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Beth Stebner a New York-based editor and writer focusing on lifestyle, fashion, food, and travel, among other topics. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the New York Daily News, VanityFair.com, Yahoo Beauty, Extra Crispy, StyleCaster, Bustle, and more. 

Blog

A blog of my musings, rantings, insights, observations, and such. Opinions are strictly my own. 

Mean "Girls": My (many) issues with Lena Dunham as the voice of my generation

Beth Stebner

Now that it’s awards circuit season, news of the show’s creator, star, writer, and executive producer, 26-year-old Lena Dunham is everywhere. She’s ubiquitous on websites, on the radio, on TV, at the Golden Globes (come on, Lena, that Zac Posen dress deserved better posture!). She’s even at my morning commute, blinking and smiling uncertainly up at me from the massive “Girls” posters that are on nearly every subway platform and street corner.

Love her or hate her (and many critics are vocal about the New York native either way), everyone seems to have something to say about the writer.

Though I’ve watched all of Season One and masochistically veered into season two (and some episodes multiple times), I’ve yet to join the ladies of my demographic in gushing, “This show, like, GETS me,” or “This series is basically my life!” or even, “I feel like, so validated knowing that other people are going through the same things as me!”

Ballad of big nothing: Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham) gets cut off from her parents' novel/internship funding

Ballad of big nothing: Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham) gets cut off from her parents' novel/internship funding

Indeed, the ennui of my generation makes great fodder for artistic pursuits. It is not unlike the struggle of artists in 1960s Greenwich Village, or Hemingway’s Lost Generation, but while the Hannah Horvaths of the world are coming to terms with their financial realities, and the Shoshannah’s are dealing with wave of new emotions after losing their virginity, the one thing that “Girls” is missing is a higher goal. Not only that, it’s missing a pulse.

There is no end direction for any of these characters, no ultimate goal rather than the vague one of “making it.” (Funnily enough, "How to Make It in America" was another of HBO’s ventures to capture 20-something struggles and success. A scouting manager came to my old East Village apartment when that show was filming. They were looking for a “before they make it” apartment for one of their earliest scenes. My little tenement was deemed too small and the scoutmasters moved on.)

I also find it extremely hard to relate to any one character. While I’ve struggled with my identity, relationships with the wrong men, jiggly thighs, working at coffee shops to make ends meet (though in my case it was a wine bar), and, oh, the wrong men, I don’t find any of the characters sympathetic or really likeable at all for that matter. And all of Dunham’s excessive nudity? I commend her bravado, but it’s just unnecessary at this point. Less is more, Lena. Subtlety is the lost art of my generation and was forgotten when the world of social media, Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, iPhones, and so on made everyone The Most Important Person in the Country.

After thinking long and hard as to why I didn’t relate to the characters, the only thing I could come up with was that the casting, deep down, bothers me.  When the show first came out, New York Magazine hailed it for being “like nothing else on TV” and branded it a “Sex and the City” for the Urban Outfitters generation and heralding it following the zeitgeist of modern young American culture.

Paint it black: Do you like my nail polish? It's called 'Ennui' 

Paint it black: Do you like my nail polish? It's called 'Ennui' 

And what of the casting? The show has been criticized for its nepotism, and I wouldn’t disagree. The three other leads are simply high-profile names to add to the cast list - Allison Williams, the stunning daughter of NBC News’ Brian Williams. Zosia Mamet, the daughter of a famous playwright. And Jemima Kirke, a friend of Dunham’s who really just wants to paint and be a mother and acting was just something else to do. I would have wanted to see an unknown plucked from their poverty of their crumbling Harlem studios so that it was more believable.

The amoral joie de vivre, and even the writing, is at times quite clever. (My favorite episode from the season was “The Cracksident,” where the gang goes to a Brooklyn warehouse party and Shoshanna accidentally smokes crack, believing it to be pot.)  A friend asked me the other week what exactly I had against the show, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. But then , digging deeper, I think I found the answer.

I would rather be told something about my generation that I don’t know. I want insight to my own mediocre fumblings. But what do I know as I sigh over my scallion pancakes and Diet Peach Snapple.

Lena Dunham graduated from Oberlin College with a degree in Creative Writing. I graduated from Miami University with a degree in  Creative Writing. We’re both the same age (give or take a few months). The parallels of my bitterness are certainly clear. I can get over her success and my opposite quasi-failure as a writer (in the sense that I have not been offered my own HBO comedy show). What strikes me is that her material has been the same in everything she’s touched. “Tiny Furniture” was an agonizing hour and a half of a college graduate uncertain of her future and of a young woman who turns down a career opportunity for sex in a pipe. And so is “Girls” - albeit peppered with parties in Brooklyn warehouses, awkwardness with casual hookups, and shower peeing.

Creative Writing professors chant the mantra,“Write what you know!” It's Writing 101. Dunham has done that with zeal, writing about the New York experience for the Gen Yers as a noble battle of living in Brooklyn (the fun parts, not the scary parts) on your parents’ dime, then learning how to cope when they cut you off, but bitch about it for a full two episodes. Hannah Horvath wants to write a memoir at the tender age of 24. Lena Dunham is writing one at 26 (to the tune of a reported $3.7million contract). When I told one of my writing professors at the age of 21 that I had ambitions to do the same, he flat-out laughed at me. ‘You need to live more, get messy,’ he said.

What can be said at 26 in memoir form that hasn't already been explicitly covered in "Tiny Furniture" or "Girls"? Life, love, relationships? If most 26-year-olds receive harsh criticism for not having lived enough to be doling out advice, sage or otherwise, why should Dunham escape that? (A book publisher might say that Dunham is uniquely appealing because of her multimedia platform. To which I say: pooh pooh. That said, I'm sure I'll be buying the book for several of my friends next Christmas.) The New York Times reported last fall that the memoir was in the same vein as Nora Ephron or David Sedaris, both exceptionally witty writers with much more experience under them.

It is, to say the least, presumptuous and - to wit - egotistical to say that you can offer the public lessons on life, love, sex, and mortality at only two decades old. Or forget the age, it's even the quality, breadth, and amount of time to experience so-called life events.

In Tina Fey's achingly brilliant "Bossypants," the former "30 Rock" writer delves into her time as a 22-year-old overeducated, underemployed know-it-all borrowing her roommate's suits and working at the local YMCA before she finally went to Second City and then onto "Saturday Night Live." Dunham never had to struggle for her art in the same blue-collar way. No doubt Dunham will enjoy a long, successful career as a "size 10 who goes to the Met Ball" (her words, not mine), but it's too soon, and it's all of this one song glory, the intellectual philosopher who like, still, like, talks like a 90s kid.

One commenter on the New York Times website wrote last fall that Dunham's halcyon days would be short lived. "Congrats to Dunham for hitting the gusher," they wrote. "But, Tina Fey had a fan base that Dunham never had. Random House will likely lose a bundle, a few editors an publishers will lose their jobs, but the real victims will be the writers who didn't get book deals, and their potential readers, because of the money poured down this sinkhole."

Chef special: Watch me cook up a half hour of manic metropolitan tedium

Chef special: Watch me cook up a half hour of manic metropolitan tedium

I’m resentful that Dunham was given such free reign to make a show (and soon, a book) where she is the orbital force of the Horvathiverse, and upset that she languishes in the suspended state of teenaged freedoms, the sexual liberations of the 20s, and the constant pissing and moaning about not knowing/how Hard it is being an adult, the exact plot of "Tiny Furniture." And let’s not talk about the most recent episode with Patrick Wilson (who, sources tell me, did his own beautiful method steak eating).

Pipe dreams: Pipe sex vs. career - which will win?

Pipe dreams: Pipe sex vs. career - which will win?

But what is happiness to a generation that has been taught to be perpetually malcontent while being spared the hardships previous generations endured? There’s so much entitlement and whiteness in this show that I tired of their whiney self-pity and Lack of a Greater Purpose by episode three.

I would rather be told something about my generation that I don’t know. I want insight to my own mediocre fumblings. But what do I know as I sigh over my scallion pancakes and Diet Peach Snapple.

Maybe the show generated so much buzz in the first place because most 26-year-olds are not writing, producing, and starring in a show based on their own experiences. Maybe Dunham's comfortably settled into her niche of capturing quarter-life malaise, much like Katherine Heigel has made it her life mission to star in the worst rom-coms out there.

My friends here in New York are all intelligent, bright, resourceful young people with pretty hair (most of the time) and lusty nature (especially when it comes to getting concert tickets or craft beers). If given the same creative license that Dunham has, they would be able to create a poignant, emotionally savvy show that captures the frustrations and small triumphs that are defined as being 26 and in New York.