The ‘Girls’ Effect: Why We’re Obsessed With the Chaos of Our Twentiesby Drew Grant on March 21, 2013
Do you have a strong opinion about the HBO show, Girls? I feel like I should ask right out of the gate, because whether you love it or loathe it, most people (as represented by the sample size of the Internet, print, and radio media) have a very strong reaction to the show.
Some people, like my mom’s boyfriend, Paul, don’t really care about Girls, insofar as much that it makes him uncomfortable to watch young women suffer and make so many self-inflicting, painful mistakes, and I totally get that. But for the rest of everyone I have ever or never met, they fall into one of two camps: either they can’t stop talking about Girls, or they haven’t heard of it. (It’s true! Some people have never heard of Girls!) Even if they hate it, they don’t shut up about how this program about twenty-somethings barely living in Brooklyn is unrealistic because it doesn’t portray their particular barely-living-in-Brooklyn situation. Which never made sense in my head as a rhetorical argument, because it’s not like Sherlock or Seinfeld or The Bachelor portray a more realistic model for how life works, and at least Girls doesn’t claim to be reality.
I get it, some of us just need things to get up in arms about, and Girls is as good of a subject as any. But one thing we can all agree on: Lena Dunham has created a show with so many onion layers that liking the show isn’t a prerequisite for talking about the issues it brings up.
This is a really important point, because Girls is reflecting a dynamic shift in the way our culture relates to a whole decade of our lives: The twenties, which not too long ago was the time when one graduated from college (or didn’t), got married almost immediately, and began parenting. Now it is a chaotic, 10-year wasteland during which one is expected to go on some sort of soul-searching hero’s journey to “find one’s passion.” Thanks, longer life expectancy!
It’s a problem of plentitude and the lack thereof: While we now have all this time stretched before us to spend as we please (date! have casual sex! switch careers!), most of us don’t actually have a financial situation to support our perfect, creative lifestyle right out of college. In fact, college — this safe haven during which we amass a lot of our first adult friends — is almost entirely deceptive in preparing you for the real world. And while that might not be news to most people, Girls is one of the first TV shows to address (though never truly answer) how anyone could pay rent or stock a fridge or even pay for beer while un-or-underemployed. Of course, like I mentioned earlier, it’d be insane to hold Girls up to a standard of realism that it can’t (and shouldn’t) strive for.
I’ll be honest though: I didn’t expect a lot of people to feel so intensely connected to Girls, the way I knew I would be. After all, at 24 (the age of Hannah Horvath at the beginning of the series) I had — like Lena and her alter-ego — graduated from Oberlin College and – like Hannah (not Lena) — decided not to move back to my small town but instead to try to make it in New York. My decision was based on nothing except that New York was the city that a lot of my college friends were moving to, and I didn’t want to get left behind. And let’s see, what else?
I saw Lena Dunham (whom I knew, remotely) and her group of tight knit, arty New York friends as a means to an ends: a way to fix what my own life seemed to be lacking. Like a sense of purpose, or a feeling of a giant community of friends, or maybe just some coattails to ride on. I was kind of an asshole at 24, but in my defense, I now get paid to write about Lena’s show, so it’s not like I was totally off-base.
It went, well, just as you would expect. Did I spent my mid-twenties having really weird, uncomfortable sex in the name of “gaining good experiences for my upcoming novel?” Totally.
Did I go through a downward spiral phase that involved buying a lot of pills off of the Internet, resulting in a year of Alcoholics Anonymous until I realized that I didn’t even like drinking? One hundred percent. Sometimes a life lesson can be as simple as “stop searching for the word ‘pain’ in the Barter/Trade section of Craigslist.”
Did my year in a soul-sucking job as a temp for a huge who-knows-what-they’re-producing company end when I threatened my boss with a lawsuit for calling me fat? You betcha. Though in his defense, I had a cold that morning, and what he actually said was “I thought cocaine was supposed to make you skinnier.”
Did I eventually drift away and/or alienate all of the college friends (and one — no, two actually — ex-boyfriends) that I had moved out here to be with? OMG yes, because my one friend turned out to be a total stalker, and the first ex-boyfriend found out that I had…well, equally stalker-like tendencies. The second ex was so shaken by my mid-twenties drama that he moved to India, although apparently there was some miscommunication over whether we were still dating while he was away. (I had an “out of state, out of mind” complex at the time.)
Oh, and I also worked at a coffeeshop for three years, presided over by an older, grumpy dude. And I have the tattoo to prove it.
This second round of adolescence is something to behold, and examine. We appear to be acting on the same immature impulses we were as teens, except now we’re released into the larger world, where we’re capable of doing a lot more damage (to ourselves, and others). This period in life represents the first time many of us are thrown out into the world for the first time; where our parents transition for us into actual people, from their previous roles as safety nets and security blankets; where your present is uncertain and the future looks like an endless number of forked roads, a debilitating set of choices that all seem critically important. “Should I cut my bangs” holds an equal amount of heavy existential anxiety as “Should I stay with my boyfriend?” “Should I change career paths?” and “Should I just give it all up and move back in with my folks?”
And horrifyingly enough, some of these decisions will affect the rest of your life. And no, you don’t know which ones they’ll be. But those years spanning post-college and that blessed age of 30 (where everything will magically come together and all questions will be answered!) is this nebulous in-between space that those of us in it haven’t figured out how to manage, and those out of it are obsessed with examining (the proverbial “watching a train wreck”). It’s a period in which your choices have real world consequences, but aren’t so set in stone that they’re unfixable. These are the years that teach you to ride a bike without training wheels, but still allow you to wear a helmet.
Sure, it’s scary, brutal, and mortifying…but it’s necessary. If we didn’t use our twenties as a time to learn from the mistakes we can and do make — about love, life, relationships, career — you can be sure we’re doomed to repeat them as thirty-somethings, and forty-somethings, and on and on. And by then, the stakes only get higher, and the losses larger.