When Did ‘Not Having It All’ Get So Cool?
12:30 pm, January 15th | by Jessica Chou
When we were first introduced to Sex and the City’s Carrie in 1998, we saw her traipsing around Manhattan in killer shoes, celebrating a friend’s birthday at a nice restaurant, going to clubs, running into the “next Donald Trump,” and living on 72nd and Third Avenue in Manhattan.
When we were first introduced to Hannah on Girls last year, we saw her getting her financial safety net snipped, having unsatisfying sex, and stealing a $20 tip her parents left at a hotel for the maid (after also losing her internship and getting high on opium).
It’s not the most flattering role that Lena Dunham could play, but it struck a chord. Dunham, at 26, was named TIME’s “coolest person of the year,” and Joel Stein described Dunham as “a woman whose entire persona is based on doing the wrong thing.” So when did doing everything wrong get cool?
It wasn’t just Girls showing girls trying and failing to figure their lives out. There was New Girl, where Jess lost her long-term boyfriend and apartment in the first season, and her job the second. In last year’s Lola Versus, Lola (Greta Gerwig) unexpectedly cancels her wedding, loses friends, tries restructuring her dating life and struggles with a grad school thesis. And then there’s 2 Broke Girls, in which lead Caroline lost her fortune and had to take a job at a diner to get by. These characters didn’t have fantastic jobs, perfect
relationships, or friends they never fight with. And they were young, almost all in their twenties. “It’s a really searching time and we’re just looking at that,” Dunham said in an interview with Stephen Colbert.
Very few shows in the past have decided to accurately take on the travails of twentysomething women.
“We really have the genre of the teen melodrama, and then we tend to pick up with women in their 30s,” Amanda Lotz, Associate Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Michigan, says. “Even though Sex and the City took off as a show for young women in their 20s and 30s, when they were starting out these women [on the show] were on the verge of turning 40, fairly advanced in their careers.”
Now, along with the rise of Girls, we’re seeing more portrayals of women just starting their careers, women who don’t have it together, who can’t seem to have love, sex, money, or all three at the same time. “Not having it all” is more popular, and controversial, than ever.
In an Atlantic article last summer, Anne-Marie Slaughter, the first woman director of policy planning at the State Department, penned an op-ed titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” She argued that the message that women can “have it all” made “millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as
men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot),” she wrote, defending her decision to step down from government for family. That article became the most-read piece in the history of the Atlantic’s website; Slaughter, naturally, got a book deal out of it.
Similarly, the premiere of Girls was much hyped as a “realistic” Sex and the City, lauded by New York Magazine as a show “for us, by us.” “I ‘got’ the characters — four friends, adrift in a modern New York of unpaid internships and bad sex on dirty sofas,” Emily Nussbaum wrote. Other viewers, however, point out that they don’t relate to the show.
“If Hannah had just one aspect of her life in order, I might watch it,” a friend told me. Another woman dismissed the show by saying, “My daughter has a much more fabulous life in New York City as a young woman.”
“In general, I think what happens is we quickly default back to this ‘we need role models’ rhetoric and expectation,” Lotz says, “and I think the dilemma is not about Girls so much, it’s about whether you need a role model or not.”
TV shows from the ‘90s fulfilled more traditional “role model” duties, promising young female viewers that big things were in store for us. Clarissa moves to New York to be a journalist, Buffy was somehow both a vampire slayer and a student (and getting some serious cute vampire ass on the side), and Topanga not only had the most adorable boyfriend/fiancé/husband ever, but was consistently at the top of her class and ended up with an internship at a New York law firm. Women who are in their 20s now grew up with Rory Gilmore, many thinking if they worked hard and followed the rules, they too would get exactly where they wanted to be.
But there are some problems that hard work and soul-searching can’t work out, as Lia Macko and Kerry Rubin write in Midlife Crisis at 30. There are office politics and 12-hour workdays, not to mention the state of the economy. According to EPI, the unemployment rate now is only marginally better than before; for young college graduates, unemployment was at 10.4 percent in 2010. From April 2011 to March 2012, the unemployment rate was 9.4 percent — an improvement, sure, but a small one.
The unemployment rate aside, recent graduates’ salaries aren’t too promising either. Between 2000 and 2011, with inflation accounted for, high school graduates’ wages went down by 11.1 percent; young college graduates’ wages declined 5.4 percent. And of the top five occupations most popular with women, we only earn the same salary as men in one department: bookkeeping, accounting, and auditing.
In the same way that Ally McBeal (and perhaps Hannah in Girls) has been criticized because “people didn’t feel she was living up to her feminist potential,” as Lotz explains, it might be safe to say that young women are criticizing themselves for not living up to their potential. A survey from British investment firm Skandia claimed that one in three female college grads surveyed suffered from serious anxiety, worrying about careers, financial goals, and the future. According to the report, only one in four men felt the same.
So here’s the thing: Perhaps we’ve had enough of role models (especially successful and white female characters, but that’s another article). The ‘90s were about creating high achieving role models in response to the limited representation of women in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Now just might be the time for something more realistic, and that might be why Girls has hit such a nerve. “You don’t defeat negative stereotypes by having positive stereotypes,” Lotz says. “The power of a stereotype comes from not representing a certain group a certain way.”
Hannah Horvath isn’t a reflection of every woman; she’s one character, in one story. She’s not a size two with killer shoes and a great apartment on the Upper East Side who gets cocktails every Friday at the hottest club in the city. But she doesn’t have to be; we’ve had that character already.
“A good segment of the audience is interested in the more complicated story. They’re not necessarily watching television to see heroines that have the lives they aspire to,” Lotz says. “They’re looking for storytelling that connects with their own struggles and reflects the fact that they’re not alone in their anxieties.” So when Hannah freaks out in the Girls season finale and admits, “I’m scared, OK? I’m scared all the time. I’m, like, very scared all the time,” it means something. It tells the rest of us that we’re normal to be scared. We might not be freaking out over the same things, but it’s nice to see that not everyone has their life together. Not everyone (even perfect Marnie) has it all — and after the season two premiere on Sunday, it seems that one of the central themes of the season will be driving that point home.
New York Magazine wrote that Girls has an “aesthetic that’s raw and bruised, not aspirational.” But somehow, the show is still optimistic. If we can see Lena Dunham, 2012’s coolest person of the year, telling reporters, “I’m just fuckin’ it up all other kinds of ways,” and then winning Golden Globe awards, maybe there’s hope for the rest of us, too. Because even after Dunham got the Sundance debut, the book deal, the TV show, and the Golden Globe award, she’s still drawing from her own messy life for her stories. And that, ultimately, might be the basis of her success: showing that it’s not necessary to have it all to be successful. Maybe it’s time that more of the media agrees that’s okay.