THE BLOG
01/31/2013 04:05 pm ET | Updated Apr 02, 2013

White Girls

In the usual course of American culture, when a new generation begins to reach artistic maturity and makes its first thrusts into the mainstream, the routine goes something like this:

  • [New work] is created by {new generation}.
  • After making its debut, [new work] is quickly denounced by {old generation}, who insist that [new work] is worthless, incomprehensible, reflects everything wrong with {new generation}, and is an affront to all western culture.
  • {New generation}, feeling misunderstood by {old generation} and still totally stoked on [new work], insists that [new work] is, in fact, brilliant, their voice, and clearly just too "new" and "real" for {old generation} to understand.
  • {Old generation} realizes that {new generation} really does seem to dig [new work] and are willing to pay for it. They accept [new work] and make a tidy profit by shamelessly encouraging and exploiting imitators.
  • {New generation} ages, becoming {old generation}. Their [new work] becomes [old work] and they get ready to be appalled by whatever [newer work] their children come up with.

So it was for Beethoven, so it was for rock and roll. So it was for James Dean, and Ulysses and MTV.

So it hasn't been for Girls.

Despite being the first true Millennial foray into mainstream TV culture, Lena Dunham's hit HBO series seems to have won over the establishment without much of a fight. Girls has been praised in the Los Angeles Times, on Buzzfeed and in the New York Review of Books. The show even pocketed two Golden Globes on its first season out -- an Establishment endorsement that seemed to take even Dunham by surprise. {Old Generation} loves Girls.

{New Generation} -- not so much.

While it certainly has many fans among the under-30 crowd, many of Girls' harshest critics have been Dunham's fellow Millennials. In the hippest corners of the Zeitgeist, in blogs and tumblrs and tweets, Girls has been attacked since the get-go: It's been called racist, sexist, reductive and clichéd. It's been accused of pandering, of feeding into a tired caricature of our generation, of celebrating nothing more than the privilege of its characters and fortunately-sired creators and actors. Even those willing to admit they've enjoyed the occasional episode do so with reservations, praising some element while always remembering to disclaim that some other part is "problematic." Millennials love calling shit "problematic," especially Girls.

This certainly isn't the routine we've come to expect. What happened to the culture wars of generations past? What happened to the rebellion? Shouldn't we be pushing Dunham forward as our voice-incarnate over the Boomers' and X-er's howls of protestation? How did it come to be that they were the ones pulling her up, while we tweeted snide comments with one hand and tugged on the poor girl's ankles with the other? Why do so many of the hippest Millennials hate Girls so much?

If you ask them (or just take the time to read their scathing Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter comments), the fashionable complaints about Dunham fall into two broad, albeit apparently schizophrenic categories: First, they say, Girls is unrepresentative of the diversity and nuance of the Millennial generation. Second, it hits way too close to home.

Where to begin?

The first charge is familiar enough and has been the one picked up on by the few and far between adult critics of the show. To sum it up:

The Millennial generation is the first for whom racial tolerance comes naturally. It is the first whose right wing endorses gay marriage and while its Left sheds light on the full spectrum of queer sexuality. Through the Internet, it has done more than any other generation to summon a great diversity of voices from every class and demographic, to protest the last vestiges of privilege, and to eschew the power structures of ages past. In short, The Millennials are hip to every kind of human.
Girls, by contrast, is about upper middle class young white women living in Brooklyn and chaffing at having to grow up and make it on their own. Since the days are long gone when the very existence of a show created by, written by, directed by, and starring a woman would've been enough to pass revolutionary muster, we might as well call this thing "Straight, Cissexual, Well-Off White Girls" and put another point on the board for the patriarchy since it sure as hell doesn't represent us, am I right?

Well, wrong. Even if you take the romantic characterization of us Millennials' boundless tolerance at face value (and there are plenty of reasons why you shouldn't), this critique misses the point of our generation's supposed triumphs in cultural liberation. After all, the whole idea behind hearing the voices of the traditionally oppressed, of opening up the floodgates of idiosyncratic racial, gender, and sexual identity, of giving everyone on the internet a platform for their expression, wasn't, I'm pretty sure, just for the sake of having a bunch of new and different perspectives per se. We didn't invent new categories of human just to get the numbers up, did we? To prove how accepting we are? At least for the earnestly idealistic among us, the whole crux of the argument seemed to be that the sorts of people we've opened up to have always existed -- the problem was that they weren't allowed to speak. They weren't allowed to be true to who they were. They weren't allowed to tell their stories.

I mean, that was the point, wasn't it? That everybody is allowed, as humans, to be faithful to their own experience and to be judged solely on their aesthetic merits?

If so, then let's remember the obvious: Lena Dunham isn't a cocaine-addled 40-something suit sitting in midtown Manhattan plotting ways to crassly exploit young women he doesn't understand in order to get over a neurotic complex stemming from his suspiciously feminine name. Rather, Lena Dunham is a straight, cissexual white girl living in Brooklyn and trying to be a writer -- and that's the story she's telling on Girls. Sure, it might not be your story. It might not even be a story you care about or want to hear. But if there's anything we can agree on, it's that Girls is true to its creator, and that's what this whole Internet revolution was about, right?

Imagine for a moment if Dunham's work wasn't about people like her. Imagine, for example, if Girls was about impoverished black transsexuals in Detroit trying to find success as slam poets on Tumblr. Now that would be racist, wouldn't it? That would be exploitation. Can you imagine how Millennials would respond to Lena Dunham bowing to their earlier criticism and starting to write about people and cultures she doesn't actually understand or belong to? Hell -- you don't even have to imagine. Just look at how its responded to her writing a single, relatively privileged heterosexual black character so far. Of course, the speed with which Sandy was introduced and dismissed in the second season tempts one to believe that Dunham deliberately used the character to subtly mock the absurdity of this criticism. That he was a Republican only adds to irony.

In the end, the absurdity of criticizing a television show for focusing exclusively on a particular time, place, or culture falls into particularly stark relief when one considers the kinds of shows culturally savvy Millennials do admit to loving. Between Mad Men and Downton Abbey, 30 Rock and Boardwalk Empire, there doesn't seem -- in general -- to be a problem with such a narrow scope. The only way to make sense of this is by saying that while these other shows are made by older generations and sample a broad range of output, Girls represents the current total of Millennial television triumph, and that as a result, it takes on some added responsibility. No single program bears the burden of reflecting Gen X, but Girls is all we Millennials have , so far.

Which brings us to the second objection. Despite being called racist, sexist, and unrepresentative, Girls' Millennial critics contend, it also errs by hitting way too close to home. Strange as it seems, this isn't actually all that contradictory.

You see, chances are that if you're a happening young person complaining away on your social media about how unrepresentative Girls is, you consider yourself something of an artist (or at the very least culturally wired). In virtue of the fact that you have the luxury of pursuing your art and possess the access to HBO and social media required to make these complaints in the first place, you're probably not so different from Hannah Horvath. As a result, while you may feel that the show isn't representative of every aspect of our culture, it is, in fact, pretty representative of you. Maybe you aren't white, or female, or straight or even have parents that could continue to support you if they wanted to , but the fundamentals are there: the anxieties, the frustration, and the endless miasma of urban complaint are familiar. You know what it's like to try and create something, and you know how hard that can be. You know it all well enough that Girls makes you pretty uncomfortable. You ask: Is my life really this much of a mess when seen objectively? More importantly: Wait, if this is my life, and I'm an artist, why didn't I write Girls? I could write this so much better, couldn't I?

And there's the rub.

As mundane and disappointing as it may be, the actual culprit behind Millennial distaste for Girls seems largely to be old-fashioned envy. It's bad enough that Hannah is so much like us, but to add insult to injury, it's even worse how Lena Dunham isn't. She isn't struggling. Sure, she had a low-budget web series (Delusional Downtown Divas) once, and sure, she earned her indie movie cred with Tiny Furniture a few years ago -- but no longer. These days, Lena Dunham isn't just better funded and more widely viewed, she's the toast of the New York media cognoscenti with a $3.7 million book contract to boot. She's not toiling in obscurity. She's 26 years old and famous for telling our story, and she didn't even have to fight the establishment in the usual way for acceptance -- they just gave it to her with their fawning reviews and cemented it with two Golden Globes.

Of course, envy isn't a uniquely Millennial problem and while it provides an obvious motive for the present criticism, it doesn't really explain why the reception of Girls has been such a reversal from times past. After all, every generation has had its strivers and success stories. Every generation has had its share of bitterness. Every generation saw some of its members achieve stardom while others toiled away, angry that they didn't get there first. What sets the Millennials apart isn't the existence of these things; rather, it is how uniquely aware of them we are. The irony of the internet revolution has been that by giving everybody a voice, everybody has seen just how many voices there are. More than any other generation, we know how many other people are working, we see just how scarce attention is. Unlike the Boomers or the Xers, we don't become aware of other artists only when they achieve success or if they happen to be working the same town. Rather, we see all of it -- every poet and photographer, every web series and short story -- in blogs and posts, in reposts and re-blogs, in tweets and links and so many Tumblr pages that's it's impossible to digest each one. Rather, we just feel the visceral weight of output, and while sometimes this is something to be celebrated, in our more honest moments we concede how overwhelming it can be. How could any particular one of us possibly stand out from this sea?

As a result, we've developed a special capacity for criticism, a unique ability to dismiss. We've learned to rationalize our own chances of success through a schizophrenic mix of unqualified praise for every effort of our peers and a willingness to tarnish them at any sign of failure. As precarious as it seems, the system works so long as nobody breaks too far out of orbit, so long as everyone gets their equal share of Facebook praise. So long as everyone is still aspiring, everyone can assuage their inner doubts. But with Lena Dunham, Millennials find themselves unable to rationalize so easily: she did break free, she has entered the mainstream, she did do better than the rest (so far). In the perverse logic of Millennial arts culture, to praise her too much would be to admit our own failings. Therefore, the only choice, for many of us, has been to tear her down. As long as she isn't actually all that great, the thinking goes, there's still room for other greatness.

It's a vicious cycle. Luckily, if there is some consolation, its in remembering that it is in virtue of being the first of our success stories that Dunham has weathered these attacks. By being first, she most certainly won't be last. As time goes on and as Millennials begin to fill the roles held now by older generations, more of us will make the big time. More of us will win accolades and Golden Globes. Yes, there will be many who never make it, but after a time the anxiety will lessen, and the vitriol of frustrated resentment won't, at the very least, all be directed at one very talented girl who happened to get there first.

And hey -- if you still think Girls is a mess of white privilege and doesn't speak for you, then go ahead: write your own show. Just be ready for some seriously angry internet twenty-somethings if it works.