Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Womanly Wednesday: What are they ashamed of? and What are they not ashamed of?

There is a great Tom Wolfe cartoon ago that contrasts generational attitudes. One frame showed an old man on a tennis court in the 1950s who was saying, "As long as they don't think I'm poor" and another frame showed an old man in the 1960s on a tennis court saying "As long as they don't think I'm old".

It's always useful to ask ourselves what the elite of any generation are and are not ashamed of.

In that regard, we might ask what the trendoid TV series Girls tells us about the elite of our time? And they are elites. The lead character's parents were able to pay their daughter the equivalent of a full-time salary to live in New York. This after they sent her to university! There are lots of non-elite kids out there who go to university and then can't get jobs but they live at home and work in the service industry*. This is a major expense and it is made clear that the only sacrifice her parents are making to do this is forgoing luxuries.

So this show may be more "realistic" than, say, Friends, in that the spoiled elites behave like real spoiled elites but they remain spoiled elites. Very little we see here is going to apply to most people's lives.

But it is interesting to see what the show tells us about the way the current elite think. For the show is not only about these spoiled rich girls born with all the privileges advantages modern life has to offer, it was created by one of them. Of course, there is some inflation for comic effect here but we can safely assume that Lena Dunham believes she is exaggerating real traits.

And, if we look at it that way, the staggering thing about the show is that its characters are deeply ashamed of their lack of status. The three lead characters all have fantasy career goals (writer and "voice of my generation", artist/educator, and environmental lawyer). These are the sorts of jobs that heroines of romance novels have. Perhaps they will make it into these fields ultimately—in TV land anything is possible. But for now, they have not and they act in ways that show their shame at not making it.

And you get the feeling that the creators feel this shame too because they cannot treat the alternatives seriously. In the first episode, a male friend suggests that Hannah, whose parents will no longer support her, might get a job in the service industry. This is a perfectly reasonable suggestion but the show undercuts it by having the boy who made the suggestion launch into a paean to McDonalds that dimishes everything he says. Anyone who didn't feel a charter-bound sense of entitlement to be part of the elite would just look for a job in the service industry and maybe even at McDonalds.

But that is inconceivable for the Girls. The recurring theme of the show is that these girls all saw Sex and the City and really believed it. They are, as Hannah puts it, "Busy trying to become who I am." Too busy to even learn Photoshop.

Now, I can relate. I was part of a group that read The Preppy Handbook and took it as  a serious guide to life instead of a parody. (Ironically, it turned out to be a pretty good guide to life in some ways.) People do that sort of thing when they are young. But go ahead and learn Photoshop girls!

On the flip side, it's staggering to see how little shame the characters display at their own complete lack of moral character. This comes out most tellingly in the scene where Hannah goes to see her "boyfriend" and is sexually submissive for him. I put "boyfriend" in scare quotes because he simply uses her and has no emotional attachment to her. So she isn't in this for the love and support. But she clearly gets no sexual pleasure from being submissive. So why is she doing it?

We get a bit of a hint when the two of them are sitting on the couch talking after sex and he comments on her large tattoos and asks her why she got them. And she says,
 I gained a bunch of weight very quickly and I felt really out of control with my own body and it was like this riot grrrl idea 'Like I'm taking control of my own shape'.
Notice that the possibility that she might gain control over her body by gaining control over her body isn't even a possibility. No, she does something stupid and irresponsible and is utterly unashamed of it. As the scene plays out, our sympathy is with the girl and not with the boy. He is clearly presented as an uncaring boor instead of what he really is which is a guy who is putting up with a total fruit loop in order to get sex (which is pathetic enough but ....).

Before leaving to go to the dinner party she will be three hours late for, she tells him that being with him really made her feel better. Does she really mean it or is she just so pathetic that she can't face what a complete failure she is as woman, a human being and a moral being, that she pretends to be happy just like she pretends to have a job? It doesn't seem to matter.

* That, by the way, would make an interesting story.

No comments:

Post a Comment