lena Dunham's character, Hannah, was a metaphor for America in decline and that each of the other members of the cast represented a different global superpower.
All for a show about four friends living in Brooklyn trying (and failing) to find love, and trying (and failing) to find "real jobs." The show has clearly touched a nerve. In part, because Lena Dunham, the show's creator, who also stars as a fictionalized version of herself named Hannah Horvath, doesn't look the part of a traditional TV star. We see her frequently exposed (quite literally) and we see her honesty about her imperfections. She is perhaps as close to a "real young woman" as we've seen on television. Such authenticity is one of the aspects of the show that has drawn considerable praise. The show is often entertaining and reflects many of the challenges and issues young people are facing today. Millennial fans, like myself, enjoy the show not because it is a realistic portrayal of our lives, but because it shares our sense of humor and pokes fun at the culture we have co-created.
What people find so objectionable about the show is the careless way it treats sex and relationships. On Girls, young women are lost and young men are crude, uncaring, vulgar, and selfish and everyone is self-absorbed acting as if there was nothing else going on in the world except the daily "drama" of their lives. More problematic: Because the show is about a group of young people, viewers from older generations are coming to believe that this show depicts the experience of this generation. I frequently hear boomer generation parents say: "Is that what your relationships are like? It's so sad." Others have asked did feminists fight for the empowerment of women only to have them act like the characters on Girls? The answer is an emphatic no. We are not the Girls generation.
Reckless hook-up culture does not define this generation. But, millennials are delaying marriage in large part out of economic concerns, but also because we believe in finding love more than a compelling need to settle down in our 20s in order to achieve a particularly societally acceptable goal post of adulthood in the American experience.
The aimless wandering and self-absorption of most characters on Girls fly in the face of evidence to the contrary. Studies show that millennials are one of the most philanthropic generations in history (75 percent of them donated money to a cause in 2011) and also one of the most socially minded (85 percent of millennials say that social responsibility affects where they shop and what they buy). Girls' Soshanna, who was frustrated with her boyfriend Ray for not having higher aspirations beyond being a coffee shop manager and encouraged him to attend a Learning Annex workshop on starting a business led by Donald Trump, might be happy to know that 49 percent of millennials want to start their own businesses and 16 percent of college graduates are starting businesses immediately after they graduate. The latter figure is up 300 percent from 20 years ago. And while Hannah's parents cut her off financially in the show's first episode and exhibit an almost disdain for her throughout the show, the millennials' boomer parents are, for the most part, deeply supportive of their children.
Of course, there are some people like those portrayed in Girls, just like there are people of every imaginable archetype within a generation of 80 million. Dunham does not claim to be representing a generation or telling the story of even the majority of its members. But nonetheless, that is what many viewers see. Dunham is regularly offered the dreaded mantle of "voice of a generation," a label which pundits have tried to foist on many artists before, most notably Bob Dylan in the 1960s, who rejected it vehemently. Dunham has shown similar disdain for it.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Girls is not its content but its creator and her accomplishments as a creative professional. Love her or hate her, Dunham at 26, typifies the ability and power of this generation. As the youngest creator of a major television show currently on the air, and filled with her confidence and entrepreneurial spirit, she has broken into a crowded landscape of seasoned television pros, won awards from the Writers Guild, Directors Guild, as well as a Golden Globe, and she's built a show that has resonated with a wide array of audiences and sparked a national conversation. You might say this is a generation with more Lena Dunhams than Hannah Horvaths.
David D. Burstein is the author of Fast Future: How the Millennial Generation is Shaping Our World. He is also the founder and executive director of the youth voter engagement organization Generation18 and director of the documentary films, 18 in'08 and Up to Us about young voters in the 2008 and 2012 elections. Burstein is a contributor to Fast Company, and a regular consultant, speaker, and commentator on millennials, youth issues, politics, and social change. He has been seen in a range of publications and media outlets, including CNN, ABC, NPR, the "New York Times," and "USA Today." He lives in New York City.
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