Dear John Letter for Lena Dunham

GirlsListen, Lena, this relationship is over. I just can’t do it anymore. Each episode of GIRLS drives us further apart.

In the show’s first weeks, I so looked forward to Sunday nights. Well, in truth, I looked forward to Monday mornings because I don’t have cable just “borrowed” access to HBO GO. But now, the happy anticipation I used to feel for your next episode is gone. And Lena, I’ve figured out why things between us have changed.

You should know that I am Hannah, your main character in GIRLS. Except more uptight, more anxious and less fun, though probably equally as self-obsessed. I am in my mid-twenties, living in New York. And, despite our first class educations – hers at Oberlin and mine at Dartmouth – neither Hannah nor I have secured our first real professional jobs. We are both from not-the-Northeast. She is from Lansing, Michigan, and I am from Zirconia, North Carolina. Neither of us grew up wealthy, nor were we poor. And, like Hannah, I have also experienced the travails of dating (or attempting to date) self-satisfied hipsters in the too trendy part of Brooklyn otherwise known as Williamsburg, which was also the location of my first New York apartment.

This was why I was initially addicted to the show. I liked it precisely because we are so similar and yet Hannah leads a substantially easier life than I do (i.e., than the real Hannah would). But lately, the show’s total lack of reference to reality has really got me down. It’s not so much about the details of how my story diverges from Hannah’s. No, it’s more a matter of the emotional distance you’ve put between us. But, to fully explain, I need you to bear with me while I paint you a picture.

My parents are middle class folks. My dad is a chemical engineer, and my mom is a bureaucrat for the North Carolina court system. We buy used cars and drive them into the ground. Our nights out involve a movie theatre and our favorite cheap Mexican joint. We were all bowled over when I was accepted to Dartmouth. My parents took out large loans on top of a third mortgage to make it possible. I took out large loans too. Then, I did well enough to win Dartmouth funding for graduate school abroad.

When I returned to North Carolina after finishing my master’s in London, it was the summer of 2009. I was optimistic that I would get a job of substance regardless of recession. But, after applying to upwards of seventy positions, the only offer I had in hand was a paralegal position at a law firm in New York. I jumped at the opportunity to live and work in the city.

After considering and applying and then getting rejected and not reapplying to law school (it’s a long story), I went on the job hunt with renewed aggression. After all, I had a Dartmouth diploma, a master’s degree and now two years of semi-professional work experience. But, alas, for the dozens of job applications I’ve submitted over the past year, I’ve received two interviews and exactly zero offers.

I am now approaching my three-year anniversary at the law firm as a paralegal. (They let me call myself a “research analyst” on my resume because they don’t really understand why I haven’t moved on either.) And I’m okay with it. I know an opportunity will come my way eventually. In the meantime, I am fairly well paid, I have health insurance and I am so close with those at the firm that they feel like a second family.

Now, getting back to GIRLS, I truly did enjoy the show because facts like the above were not directly addressed. TV is always meant to be shinier and more dramatic than real life, which is why TV is entertaining and a guilty pleasure. But I have an increasing desire to see Hannah get at least a little bit angry or a little bit sad about her prospects for forging a grownup life. After all, she went to Oberlin and is witty, smart and, on occasion, personable. Hannah should want more for herself, and then she should run into the brick wall that is the continuing recession and show us that she’s bloodied her forehead just like everyone else.

Listen, I know GIRLS is comedy and it isn’t meant to accurately reflect reality or to provide social commentary. It is not a documentary. I get that. But, in my estimation, the pilot did make certain promises. The middle class, Middle America (or not-the-Northeast), the recession, stymied dreams and frustrated parents – all of those issues were brought to the fore in the first five minutes of the first episode. And, they’ve kind of been ignored ever since.

In real life, Hannah would have a paying job always because her student loans would be like mine, $600 per month even with Obama’s incredible Income-Based Repayment scheme. Hannah’s parents, making what professors do, would not be able to afford to finance her entire New York life for any measure of time, much less for two years (as the show implies). And if Hannah had no income, her roommate would say, “Sorry sister, but I need to throw an ad up on Craigslist because I don’t have the liquidity to cover you if you can’t get it together.” Then Hannah would drink a bottle of wine by herself while sobbing hysterically on the bathroom floor as she ponders moving back to Lansing to work at the Denny’s while she gets her finances in order.

Good god. That would be a dreary show. No one wants to see that.

So, fantasy is good. Fantasy is why I watched the show. Escapism for me is a basic necessity like food, water, shelter and alcohol. But given that I wanted to connect with the show on an emotional level, I yearned to see GIRLS somehow address the feelings that the real-life Hannah would have to face. Maybe Hannah could check her credit score history and see the dramatic downward slope and then go out and drink too many margaritas and slow dance awkwardly with sleazy forty-year-old men as I may or may not have done? Ahem.

Lena, when we met, I felt like you got me, if not by the letter, then at least in spirit. I had such high hopes for us. I wanted it to work. And, it’s not that you’ve changed. I’m just finally seeing that you can’t give me what I want. There are things I absolutely loved about GIRLS. But it’s just not going the way I thought it would. And, Lena, I’m afraid I’ve got to call it quits.

Photo Source: HBO

26 thoughts on “Dear John Letter for Lena Dunham

  1. Great review! Makes me think of how I relate to the show and how the plot twists affect me. Disappointed to read you’re calling it quits with Lena Dunham. It might be worth sticking it out for one more episode!

      • Janet, all true, but it’s always the relationships that start in a blaze of passion which fizzle out the soonest. I propose that the reason you were asking more of this show was that it ‘s already better than the usual fare. I lived in NYC all my life and know the insane rents and shortage of decent housing there. When I channel surfed the end of SITC 2 and the lead was talking about she and her husband keeping a SECOND apartment in Manhattan, as an EXTRA space in case either one of them needed “me-time” I nearly died from outrage. Girls is the first show to even address the overwhelming issue of money. “You’re not a grown up if your parents pay for your blackberry”
        “Her parents pay for half”
        The characters are entitled as everyone says, but that entitlement IS one of the shows subjects. And the whole issue of economics has heretofore been the elephant in the room no one mentions. How did the characters in Friends afford that huge place? Did Jerry really support himself on those half-assed gigs? Why wasn’t Kramer homeless the way he would have been in real life. You didn’t expect those questions answered because you didn’t expect much, period.
        I hope that this show evolves and faces the elephant squarely. But I posit that it already has gone places no one has before. Today money is the new sex, in terms of it being an act of transgression to mention in polite company. They took an admittedly timid step, but it IS the first one I’ve seen. When I was in my late twenties my agent told me not to keep writing about how broke i was. Hard not to, since I was supposed to be writing autobiographical essays and it was the central fact of my life.
        I really hope things move forward for you and glad for you that you have a job you at least can stand and that keeps a roof over your head without the brain murder of boredom and exhaustion. Keep trying for that law school deal. I know plenty of people who didn’t pass their LSATS the first and even second time and then went on to do great.

  2. Janet,
    I wrote this review after four episodes:

    Although I thought the show improved when Hannah’s relationship with Adam got more “serious” (because I like Adam Driver very much) and when her relationship with Marnie fell apart (because their friendship did not seem believable as in i.e.; your comments about rent), the last episode left me feeling just the same about Hannah: selfish, self-centered, not someone I’m interested in. Your letter made me look back on the review above. Now that the season is over, I’m sure I would write a different review but, combined with yours, I think we’ve both pretty much said it all (what do you think?)

    Thanks for your great letter! (I completely agree with you)

  3. I agree with you almost entirely. Dunham simply doesn’t have the ability either because she needs to keep the show funny and unreal enough to not scare off sponsors (and not work at denny’s herself) or because she’s not aware enough that we’re in the midst of what amounts to the falling of rome… but despite all hype or maybe because of it the show is little more to me than a slightly spruced up hipper version of the usual sitcom. some of the acting (dunham herself is a fairly engaging personality) is so utterly lame and insensitive that the fact that anyone says they identify with the characters at all seems at best to me very very silly. she’s taken some pretty serious situations that many people can identify with and rendered them almost completely trite…mostly because they’re dealt with only in the context of acting so stylistically tame and unemotional and delivered from the conventional format of a regular “entertaining” tv show that they are stripped of any weight… and you know what that’s all fine…what’s one more blip of missed opportunity and tepid mediocrity really in the vast and signifigant or “highly relevant” history of television anyway. I simply wish the idiot machine that is hollywood and most media including jouralists would stop trying to market every show by some hustling young person who says neat things on twitter and that comes down the pike as a barometer of what’s actually going on. that just adds insult to injury.. and frankly kind of disgusts me. these people should be aware if they’re not that the discussions they have about this..the ones where we’re asked to take a leap of faith in assuming dunham is in touch with these characters foibles take for granted in the first place that we assume these characters are even accurate reflections of dunhams emotional life much less fleshed out beings expressing themselves in anything other than a fictionalized world….as you say we need some escapism…but if it’s gonna be that let’s at least market it as such…and if we’re going to write it up as something that is cognizant of a certain experience be it of…people whose parents have a couple of bucks or not then let’s have it be that because for a lot of us…and I’m speaking not just of people in third world countries, in prison or people in this country without degrees but of people from all strata…this is life or death…

  4. In other words you stopped liking the show because Hannah is not as entited as you (despite her still being incredibly entitled).

    That’s nice that you could identify with Hannah more at the beginning of the show, but the show isn’t about you. Maybe Lena’s experience isn’t supposed to be like yours. Maybe she isn’t as frustrated as you. Maybe Hannah’s parents saved for her college education early and paid for her tuition. Maybe she got a scholarship. Hannah has only been cut off from her parent’s money for a few months. She hasn’t had 3 years to seethe about how unfair life is like you have. Your experience isn’t necessarily any more “true” than Hannah’s.

    • Perfect retort! You hit it on the nail. Janet is not Hannah. Janet is Janet. Maybe that’s why Janet’s life is going in a different direction than Hannah’s. Perhaps Janet can learn from Hannah rather than the likely mistake of trying to change her.

      • I think Janet is trying to use her experience as an example of what the recession has done to an entire generation of college educated people in their 20’s and 30’s. Since the show is already better then say, Seinfeld, or SITC Janet expected more from it in terms of nerve. GIRLS is actually the first show in this genre to mention money at all. Janet just wanted the show to address this huge elephant in the room, not literally have the character’s fictional life mimic her real one in every detail.

    • Then who is the show about just out of curiousity. If it’s about Dunham shouldn’t it be about a girl who was on conan o’brien the other night? let’s be honest here before defending a fictionalized character at someones expense. It’s a very serious thing for a young girl to steal the tips from the maid of a hotel. Is it wrong for me for me to ask that some depiction of this be rendered with something other than what essentially amounts to complete flippancy. had the show not touched on some things early on worth some serious consideration and then swerved around them into jokier and jokier terrain I don’t think this conversation would be happening but then the show wouldn’t be on the air. I think the people who are in such staunch defense of it should really ask themselves…especially the ones attacking someone elses “entitlement” should really ask themselves in what way this show has heightened their sensitivities and powers of empathy and in which ways it’s really given them more fodder for their own dreams of being some minor success story

      • ” in what way this show has heightened their sensitivities and powers of empathy?:”
        This is an awful lot to ask from a sitcom. Did we ask it of Seinfeld? Or Sex In The City? The reason people want this show to be better, is that it is already in a league of it’s own when compared to the usual mediocrities which fail even in their rather benign aim of entertainment.

      • I think somehow you are under the impression that this show OWES you something other than a half hour of entertainment. The show’s job is to intrigue you enough to make you care enough about the characters and the story in order to watch again. Apparently they have failed in your instance. MOVE ON!

  5. There is a much bigger issue at hand here that Smith has nailed. If I meet one more receptionist who has a graduate degree, or someone freelancing building a blog for a real estate office, or some other grossly UNDE employed 25 year old. IN the end, it is all because the friggin baby bomers, and Gen X screwed tings up for us…but ran off with all the rewards of a life wel lived (!)…you get it! If you need subjects for a study, contact me…I’l bring you 1,000’s of them! Almost my entire U of M graduating class.

    • Why am I not employed in the field I studied? Because I have a degree in art history and there isn’t a lot of call for that in rural Indiana. Sometimes it’s all about geography; sometimes it’s because you have a degree with no real practical usage. If I had a degree in engineering, I would be employed rather quickly in an engineering job. The newspapers in my area are filled with engineering jobs, technical jobs.

      It has nothing to do with the generation before you reaping the rewards, it is the progression of culture. The more technological a society we become, the more need there is for skilled technical workers. America lacks greatly in those types but we have a great deal of lawyers, business managers, and social service careers. Fastest growing bachelors degree jobs? Biomedical, network systems, software and environmental engineers. The top masters degrees in this country are in business and education. Fastest growing masters degree jobs? Medical scientists, biochemists, environmental scientists. Do we see a problem here?

      Anyway, as to the show and the review. At first I thought I would relate to the character of Hannah much like you Janet, but I find Hannah to be pretty vapid and extremely self-centered. I have pushed through the first season hoping to see at least some spark of brilliance from Hannah, or other redeeming quality, to excuse her many flaws. It hasn’t appeared. As the others around her are evolving, in spastic ways to be sure, Hannah stays the same. If I watch next season, it won’t be for Hannah.

      • I agree. Hannah does come off kind of one dimensional. That’s the part I kind of like about her. I could name three women I know right now who are Hannah’s. Again that’s why I enjoy the show. Other than the uber and impossibly cool British chick the rest of the characters I know and l love. Its a satire of the early to mid twenty somethings as they try to find some kind of meaning, some kind of feeling in the vapid emptiness of the post economic recession. It hits home for me.

  6. I am 66 and I watch Lena portraying Hannah and I think, boy, she is not much of an actress. The other actresses are better than she is and cuter and more appealing. However, there is something so pathetic about the Hannah character, that somehow, I can’t totally hate her. She is so lacking in social skills and so naive, especially about her shitty boyfriend, Adam. In a way, to someone my age, she is frustrating, annoying and endearing at the same time. She’s a spoiled brat, for sure. She doesn’t know how to dress, use make-up and her hair, oh my, so dreadful and stringy. She’s a chubby little mouse of a girl. That’s just it, isn’t it? She is a girl. The other actresses are portraying women. I’m old. I’ve seen a lot of TV and really I think this is the best portrayal of young women that I have ever seen on TV. It’s not so nice or wrapped up, but when Allison Williams’ character rejects her boyfriend because he loves her too much, you know what she is feeling. This show portrays the psychology of women more accurately than any show I have ever seen on TV.

    • Here, here. I’m intrigued by the ‘messiness’ they portray. Its just somehow realer than reality.

  7. I really loved everything about your review with one hesitation. The direction of the show that you described, wherein Hannah ends up at the Lansing, MI Denny’s, could be made into a hilarious comedy. There would be so many “It’s funny because it’s true” moments that would be relevant to way more people than the show seems to target. That’s really all Seinfeld had going for it and it was hilarious, imo. Some iconic comedies have been written into dire situations (M.A.S.H) comes to mind. So I think the problems with the show really come down to a certain lack of imagination about the intersection resonance of drama and comedy.
    I refuse to believe this show is good and so I appreciate every opportunity I get to read a confirming opinion. I am convince history will look back on us as sages.

  8. As we all know, Hannah is basically Lena, who did not grow up in the midwest and was very wealthy in a casual artsy New York sort of way.

    These two deviations from Lena’s autobiographical details are glaring on the show, because although Lena wrote Hannah as a midwestern middle class girl, she inevitably reverts to writing about herself, a New Yorker rich girl.

  9. I’m so glad you shared this with me because it really makes me think about the show’s main draw – its supposed link to reality. Hearing the other side of that brings up new issues, certainly.

  10. Great review. I understand exactly what you mean. I was another one who decided to up and move to NYC at about 23 and you’re absolutely right she doesn’t really portray (purposely I’m sure) the real realities of things. Especially living in NYC. Anyways great review enjoyed the read.

  11. Thanks for following my blog! I hear you on the conveniently missing pieces of reality in Girls, but as you say, that wouldn’t be funny. Selective reality is much more amusing. What I like most about this show is the characters’ attitudes and personalities – they really live in a fantasy world most of the time!

  12. Has anyone read this New Yorker profile on Lena from 2010, when Girls was in the midst of production?:

    It gives a lot information about her background, and makes it fairly clear why she is not exactly fluent at writing from a middle class perspective. Moreover (and more disturbingly) some of the passages showed a surprising lack of respect for such a perspective. As a decently “intellectual” New York transplant from a smallish city in the south, I found these two particularly unsettling:

    ‘Dunham’s character, Hannah, is the offspring of professorial types from Ann Arbor, Michigan. “I have never written about characters that weren’t from New York before,” she says. “I was trying to choose places that felt like they weren’t New York but had weirdly analogous intellectual communities, so that if these girls appeared and they were quipping their heads off and they’d watched certain kinds of films since they were three, it would make sense.”’

    ‘Dunham did not get good S.A.T. scores, and spent a year at the New School before transferring to Oberlin. “At the New School, there were a lot of kids who were really excited to have just gotten to New York, and they wanted to go to clubs or go to Broadway,” she says. “They had all been the biggest weirdo in their high school and they were, like, ‘I’m here, I’m queer, get used to it,’ and I was, like, Oh, no.” She recalls encountering kids who came from less cosmopolitan backgrounds: “There was this boy who was really smart and really intellectual, and he came from, like, a steel town in Pennsylvania, and his family called him ‘the freak.’ I had never met a person who was different from their parents before.”’

    Thus, Lena does not only lack insight into the experience of a middle class girl from “not-the-northeast”; she possesses an ignorance about such people that borders on distain. While this ignorance is not entirely her fault, it’s a bummer she’s getting paid a bunch of money to (mis)represent us.

  13. Pingback: Yeah… what she said! « 20 Summink

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