I can’t call my obsession with HBO’s Girls a guilty pleasure. I don’t feel any embarrassment when I profess my love for Lena Dunham’s hit dramedy, despite the funny looks I get from friends and coworkers when I declare it one of the most brilliantly written shows I’ve ever seen.
I normally write for a conservative outlet, so many find it a bit odd that I’d fawn over a show featuring third-wave feminism, unending promiscuity, and nakedly confident licentiousness. After all, Dunham, the show’s creator, constantly blurts out ignorant commentary that borders on parody. (And maybe it is parody, mmm?)
So why do I love it? The show brilliantly captures the existential malaise of so many millennials. I, and many other conservatives, see Girls as perfectly capturing coastal America’s zeitgeist in a way that’s funny but also strikingly self-aware.
The show’s protagonists are by no means meant to be seen as role models, and their lifestyles are consistently a source of self-criticism. Their abandonment of traditional values certainly doesn’t become a source of freedom. Brooklyn isn’t this cool hipster playground — in fact, the show goes to great lengths to portray how insufferable (and frankly lame) many of its residents are.
I asked some fellow conservative writers why they watch the show. New York Post Op-Ed Editor Seth Mandel said the following,
Girls is a uniquely valuable cultural critique because most of the time, when pundits and critics complain about the problem of Americans’ ‘perpetual adolescence’ they’re talking about men. It’s a necessarily incomplete picture, and ‘Girls’ provides the other half.
Mandel nails it. If anything, many of the show’s men are actually the most stable characters — whether it’s Dunham’s various on-screen romances with a middle-school history teacher; a brownstone-owning doctor; Adam Driver’s (albeit slightly mentally ill) depiction of a modestly successful actor; or Ray Ploshansky, the coffee shop manager who briefly gets involved in local politics out of concern for his community. The most loyal and and empathetic character is easily Elijah Krantz, Dunham’s gay, ex-boyfriend from college.
There are obvious exceptions, like Desi, the manipulative, drug-addicted musician. There’s also the introduction of Chuck Palmer, the successful writer who sexual harasses Dunham after an interview. But the show still maintains a focus on the pathologies of the female characters, rather than bashing the men or making them the primary source of Dunham’s troubles.
Executive Editor of the Washington Free Beacon Sonny Bunch also considers himself a fan. He described Girls as a “a riveting and often hilarious study of the decadent emptiness of modern life.” The show clearly acknowledges that trading in spiritual fulfillment for easy sex and a culture of narcissism hasn’t led to happiness.
Over at the New York Times, conservative columnist Ross Douthat wrote the following about the characters’ egoism:
Girls is a depiction of a culture whose controlling philosophy is what the late Robert Bellah called “expressive individualism”—the view that the key to the good life lies almost exclusively in self-discovery, self-actualization, the cultivation of the unique and holy You.
The thing that makes Dunham’s show so interesting, the reason it inspired a certain unsettlement among some of its early fans, is that it often portrays young-liberal-urbanite life the way, well, many reactionaries see it: as a collision of narcissists educated mostly in self-love, a sexual landscape distinguished by serial humiliations—a realm at once manic and medicated, privileged and bereft of higher purpose.
A key to the hidden conservatism lurking within Girls is the fact that so much about these people’s supposedly modern and progressive lifestyles is so undesirable. They’re all relatively poor, they can’t hold stable jobs, they’re not even very good friends, and they routinely find themselves humiliated and hopeless — and most of their problems are of their own making.
Not all conservative writers love the show, of course — but that doesn’t mean they don’t watch it for insight into the lives of young Americans. Townhall.com Senior Columnist Kurt Schlichter told me he used to watch the show as a “science experiment” of sorts, although he stopped watching after it got “boring.” Regardless, Schlichter thought the show at one point had “important commentary” from “a lot of bad ugly people doing a lot of bad ugly things.”
His takeaway? “To the extent it said something about millennials, it essentially said they’re a bunch of vacuous morons.”
Regardless of Dunham’s intentions, she’s given audiences one of the most entertaining pieces of culture in nearly a decade. Conservatives often have a hard time appreciating contemporary art and entertainment. Who knew Lena Dunham would be behind a work that constantly elicits their admiration?