What if Lena Dunham Were a Man?

Girls makes me wonder: Do 20-something women have a corner on self-humiliation?

As I write this, the much-publicized second season of Lena Dunham’s Girls is about to premiere on HBO. I won’t be watching. I want to see this sophomore season the same way I did the first—via On Demand, while sitting on my sofa beside my 23-year-old daughter. After all, she’s what the show’s about.

Oh, she’s not quite in the same state as Hannah and Jessa and Shoshanna (though her name does end in an “a,” as appears to be de rigueur for the show; I’m sure the exception, “Marnie,” is short for Marina or something). My kid’s not as aimless; she’s in grad school, at least. But I like to use her as a sounding board for the episodes of the show to see if her takeaway is anything like mine, considering the gap of 32 years between us. The whole point of Girls is that it captures her generation, right?

The critics haven’t been especially kind to the show’s sophomore year. The Inquirer’s David Hiltbrand called the season “sadly grotesque” (in a downer review titled “These Girls offering anything but fun”). The Huffington Post’s Maureen Ryan weighed in that it has “a sour, meandering air” and that its characters are “clueless and unpleasantly narcissistic.” And in the Washington Post, Hank Stuever decreed that the show becomes “more burdensome from episode to episode” as it chronicles its “maddeningly self-absorbed generation.” While I wouldn’t argue against the assessment that my Marcella’s peers are narcissistic and self-absorbed—and I’ve written as much—I do wonder what, exactly, those critics were like when they were her age.

In fact, what I like best about the series is the way it shows just how little American girls—women—have changed since I graduated from college back in the ’70s and moved to the big city. While I bemoan the similarities—especially the way these modern misses still seem condemned, despite all the feminism that’s passed under our culture’s bridge, to define themselves solely in terms of whether they can attract men, and what sorts of men those are—I also find them vaguely soothing. I read and write so much about how Marcy’s generation is different from mine that I’m continually surprised, when I watch the series, that these clueless, self-absorbed girls who wound their friends with thoughtlessness and drink themselves blind and humiliate themselves sexually with caddish young men just so they won’t have to sleep alone aren’t all that different from me and my friends at that age. Except that they don’t do nearly as many drugs.

There are plenty of encouraging statistics about young women today—for instance, the fact that they’re outstripping their male peers in college enrollment and graduation rates, and that teen pregnancy is at its lowest point in 35 years. I’d love to claim these as proof that feminism’s lessons about empowerment are taking hold. But I’m just not sure. If someone as smart and talented and creative and driven as Girls creator Lena Dunham is so eerily familiar with the concept of desperately looking to the men in her life for validation (I’ve read she’s dating the guitarist from my favorite band, fun.), I have to wonder what the past three decades of striving for equality have been about.

On the other hand, we’re talking about the human heart. And maybe no matter what you do with or to the head, the human heart doesn’t change. The girls in Girls don’t seem to be any less craven than those in Shakespeare’s day, or in ancient Greece or Rome or Mesopotamia, in their attempts to find meaning for themselves by subsuming their wants and needs to please men. On a societal level, that kind of makes me crazy. But on the level where I sit beside Marcy on the sofa and rail along with her at Dunham’s characters’ foolish choices, it makes me feel a lot less old, a lot less out of touch, and a lot more sympathetic toward young women today.

I would love to know, though—where are the shows about young men making these same sorts of compromises and concessions? Would such characters simply be too unrelate-able and unbelievable for TV?