Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Lena Dunham and the Wretched State of American Writing

I'm a writer, in case you hadn't noticed. I can't explain why I do it, I just do. It's who I am, I can't change it, even though I desperately want to at times...

Because this is not a time of great writers. You'd think that would motivate me, no real competition. But the problem of living in the era of crap is that the crap is celebrated. Case in point - Girls.

It's a semi-autobiographical TV show dreamed up by and starring some bourgeois twit from the Upper East Side, all about the trials and tribulations of bourgeois twits from the Upper East Side. And the critics can't stop jacking off to it.

That should tip you off it's bad. Anything a TV critic likes, ignore. Anything they ignore or, better, actively denounce? That's probably worth your time. The one exception to this rule is Battlestar Galactica but that left the air three years ago. Yes, that aching feeling you've had for the past three years isn't cancer or disappointment in Obama, it's lack of a BSG fix. I know, I feel it too...

Back to the point - Girls is terrible but it's quite fittingly terrible. It hits all the right cultural markers for the dwindling white upper middle class while presenting a feminist veneer to con folks into thinking it's something new and revolutionary. As if anything new has ever had the Apatow name attached to it but I'm getting ahead of myself. Girls is just the millennial Bell Jar, the long whine of the comfortable to the comfortable.

But that's really how this has been trending for years now. When the Reagen revolution neutered the left in this country, it must've got the literati too because for twenty years or so all the "serious" writing in this country has been that same bland New Yorker noodling. Its appeal rests entirely in its quotability among trust-fund basket cases, rather than things like "plot" and "character." For that you have to delve into the genre stuff and that's full of its own problems.

And it's deeply entwined with the American class system. We're not supposed to mention it in polite conversation but it's real. And racist. Point out anyone in the urban coastal enclaves who identifies as "working class" and unless they're hispanic they're a dirty liar. Quick - what's the average rent in Williamsburg or Park Slope? That's kinda like the joke about yachts, "If you have to ask, you can't afford it." The stars of Girls can though, because they're all literally daughters of class privilege (parents of the cast include artist Laurie Simmons and anchor Brian Williams). Dunham and associates are writers ensconced in class privilege but this never once bleeds through into their work. It would for an honest writer, a good writer, but those are clearly in short supply.

And did I mention the sexism? Yep, we're just on a by-the-numbers liberal critique of contemporary America today folks. That's because all the complaints you heard from the Berkley crowd in the 70s are still very fucking relevant. In this case it's producer Judd Apatow, the most successful professional misogynist after Rush Limbaugh and the biggest reason Girls is not and can not be some feminist triumph. Apatow's whole schtick is that slow, dull bro humor so common to stoned fratboys and it comes through here like internal bleeding. Chicks acting gross for the sake of chicks acting gross has as much to do with feminism in the 21st century as a hijab. And the quiet loathing the characters promote in any audience not lucky enough to be cut off from their parents - as Dunham is in the premiere... seriously, the whole premise of the show is that they're trust fund bimbos! - that spite is directed not at their class where it belongs but at their sex.

Sex and the City did the exact same thing. It presented a bunch of vapid, well-off white women cavorting around the most photogenic parts of Manhattan and most of the guys who watched this didn't come away pissed that some asshole spends more on sandals than they make in a year, but that some bitch is off making money and love. Because there is some real spite and resentment in this country. It's well-founded, what with income inequality and a financial class that's warped the civil government into the backer of all its bad bets. Hell, I freely admit I'm resentful of Dunham - she's younger than me and a critical darling.

However, I feel a greater resentment for the culture that encourages this bullshit. Not the broader American culture - though that's awful in its own right - but the histrionic yuppie culture on display in Girls, Sex and the City, and everything else that tries to tread on the imagery of New York without ever going near Flatbush. Dunham, Apatow, and the rest of their ilk write in a closed system of self-reference and cultural stagnation - a stagnation only possible because none of these assholes know what it's like to be desperate. Economic ruin is usually a good time for the arts, motivates people or at least convinces them they have nothing to lose. So why not write a satirical political novel that's about two-thirds sodomy?

But we don't get that today. We get Girls, the latest vanity project of a professionally vain class. Hell, I should probably be pleased I'm not as successful as Dunham. It must mean I'm actually good at what I do.

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