I feel like I deserve some kind of medal for making it several months, in a column specifically concerned with talking-‘bout-my-generation musings, without invoking the HBO series Girls. Love it or hate it (and those seem to be the only two possible reactions), creator Lena Dunham’s hit show has become a cultural touchstone for understanding a certain stratum of young urban hipster.
At this point, everyone has taken a turn at trying to define that stratum. Here’s my attempt: Girls is Sex & the City for a generation that would have considered itself too preciously authentic to align with Carrie Bradshaw & Co., broads who reveled in the highlife of modern Manhattan. Girls viewers, you see, would rather honor their intrinsic genuineness by subletting Brooklyn basement apartments. From its trendy-but-threadbare wardrobe to its au courant worship of folksy indie-rock, the Girls crowd romanticizes simpler days (circa 1970-something) when, they imagine, their flannel-clad dad once rocked a mean mustache that tickled the top of his canned craft beer. (He wasn’t yet some lame-o corporate drone!) And mom? She dressed like Mia Farrow, crocheting cardigans in avocado green to wear in her next march with the gals of NOW.
Of course, the millennials can’t actually be nostalgic for an era they never experienced in the first place. So don’t mistake this preoccupation for legitimate longing. It is really a generation declaring its values by invoking idealized associations with all that feels rosy, uncomplicated and authentic. In a way, that’s sort of sweet. Yet, if water cooler conversation is any indication, it annoys the hell out of some (mostly slightly-older) people. Why?
Because while the Girls audience fancies itself enlightened enough to recognize the crushing burden of the modern condition, it pays only lip service to rejecting it. An untethered life sounds appealing, but this generation would never actually give up the right to tweet its intellectualism and Instagram (In Toaster! Looks old!) its ennui. It rolls its eyes at #FirstWorldProblems, but it would never actually want to be cured of them. That hypocrisy is, I think, what rubs people the wrong way about the show.
Me? I mostly enjoy Girls. It’s just that, at 30, I’m slightly outside the bull’s-eye of its target audience. Dunham is 26 (playing 24-year old Hannah), and her series is definitely the creative work of a sister speaking specifically to her mid- and early-20s peers. Even a few years will matter in the ability of a viewer to “get” Girls, which is consumed with the agonies and ecstasies of developing a post-college, adult identity in a fast-changing culture. Here a difference of even, say, six years is the difference between someone who remembers the advent of internet-equipped PCs, and someone who can’t remember living in a world that wasn’t always wired. It’s the difference between someone who still thinks of reality TV as faddish, and someone who long ago internalized the way in which the genre convincingly dresses up self-indulgent bluster as important acts of self-analysis. (That’s a vital skill here; obsessive navel-gazing is what Girls is all about.)
Yet, for a show that sets its sights so squarely on representing Generation Y, Girls so far takes a curiously antiquated approach to one time-honored television trope: the gay best friend (GBF).
In this case, the GBF is Hannah’s college ex-boyfriend, Elijah. He’s played by Andrew Rannells, who also currently stars as Bryan Collins on NBC’s The New Normal. Incidentally, do the networks share a wardrobe department? Because 34-year old Rannells has the same outfits whether he’s playing a recent college grad or an established professional and dad-to-be. (Either way he’s gay and nice, so you know… Sweater-vests.)
In Girls’ first season, Elijah tells Hannah he’s gay. She’s super upset, in that whole did-I-make-you-gay? way. (Do girls actually still think that?) In Season Two, they’re living together like happy, platonic newlyweds. Their relationship basically consists of Elijah listening, with saintly patience, to Hannnah’s insufferable declarations of existential angst. They also banter about which shoes go best with which blouse, and trade no-I-love-living-with-you-more cutesiness.
Hey, Girls: Aren’t you talking to a “post-gay” generation? How do these characters live in a world where Will & Grace hadn’t already transcended such clichés, oh, 12 years ago?
(Oh, Elijah also gives naïve, experimenting Hannah an education in party drugs - because he already knows all about them, girl. Because he’s gay, and because we haven’t already seen Queer as Folk, I guess.)
The twosome’s relationship sours once Hannah discovers that Elijah had abbreviated, drunken sex with her best friend, Marnie. On one hand, I give Girls points for the scenario. “Fluid sexuality” is usually presented in a unidirectional, straight-trying-gay way; it was bold to suggest that Elijah, whose eyebrows alone are a Kinsey 5, might actually enjoy getting frisky (beyond butterfly kisses) with a girl. He doesn’t even feel conflicted about it. Gasp!
But Girls also goes to great lengths to remind us that the tryst was truncated. (He didn’t even “finish,” so presumably it doesn’t “count.”) And Hannah’s reaction – she gets crazy-jealous and evicts Elijah – echoes the standard sitcom position that gay pals somehow “belong” to their heterosexual female friend. The GBF is not actually an autonomous being, but a possession that serves as fashionable arm candy and/or a source of moral support. He is a handbag. He is a small dog.
A pretty dated approach, right? Maybe in time, the character of Elijah will enjoy a more deepened, developed plotline. But I won’t hold my breath. After all, Girls is a spectacular (and sometimes spectacularly infuriating) examination of self-absorption; each character views herself as the center of existence, and other people as satellites occasionally intersecting her orbit. Girls is a show about – well, girls. The boys are just accessories.
But really – you’re not going to wear us like that, are you?