Best Of Cog

Jonathan Fitzgerald: I think I’ve finally realized what bothers me about "Girls" and its creator. In this photo, Lena Dunham on stage during the panel discussion at the 2014 Winter Television Critics Association tour on Jan. 9, 2014 in Pasadena, Calif. (Richard Shotwell/AP)

I’m supposed to like the HBO series “Girls,” which began its third season this month. Here’s why: as a member of the Millennial generation — albeit just barely; 1981, my birth year, is the standard cutoff — and as a writer, I’m meant to recognize that Lena Dunham, the show’s creator, writer, producer and star, is telling my story.

Also, the show takes place in New York City and, at its start, I was just ending my tenure in the Big Apple. Then there’s the fact that Hannah, Dunham’s character, is a writer. Plus, the guys in the show kind of resemble me — a bit on the scruffy side, unshaven, artsy, tech-savvy, weird.

And yet, I really don’t like the show. Don’t get me wrong, I watch it. I can’t turn away. It’s like a train wreck in which the train cars are 10-year-old Honda Civics (the official parent-purchased car of the Millennial generation), screeching over Spotify-streaming music tracks, and crashing into a graffiti-covered Facebook wall.

Lena Dunham is like a new, contemporary incarnation of the [Great Male Narcissist, or] GMN.

I get all the pieces, but the whole of it is just sad.

It’s taken me three seasons to figure this out. It’s always made me uncomfortable and at times the characters are laughable parodies of people I know, but that doesn’t get to the heart of what really bothers me.

And then it occurred to me: Lena Dunham is the new John Updike — but not in a good way.

In David Foster Wallace’s essay “John Updike, Champion Literary Phallocrat, Drops One; Is This Finally the End for Magnificent Narcissists?” he describes the waning influence of those he called the “Great Male Narcissists,” or GMNs. These include Updike, as well as Norman Mailer, Philip Roth and their ilk. When Wallace’s piece was published in October 1997 in the New York Observer as a review of Updike’s novel “Toward the End of Time,” Updike still had another decade of life left ahead of him, but Wallace predicted, “When a solipsist dies…everything goes with him.” And, for a while, it looked like Wallace was right.

Jemima Kirke, from left, Lena Dunham, Allison Williams and Zosia Mamet attend the premiere of HBO's "Girls" third season on Monday, Jan. 6, 2014 in New York. (Charles Sykes/AP)

Jemima Kirke, from left, Lena Dunham, Allison Williams and Zosia Mamet attend the premiere of HBO’s “Girls” third season on Monday, Jan. 6, 2014 in New York. (Charles Sykes/AP)

But, Lena Dunham is like a new, contemporary incarnation of the GMNs. It’s very likely that Dunham, who graduated from Oberlin College in 2008 and was a Creative Writing major, studied Updike and other modernist writers. She, like most English majors of the past several decades, was probably exposed to the greats of modernity by professors who admired them and thought that writers like Updike spoke for their generation. And we all got it in our heads that we needed to write like them, and then become the voice of our own generation. In the pilot episode of “Girls,” Dunham’s character Hannah even tells her parents, “I may be the voice of my generation, or, at least, a voice, of a generation.” Though, in interviews, Dunham has disassociated herself with the statement, insisting that it was her character speaking, and, at the time, her character was high on opium.

I certainly had an outsized admiration for writers like Updike and Mailer when I was in college. I’m pretty sure I’ve even written somewhere that Updike’s short story “A&P,” which is included in every literature anthology ever, was what made me want to be a writer. And it’s true; there’s no denying the literary prowess of John Updike and the like. But something happens for most of us by the time we earn our degrees or shortly thereafter; we realize that the GMNs were actually kind of jerks. Wallace writes that Updike’s characters, which are often just stand-ins for the author himself, are “incorrigibly narcissistic, philandering, self-contemptuous, self-pitying…and deeply alone.” Some of the shimmer wears off these guys when real life happens. Suddenly illicit affairs and rampant alcohol abuse no longer seem so glamorous.

Dunham fetishizes these horrors in ‘Girls;’ rather than offer an antidote to what ails Millennials, she makes it seem somehow glamorous.

But I’m not sure Dunham has come to this conclusion yet. Sure, her characters’ list of peccadilloes is different — they’re more of the drug-addicted, sadistic sorts — but they are no less narcissistic, self-contemptuous, self-pitying or alone.

Lena Dunham, the person, seems likable and sincere — she’s nothing if not hardworking and industrious. And, as a writer who is slightly older than she is, I’m unabashedly envious of her success. Further, what most bothers me about “Girls” is not really any of the things that seem to spark others’ ire — the show’s nudity, the lack of minority characters, or the famously disturbing sex scenes. No, what bothers me about “Girls” is that Dunham seems painfully unaware that, as Wallace writes, “today’s subforties have very different horrors, prominent among which are anomie and solipsism and a peculiarly American loneliness.” Dunham fetishizes these horrors in “Girls;” rather than offer an antidote to what ails Millennials, she makes it seem somehow glamorous.

Ultimately, “Girls” feels like a missed opportunity from an artist who seems capable of so much more.  TWEET While the show occasionally has glimmers of important social commentary about an emerging and misunderstood demographic, most often it comes across as little more than a hyper-produced “selfie.”


Tags: Best Of Cog, Books, Film/TV

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  • thedeathofirony

    “and, at the time, her characters was high on opium.”

    This generation needs a proofreader.

    • Mariclaire Sheehan Buckley

      “…rather than offer an anecdote to what ails Millennials”

      Perhaps the write thinks a short, amusing story could save this generation.

      • Frannie Carr

        Thanks for catching these typos, folks. Both have been fixed.

    • Phil_LaFountain

      But that’s what you’re here for!

      • thedeathofirony

        Apparently so

  • JennyP

    I also have a hard time stomaching the main characters on this show with the exception of Shoshanna (read: and Adam. Dunham is aware of the character’s narcissism and even sociopathy and has begun exploring it in the latest episodes though. It’s meant to be an entertaining trainwreck which is why it’s on cable. Shameless is no better but still a great show.

  • jenswart

    I think there are a lot of perspectives you can take on the show. Like you, I always watch, but don’t really like it. I was born in 1980, and I think people born in those first few years of the 80s are just older enough than Dunham (and her characters) to have realized a lot about real life. So we’re watching these girls in their mid-twenties act like dumb-asses (sometimes), because it’s interesting, and there are enough recognizable characters for us to feel a tie to it, but it’s annoying because they haven’t learned anything about how to act like a grown-up who is a not a narcissistic jerk. But maybe they’ll get there? It’s sort of like my friends and I watching Sex and the City in college, knowing full well it wasn’t an accurate depiction of most women, but drawn in none the less.

    • eat_swim_read

      Interesting points. The difference was that Sex/City ‘girls’ had jobs – a Harvard lawyer, a marque columnist, a PR maven…
      These girls seem like aging kids, whining to the ‘rents for, well, rent. Maybe Carrie had a leg up (she was, what, 10 or so years older in her show than Lena & company are?) when she started out.
      I dunno, or care. I got sick of the we-have-no-parents vibe of that show (except when a mom dies and that led to relationship issues for her daughter…) From the blank slate of Carrie & friends, who kept announcing they were ‘family’ we have progressed to helicopter parents as after-college fallbacks.
      What is hard to see is how Lena’s character will go from distracted ramblings to work good enough for a major newspaper’s feature column, week after week, as Carrie produced.
      Where’s the Girls work ethic?

      • Susan Nason

        This particular generation doesn’t have a great work ethic. Sure everyone is going to say that’s not true I work, so do all my friends and we are part of that generation. But in general we were a very spoiled coddled generation growing up. I never received help from my parents because they didn’t have the money to help and I am sure there are many other’s like me. But I do know that almost everyone I went to school with had a great deal of financial help from their parents. Most of their parents weren’t filthy rich, just average middle class Americans. For the most part we are a selfish and often lazy generation. We want free money so we can sit around and complain about how hard our lives are all day instead having to actually work. Girls represents that perfectly. I know many will disagree, but being a part of this generation it is what I have found to be true.

        • mamram

          A lot of people our age depend on help from our parents because wages are far lower and tuitions much higher now than they were for our parents or our parents’ parents. I understand that a lot of baby boomers have decided that the high unemployment rate is somehow a result of poor millennial character or something, but that doesn’t make it true. It’s great that you were able to make it work with little or no help (and you’re right, a lot of people have no choice but to do that) but you can still have empathy for your peers who may really be stuck, and are accepting help from their parents because it’s the only way they can make certain moves at a critical time in their professional lives.

        • Megawatt

          Speak for yourself.

        • eat_swim_read

          well, I can’t agree or disagree since I am past this age. It does seem odd that career under-achievers are living in NYC and bopping around seemingly unaware they would last 10 mins. in that kind of city (cost-wise) without significant help.
          Makes them – not all 20-somethings – seem juvenile and whiny.

  • CAP1985

    If Lena was a man, I don’t think we’d keep having this same conversation over and over and over again.

    • tolin

      No, but we probably should. It doesn’t make her a better writer, it just means she’s doing what a bunch of white males her age are doing. The novelty is that she’s female. And that’s important, and worth doing for the sake of shaking up our misogynistic culture, but it’s not really creative.

    • chiwawa

      Dunham has been compared to Danny DeVito, because she has supposedly made t into the biz on talent and not good looks. However, can you imagine the outcry if Danny DeVito did explicit sex/nude scenes? Dunham is a fat pig exhibitionist and I agree with the author that she is capable of so much more.

      • CAP1985

        So she’s capable of doing more, but she’s a “fat pig exhibitionist”…? Really? What is this entire comment? She made it into the “biz” because she’s smart, talented, funny, and tough as nails (especially given people saying crap like this.)

        I don’t think she’s the funniest or sharpest person in Hollywood, but I admire her strength and humor. I also admire Danny DeVito, another person who shows that your run-of-the-mill jerks won’t hold him back from fame and money.

        Good grief. Also, for a nice, heavy dose of Danny DeVito’s body, just watch It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. We get a whole ‘lotta DD, and no one’s screaming and crying about it.

  • Lena Dunham

    I like to sleep with my girlfriends underwear in my mouth.

  • wburlistener

    i totally disagree – i’m nearly 40, so (ugh, considerably) older than both dunham and this article’s author, and i love the show. we don’t assume that vince gilligan or bryan cranston are anything like walter white, so why must hannah = lena? has dunham ever claimed that the “girls” are anything other than “GFMs”? together, they seem like an amalgam of many of the personality traits typically assigned to Millennials. and it’s funny.

    • NoFightingInTheWarRoom

      Because Dunham’s previous works have many similarities to this show. Gilligan’s works did not have many parallels to Breaking Bad…and Cranston is not a writer. When a writer’s work has many parallels to that writer’s life (as Updike and Dunham’s work does) you have to believe that at least some of it is autobiographical.

      • wburlistener

        yes, but how does “some of it is autobiographical” translate to “dunham thinks these characters’ personalities and their actions are good” or “representative of a generation”?

        • NoFightingInTheWarRoom

          Your comment said “we don’t assume that vince gilligan or bryan cranston are anything like walter white, so why must hannah = lena”, that is what I was responding to. You didn’t mention her speaking for a generation.

      • Susan Nason

        Everyone should just stop assuming things about other’s. There is too much of that going around these days.

        • NoFightingInTheWarRoom

          Who is assuming things about others?

    • elizabennett

      middle-aged males are, it has been established, this program’s chief demographic viewer band. the age contemporaries of the folks on this show are hep to what icky troll dolls they are, and aren’t as enthralled…

  • Lynn R Guerra

    I was born in 1983 and I disagree with the premise that there is anything ‘glamorous’ about this show. I don’t want anything that the Girls have.The characters are laughable idiots doomed to loneliness because of their inability to sacrifice self for or create lasting emotional ties to others. A few have won my sympathy, the others make me laugh, squirm and then stop watching. I think that as the show progresses and some life lessons actually get learned, as they must – the show will transform – for better or for worse. It’s painful for a reason.

    • Shazie

      I completely agree. I can’t think of one thing about this show that is glamorous. The characters’ lives are incredibly sad to me. In fact, what is interesting about the show is that it somehow manages to be funny and depressing at the same time.

  • ZachA

    Being reminded of Wallace saying that about Updike brings back all the reasons why he was/is the most celebrated buffoon of our time.

    Oh, and the show. It’s just not very good. It may represent a self centered subculture in NYC, but it does not represent a generation by a long shot. The fact that Honda Civics were popular for awhile does not equal causation.

    • ml77

      Why does it have to represent an entire generation? We don’t expect other shows to do that. I love the show, but I see it as 4 young women making mistakes while trying to figure out who they really are. Gen X, Gen Y, whatever – most people in their 20s don’t have life figured out. Even when people got married younger, they were still making mistakes and growing up during those years.
      Part of what I like about the show is that they are often clearly doing the wrong thing and making the wrong choice (and they are so sure they are right!), but they have no idea until it’s too late.
      I’m not sure how people didn’t notice that John Updike’s characters were a bunch of jerks, I noticed that the first time I read Rabbit, Run, but that doesn’t make it an awful piece of writing. Likeability is overrated.

  • kserpico

    Nope, men just don’t get this show. Sorry.

  • maraith

    From the first sentence “I’m supposed to like…” to the last “…little more than a hyper-produced ‘selfie’,” this column is criticism through the lens of “me me me.” Try rising above you you you and your sensitivity to what pop culture says, and review the work on its own merits. Then you will be doing the true work of a reviewer.

    • David S

      It’s lousy on its own merits. Nuff said.

  • michaelwithpaws

    A&P definitely lasts. I can still remember a few tense images from it. Girls just
    seems to have tension with no images when I try to remember it though.

  • NoFightingInTheWarRoom

    The difference is Dunham’s Hannah is portrayed as something of a hero that people want to aspire to. Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom was never portrayed as hero, but rather as a cautionary tale.

    • weareastrangemonkey

      I don’t see how anybody would aspire to be the character of Hannah. I don’t think her portrayal of Hannah is at all flattering – it just seems honest.

    • ml77

      I don’t see it that way at all. Just because she’s the main character doesn’t make her a hero. They’ve shown over and over how much she can drive the other characters crazy and how her behavior has affected close friendships. Where is the hero portrayal?

    • Susan Nason

      I don’t see any “hero” portrayal at all in this show. People look up to Lena Dunham for her creative writing and for being who she is. Lena is not Hannah.

  • kateb

    I like the show, but it’s more or less a dressed up soap opera. I wouldn’t compare it, artistically to the work of John Updike, though I get the point about the all-suffering selfish characters, and I don’t think it has anything to do with Dunham being a woman. It’s okay tv. That’s all.

  • weareastrangemonkey

    I have no idea what your baseline is for this show. It seems like you are comparing it to great literary works? It certainly fails to be a great work of literature but then it is a tv show.

    It could be better but it is a considerably more realistic and credible portrayal of a group of young people’s lives, outer an inner, than pretty much any other television show out there. I think it serves as a great tonic for younger people to have something out there that gives a more realistic exposition of the life of others than to that which they are typically exposed. Something that tells young people that the norm is not beautiful people with beautiful partners but screwed up people muddling through life.

    The typical tv show about the young actually valorizes those who are “incorrigibly narcissistic, philandering, self-contemptuous, self-pitying…and deeply alone.”. Moreover, they all but explicitly endorse such behaviour as laudable. Dunham, on the contrary, makes it clear throughout the show that the characters suffer as a result of their flaws as do those around them. Most prominently, the problems of the central characters frequently flow from their inability to go beyond their own petty problems and aspire to some form of real virtue.


    I’m going to watch “The Comedy” again.

  • DANEgerus

    If Lena was a man, the show would have been cancelled because of ratings FAIL

    • Susan Nason

      I doubt it. It’s been nominated for many awards and has won many awards. Ratings keep climbing.

      • BillinHP

        1. The ratings are not rising at all. They keep going down in fact. 2. You’re right that she has Apatow in her corner but that isn’t why HBO renews it. 3. Having said that I believe the show is getting picked up because it sparks conversations with the people HBO is trying to cultivate. Curb You Enthusiasm has never had big ratings and HBO will never cancel it unless Larry David decides he no longer wants to do it. Also, Louis doesn’t have big ratings for FX and they keep it on for the same reasons that HBO keeps Girls on. In other words. You are right. But not for the reasons you mentioned.

    • Susan Nason

      Besides, it isn’t just Dunham. She’s got Judd Apatow in her corner, he’s a man.

  • Sara

    So now we’re infantilizing Dunham by shaking our heads over the fact that she isn’t living up to our vision of her full creative potential? At least have enough respect to just dislike her, as you would any other adult.

  • Jackie Ferrara

    Why should she have to write an antidote to what ails a generation? Maybe you are looking too hard. It’s funny. If you don’t think so, go watch Family Guy.

    • Susan Nason

      I agree completely. Do all shows need to teach us a lesson? It’s creative writing, there is no formula or format, she can write whatever she wants. If you want a show that has an antidote to what ails our generation then write your own show. Some shows just are what they are. No moral lesson to be learned, no path to greatness. It’s more realistic in my opinion.

      • David S

        Gross. This show is really representative of Millenials? God help us.

        • Jackie Ferrara

          I don’t recall people hand wringing over Seinfeld and what the show meant if it represented a generation.

  • Brynn

    Man, this article reads like “How dare this woman act as if she could speak for her generation!” as the author unironically speaks for his generation.

  • J__o__h__n

    I watched the first two seasons and just don’t find it to be very funny. Blaming narcissism isn’t accurate though. Many of the funniest characters to appear on TV are narcissists: Basil Fawlty, Archie Bunker, Eddie and Patsy. Updike wrote about himself frequently, but he could write and was interesting.

    • Susan Nason

      Why does it need to be funny to be entertaining?

      • J__o__h__n

        I was under the impression that it was supposed to be a comedy.

  • Christopher S. Johnson

    Just a minor quibble. If you know anything about Oberlin College, then you know that nobody who went there in 2008 was being taught that Updike spoke for anybody’s generation. The idea is almost laughable.

  • honeybee33

    The problem is not Dunham’s style, it’s that she’s writing about women in their 20s. This kind of novel-gazing train-wreck is not unique to this Millennial generation – it’s fairly universal to the age group. My mom was soooo right when she told me: “America’s biggest-kept secret is that women’s lives don’t get great until they hit 50.”

    • elizabennett

      yeah—the propaganda is that women go on the slag heap when they hit 50, but the reality is, that is when they get fascinating….

  • Victor Villarreal

    The only people I ever see call this woman “the voice of her generation” is rich people in new York. Sorry, I actually work hard and contribute to society by building the buildings, sewers, roads people depend on. Have this spoiled brat live in the real word and she’s be taking fry orders.

  • whatevs

    I don’t mean to be rude but people who “review” people’s art or creativity negatively annoy me. So what if you don’t like the show? Are you riding Lena’s coat tails by attaching yourself to her name knowing gaining exposure for your writing? Persomaynally Lena’s unashamed portrayal of real women’ s bodies has changed my body image for the better. When yoy get your own show and book deal or help somebody have a happier life you won’t have time to belittle other peoples creative hard work.

    • Maggie

      This was kind of rude…he’s just stating his opinion of the show, which turns out to be a meditation on our generation and society. And when he does discuss the parts of the show that he dislikes, he tries to explain why. There’s nothing wrong with this kind of review. Just because a review is negative, doesn’t make it not a review. If people only reviewed work that they had no critique for, what would be the point? And he doesn’t write that the portrayal of real women’s bodies bothers him (he actually writes that it doesn’t). He writes that the issue he has with the show is that it glamorizes the disconnect that many millennials have instead of trying to show a different solution.

      • whatevs

        I never questioned whether he wrote a review.. I said I don’t like negative reviews period. The world would be a better place if we promoted what we love than bashed what we hate. Better still, ate something of your own. What i think is rude is taking a hammer to someone’s piece art work.

        • BillinHP

          Wow. So, basically you think the whole French New Wave should have never happened? Is that it? Because that was a bunch of film critics who decided to take up filmmaking after writing critical pieces about others. Or the Surrealists who also wrote criticism. Unbelievable. Critical thinking used to be considered the height of discourse. I guess people like you would prefer Katy Perry and Judd Apatow. Glad I don’t live in your world.

          • whatevs

            The film makers you mention would have made their films a lot sooner if they hadnt paused to whine and bitch. As for reviewers…what a goal in life. Stunted at high school level essay writing. I have
            uch more admiration for the art they are reviewing even if it was a painting of turd in hat. As for Judd Apatow, I don’t know him bit he seems genuine and sweet in his interviews and who carrs whay katy perry does? writing from this phone is a bitch

  • The HP

    I don’t want to burst your bubble but as soon as I read the beginning of your article I needed to stop and tell you that you are NOT a millennial. I’m sure you’re correct according to the people that decide the per ammeters for these things, but truly you belong to a different generation. You weren’t a kid when 2000 came, you weren’t a kid when the towers fell, George W. Bush was not president throughout your teenage years.

    Obviously just my thoughts but those are the big psychologically defining commonalities of my generation.

  • Ronak Shah

    Like the show, this article is also narcissistic and self-absorbed. That’s what is most disagreeable about the show in general. Self-abuse and self-destruction are simply old and boring. When presented in any medium, these topics lack sufficient and tangible insight to the human character.. It’s just made worse by a portrayal of characters of privilege experiencing such lives. As art, therefore, it feels hollow.

  • DaveHolden

    If not for the endless and tiresome promotion (who is spreading money around?) from people at places like Mediaite most would never have heard of this show.

  • Kizone Kaprow

    There’s no such thing as a “generation,” only individuals. To ascribe characterological traits to an individual based on his date of birth is little better than — and just as silly as — astrology. Nobody speaks for “his generation.” Individuals speak only for themselves.

  • Sarah McCroy

    the 1st season was good, but the rest did indeed fall into a narcissistic high. and missed what was good in the first. I agree with the author here somehow, had she be given time to grow as a writer she would’ve done a much better show.