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In the 90s, every woman was a Miranda, Carrie, Samantha or Charlotte. ‘Sex and the City’ provided an identification matrix with which the entire female population of the Western World could be neatly categorized into one of four groups. What a time for feminism.
Thankfully, it is not the 90s anymore. Indeed, Carrie Fever has devolved into a series of tired movies kept afloat by menopausal soccer-moms who refuse to smile at the overpaid screenwriters’ desperately persistent wordsmithery for fear of angering the vengeful botox Gods. The time of ‘Sex and the City’ is passed; it is now, if modern media is to be believed, the golden age of HBO’s ‘Girls’.
The comparison between the two immensely popular televisions series is not altogether apt. ‘Girls’ is about the lives of newly emancipated twenty somethings who struggle to find a place for themselves in a world in which a liberal arts degree has exactly as much value as the (recycled) paper it was printed on. On the other hand, ‘Sex and the City’ was about the lives of inexplicably upwardly mobile thirty somethings who struggle to multitask the immensely complicated activities of buying shoes, having orgasms, asking pert, rhetorical questions and going to brunch.
Occasionally, each show strays into the territory of the other– ‘Girls’ spends a fair deal of time in its premiere season focusing on the meaningful and meaningless sexual activities of its central characters, just as ‘Sex and the City’ delved into Carrie’s dire, if fleeting, financial problems and at times, and with a surprising degree of sensitivity, handled some of the Big Issues (Miranda’s pregnancy, Samantha’s breast cancer, Charlotte’s divorce.) It is worth noting how progressive ‘Sex and the City’ was in its day.
On the whole, from the comfortable vantage point of a 21st Century American, one might be initially forgiven for thinking of ‘Girls’ as an uncomfortably realistic foil against the puffy, aged, formulaic sensationalism of ‘Sex and the City.’ However, it’s actually more complicated than that.
Where ‘Girls’ and ‘Sex and the City’ primarily overlap is that they both provide depictions of contemporary womanhood and specifically female friendship; creator and lead actress of ‘Girls’, Lena Dunham, chose the name of her show with intent. In one of the first scenes of the pilot episode, in fact, protagonist Hannah Horvath, a budding writer, wallows in the bathtub while she speaks to her uptight roommate and best friend, Marnie. With this intimate picture, Dunham establishes the idea that the friendship of these two characters, which is at the heart of the show, could only occur between two women. Furthermore, as actor, heart-throb and NYU alum, James Franco points out in an article for the Huffington Post, Dunham provides very little insight into the perspective of the male characters. This initial season of the show explores experiences that most people go through– unemployment, breakups, drug use, STDs– but somehow deftly anchors these experiences to a uniquely feminine perspective. Go figure: ‘Girls’ is about girls.
‘But what kind of girls is ‘Girls’ about?,’ you might ask. Well, on paper, the answer seems to be that ‘Girls’ is about girls like me: a middle-class, cisgendered, 22 year old University of Pennsylvania attendee, with a BAS in History and English and a group of close female friends, who is struggling to become a writer. Apart from my ethnicity and time spent in Australia, I meet all the necessary requirements for a Hannah Horvath. And yet, unlike ‘Sex and the City”s characterizations, I can’t but hope that I’m nothing like sensitive Hannah, or, for that matter, neurotic Marnie, or naïve Shoshanna or free-spirited Jessa.
Like ‘Sex and the City’, ‘Girls’ has its clearly defined female archetypes. However, Dunham is a significantly more talented writer than those who powered ‘Sex and the City’ for so many barren years, and, as such, there are shades of gray to her characters and their friendships that distort the paradigmatic boundaries of who she represents. Interestingly, for the most part, the primary way in which these shades of grey show themselves in the course of this season, though there is some indication that things will change in the next, is through the moulding of ‘Girls’ female characters into awful human beings to a magnitude that is alienating, rather than humanizing. The girls of ‘Girls’, to different extents, are selfish, narcissistic and inconsiderate.
By contrast, frankly put, the women of ‘Sex and the City’ are so consumed with embodying type A or type B– being Carrie, Samantha, Miranda or Charlotte– that they don’t have enough depth to be generally and basically, sordidly, awful. Lacking ambiguity, the characters of ‘Sex and the City’ are stellar examples of postcard cutouts of real people, 2 dimensional images that haven’t the volume to contain concepts of good or bad. But boy, do they ever seem better than the alternative.
Season one of ‘Girls’ is hilarious, confronting, beautiful, puzzling, difficult to watch, charming and well made, but is it about me? I hope not; I’ll stay a Samantha-Charlotte hybrid, please and thank-you.
Image Courtesy of Girls