@lenadunham, "Girls" and the World of Work

by Matthew Stollak on Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Last week, Victorio Milian ran a series on the future of HR from the perspective of those just graduating.  He graciously asked for me to guest post from the perspective of the academic watching these excited men and women enter the workplace.  In my post, "Learned Helplessness," I took a more Debbie Downer approach, arguing that the economy had taken an economic and psychological toll on the expectations of these Linksters.  While I tried to end on an optimistic note, in the words of the Joker in "The Dark Knight, "Why so serious?!!?"

Perhaps it's because I've spent the last several Sundays watching "Girls" on HBO.  Created by, and starring, 26-year-old wunderkind Lena Dunham, "Girls" comedically examines the lives of Hannah Horvath (Dunham) and her three friends as they struggle to find themselves after college.  So, what insight can be drawn by a 44-year-old white male living in Northeast Wisconsin about 22-26 year old women?  And what generalities can be drawn from a specific group of young white female twentysomethings living in New York City about the greater world and their cohort?  You be the judge.  However, despite its likely skewed cultural perspective, it is one of the few shows on TV exploring the work world at that age.

Episode 1
While the show is quite humorous (I usually laugh out loud at least twice per episode), Dunham paints a very interesting portrait of the work world.  When we are first introduced to Hannah, she is at dinner with her parents where economic support from her parents is unexpectedly cut off.  Hannah laments, "Do you know how crazy the economy is right now? I mean, all of my friends get help from their parents."  She subsequently gets fired from her year-long unpaid internship to work on her sure to be successful memoirs, and refuses to take a job at McDonald's despite the pay and free fries.  "When you get hungry enough, you'll figure it out," Hannah's boss tells her after he fires her. "Do you mean physically hungry or hungry enough for the job?" she asks.  She confronts her parents and asks for $1,100 a month for support until she finishes her memoirs, which her parents blow off.

Episode 2
Now jobless, Hannah finds herself interviewing at a trade publication.  The interview is going swimmingly well, with a lot of flirty repartee...it appears that she is going to land it and then....

Hannah: I read a statistic that said  Syracuse has the highest incidents of date rape of any university
Interviewer: .......wow......
Hannah: ...which weirdly went way down the year that you graduated
Hannah: That was a joke because I was saying that there was no more date rape because they figured out who was doing it and it was you
Interviewer: maybe you're not used to office environments like this but jokes about rape or rape and incest or any of that stuff, it's not office-okay...and so....I don't think this is gonna work out right now, but call us back 6 or 8 months down the road.  We'll stay in touch.
Episode 4
Since Episode 2, Hannah apparently finds a job at a law office.  Unfortunately, her boss sexually harasses her.  When she talks to her co-workers, it turns out they condone his inappropriate "massages," ("you'll get used to it") as it means job security, and an iPod Nano on one's birthday.

Meanwhile, Hannah's friend Jessa has a job as a nanny (a common job amongst many of the students I teach).  She takes the kids to a park, gets involved in a conversation with other nannies, and loses the kids (only to find them a few minutes later...the show is not that cruel).

Episode 5
Hannah decides the best way to confront the situation at work is to offer to sleep with her boss (in part, for a story for her memoirs).  When he refuses, she replies, "I could sue you, you know."  The boss laughs at her veiled threats, and despite her protestations, he still wants her to stay.  Hannah subsequently quits.

Episode 6
Hannah returns home to East Lansing, MI (my hometown).  Her mom asked her to pick up something at the drugstore, and she meets a former classmate, who has a stable job as a pharmacist.  She also meets up with a classmate who wants to move to L.A. to be a dancer.  When she tells the story to the pharmacist, Hannah notes, "Heather is moving to California to become a professional dancer, so that should all make us feel pretty sad and weird ... And nobody is telling her. She's going to go to L.A., and live in some shitty apartment, and she's going to feel scared and sad and lonely and weird all of the time." Ironically, she would like Heather's life. "Maybe I should move here. I wouldn't have to worry about rent all of the time, so that I can finally work on my book."
though when we see her routine, 

To recap:
From her perspective, work appears to be a scary place.  There doesn't appear to be much competence for her cohorts to emulate.  Meanwhile, 7 episodes in,  we haven't seen her produce anything from her writing, and it doesn't appear her and her friends have any real aspirations.  There's no desire portrayed to be successful at work, or even rich.  Its all stasis.

Yes, its television, and, yes, it is a comedy.  Competence doesn't produce drama or laughs.  In the first episode Hannah states, “I think I’m the voice of my generation,”and then self-consciously recants.  “At least I am a voice.  Of a generation.”   Again, we are hearing Dunham's voice, but it its one of the only ones in this media-saturated environment that is looking at the lives of post-college adulthood.  I only wish there was a little more to cheer for.

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