That Lena Dunham commercial might have made a real contribution to enhancing the president’s turnout, for all I know. Certainly it was consistent with the Democratic convention’s insistent appeal to women’s rights, especially the rights of single women. But there’s at least one irony: Dunham is a genuine defender of women’s right to choose, but the girls she shows on Girls so rarely actually choose well. So we conservatives are tempted to say we have no reason to believe their voting behavior is better than, for example, their sexual behavior.
The girls on Girls—mostly graduates of elite liberal arts schools—have no idea who they are and what they’re supposed to do. They’ve been failed by their education and the whole way they’ve been brought up. Despite their privileged backgrounds, they have almost no manners and no morals. Well, the Dunham character—the most confused of them all—does manage to say thank you for any kindness or ambiguous compliment that comes her way. But she’s also just about never moved by generosity or charity or even ordinary self-restraint. The other girls have plenty of reason not to regard her as a good friend.
The Dunham character (Hana), a film studies major (who–studies show–don’t actually learn much in college; that’s true of majors ending in “studies” generally), comes to the big city to write, but she lacks the education, talent, and discipline. She, like many of her friends, has no marketable skills, no work ethic, and a rich sense of entitlement. So she sponges off her parents (until they—in their own narcissism—abruptly cut her off) and is a shameless parasite generally. The quality of relational life on the show is often abysmal—with the resulting visit to the abortion clinic, STDs, various pathetic hook ups, and whiny pretend marriages. It turns out that these girls, like us all, want meaningful work and personal love, but they have very little idea how to find them. We just know those girls would be happier if they were more about living for something more than themselves, for, for example, some principle or some family or their country or even God.
There are reasons for conservatives not to like or even to refuse to watch Girls. We could begin, of course, with the fact that we see way too much of Hana (Lena) way too often. From a merely artistic view, the show is oblivious to the sound principle than when it comes to nudity on the big screen, less is more. We could go on to get all indignant other disgusting incidents so casually displayed. But we have to admit that things that are really revolting from a moral or relational point of view are actually portrayed quite negatively. And we conservatives have to admit that the general message of the show is what’s wrong with these girls is that they lack character—and they are, to a point, victims of an easygoing world of privilege that deprives them of the experiences that allow them to develop character. And if you want a basically a conservative (or libertarian/productivity) indictment of what passes for “liberal education” these days, watch Girls.
Dunham herself would reject the solution of returning to the repression of traditional religion and morality. But true conservatives agree, after all, that there’s never any simple going back. We social scientists have to admire a show that so precisely defines social and relational problems while suggesting that there are no easy solutions. The hope the show gives us is the persistence of relational human nature: Hana really wants a boyfriend who loves her, and the guy she loves is turning out to be better than what he says (and so he is unexpectedly ready to do the relationship’s heavy lifting). So things may turn out well enough several seasons down the road. But it might also turn out that many or all of these girls are too wounded by their “wonder years” to become all they are meant to be.
Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Political Science at Berry College in Georgia. He is the editor of the quarterly journal Perspectives in Political Science and is the author of Postmodernism Rightly Understood: The Return to Realism in American Thought (1999) and Aliens in America: The Strange Truth about Our Souls (2002). He is a Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative. Reprinted with the gracious permission of Postmodern Conservative.