Months after the last episode of season one of Lena Dunham’s new HBO smash hit GIRLS aired, people are still talking about it, anxiously awaiting the return of the show with season two in January 2013. While GIRLS has been likened to the Sex and the City of Generation Y, I disagree. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed many-a-SATC-marathons but not because I really relate to the sexual, relational escapades of Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte, but because their experiences do not exist in reality, at least not in my reality. Watching SATC is more of a voyeuristic experience; it’s watching others experience what you know you never will. I can’t afford a closet full of Manolo Blahniks but it’s fun to occasionally live in the SATC dream world where Carrie, a freelance writer who, in one episode claims she had to put three tomatoes on her credit card, can somehow afford a closet full of $800 footwear.
But GIRLS? GIRLS gets me. Watching GIRLS is less voyeuristic (though there’s plenty of naked sex being shown) and more like looking in a mirror—one of those magnifying mirrors where you can see every pore on your face that you never wanted to see. GIRLS is painfully relatable. I can relate to the ridiculous roommate-fight between Hannah and Marnie. I can relate to Hannah’s masochistic attraction to the guy who treats her like shit. I have friends like Shoshannah who live in a neurotic world of abbreviations. I watch GIRLS and subsequently love GIRLS because I too have (multiple) college degrees but still struggle to pay rent, struggle to not rely on my parents for financial support and somehow remain overly picky about the type of work I’m willing to do.
GIRLS is relatable for young adults in Generation Y because the show successfully displays our failures in a way that makes them feel less like failures. We each want to feel like we’re unique in our struggles, but not so unique that we’re the only ones failing. I’m reminded of the season finale fight scene with main character Hannah and her boyfriend Adam. Hannah claims she’s scared (of a serious relationship). And Adam reminds her that everyone is scared. Hannah retaliates, “But I’m more scared than most people are when they say they’re scared.” The brilliance of the show lines in Hannah’s self-obsessed insecurities displayed for us to relate to, to normalize our own self-obsessed insecurities.
Amidst all of the self-obsessed insecurities of the GIRLS characters, it’s hard to determine who the antagonist is and who the protagonist is. And just when you think you’ve got your finger on a character’s (im)morality they up and tag the word “Sorry” on a city wall, hundreds of times, in the middle of the night (see episode 8).
James Poniewozik reviewed the show for TIME entertainment and discusses the characters’ moral ambiguity: “I don’t need a TV character to be good or likeable to like a show…I don’t think Hannah is a bad person so much as a screw-up, an unformed person. I’ve said it before, I think, but I don’t need to root for her here so much as I root for her to become better.”
Ah, there’s that the compassionate, moral relativism that our generation loves so much.
But I think Poniewozik’s comment only gets at half of why we are so captivated with GIRLS. The moral ambiguity of the characters allows us to relate to them, see ourselves in them. We can identify with the ambiguity of the GIRLS characters; it’s captivating. I’m not sure whether I’m mad at Hannah for ruining things with Adam just when they were getting good, or if what I’m feeling is compassion and sympathy because, girl, I’ve been there. The conversation and characters on GIRLS embody the ambiguity of life of generation Y young adults; we don’t know whether we love ourselves or hate ourselves.
But the other half of why we love GIRLS? We see in Hannah, Marnie, Jessa and Shoshannah our own failures and ridiculousness, but we also like to think that we too possess Lena Dunham’s ability to write a hit HBO show at 25 while still living with her parents, and the ability of Allison Williams (Marnie) to make a name for herself apart from her famous father’s success. And we like to believe that this is all possible for any 25 year old, that it is possible for us.
We relate to the self-obsessed, insecure, unformed characters on the show but we also admire the 25 year olds behind the show’s success. We need to be told we can be both insecure failures and brilliant successes. Generation Y young adults don’t know whether we are proud of ourselves for our unique foray into adulthood, or if in utter insecurity we loathe ourselves because what the hell are we even doing with our lives. The genius of GIRLS is that it gives us permission to be both.