Let’s Talk About The Girls’ Jobs On HBO’s Girls
6:00 pm, April 17th | by Sarah Devlin
By now, so much time has been spent dissecting the premiere episode of Girls, Lena Dunham’s new half hour comedy on HBO, that it almost seems like there isn’t anything left to discuss! I read many reviews of the show before catching the pilot last night, so I came to it with a lot of baggage and, somehow, both sky high and extremely low expectations. TV writers who are much smarter than I am have made many, many good points about the show’s content, but after watching the pilot I wanted to focus on a very specific issue: the four lead characters’ jobs. Let’s take a look:
Marnie is the character who is supposed to be the most “together,” who has a stable (if unsatisfying) relationship and a steady job at an art gallery. My exhaustive research (read: a quick glance at average salaries on Indeed.com) tells me that, assuming Marnie is entry level or close to it as a gallery assistant, she’d be making something in the neighborhood of $40,000 annually. Not bad.
Jessa would prefer you to think that she worked as a “live in educator” while she was living abroad, but it seems abundantly clear from the pilot that she was working sporadically as a glorified nanny when she was working at all, and that her real objective was to have as many adventures as possible. For some reason, she is set up to be one of the show’s most inconsiderate and self-involved characters — sleeping with other girls’ boyfriends, showing up late to dinner parties — but her selfishness is not all that different from Hannah’s, who is the series’ ostensible heroine. She feels entitled to a good time the way that Hannah feels entitled to success.
Zosia Mamet’s character is the daffy, starry-eyed college student who worships the Sex And The City girls but who seems ready and eager to transfer her allegiance to Jessa, who is her cousin, and whose sophistication blows Shoshanna’s mind about five times in as many seconds in the pilot. I loathed this character, as I think (I hope?) I was meant to, but I did like the depiction of what kind of monster can be created when you take a college student living in New York City, most likely in student housing (which often means getting to live in gorgeous buildings in Manhattan at a deep discount, though that hardly matters if your parents are footing the bill), who hasn’t begun her post-graduate life yet but is already brimming over with delusions about what it will look like.
When we meet Hannah in the pilot, she has been interning, unpaid, at a literary agency for over a year. Most of the ire from reviewers has been directed at the show’s lead for her entitlement, self-absorption, and expectations of literary accolades in exchange for very little real work or sacrifice, and all of that is true. But a larger issue that the show touches on (and Dunham may not have even wanted to get into this fight, but she did anyway) is that in certain industries, the only way to get one’s foot in the door is to work as an unpaid intern. This point has been made before, but bears repeating again — most unpaid interns in publishing and media end up performing the duties of entry-level employees for zero compensation, with the vague promise of eventually being hired and getting paid to do the same work they were doing for free.
Hannah is spoiled, and entitled, and selfish and myopic, but it’s worth wondering why she, who has ambitions that are no more ridiculous than “becoming a Samantha” or “scoring a free trip to an ashram in New Delhi,” is the subject of most of the head shaking in reviews. Sure, a young woman who believes she can become a famous author despite not having written much at all is being a bit silly and fanciful, but even if she was the hardest working aspiring writer in New York City, brimming over with talent and raw drive and limitless energy, her best entreé into the publishing industry would still probably be an unpaid internship at a literary agency or somewhere similar, and she would still be in the exact same boat as she is in the pilot.
I don’t think Hannah ought to be immune to criticism because of that, but it’s an interesting question: is it really fair that so many people who want to work in creative fields have to accept that, for at least their first few years in the industry, they may not be compensated for their work no matter how good it is (or whether or not they know how to use Photoshop)? Why is Marnie entitled to a salary and the approval of the audience for having a “real” career, despite working in a similarly insular and super-specific creative field? Is it because she’s curating other people’s work, rather than thinking herself talented enough to make some of her own?
There was a lot to like about Girls and a lot to get mad about, but that particular issue really stuck in my craw. I’ll still tune in for the show, but I wish that part of the conversation about it could include a discussion of the way we value certain kinds of work, and why we think that young people who aspire to be artists ought spend years supporting other people in their industry, without pay, full time, and never be anything but grateful.
Girls airs at 10:30pm on Sundays on HBO.