Lena Dunham’s Girls on HBO: A voice of a generation.

“One Day, Some Little Fat Girl in Ohio Is Going to Be the New Mozart."

“One Day, Some Little Fat Girl in Ohio Is Going to Be the New Mozart."

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April 13 2012 6:45 AM

The New York Observers

Lena Dunham’s Girls, Candace Bushnell, Katie Roiphe, Whit Stillman, Chloë Sevigny, and the voices of generations.

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The famous people in my most immediate age cohort—the popular artists born under the sign of the scorpion in 1974—are Leonardo DiCaprio, who sprouted on Parenthood and Growing Pains and bounced into adaptations of memoirs by Jim Carroll and Tobias Wolff; Jake Kasdan, a producer and director whose career in comedy bridges Apatow’s seminal Freaks and Geeks and Elizabeth Meriwether’s delightful New Girl; Joaquin Phoenix, whose brother did not survive the Viper Room and who, in filming the cracked deconstruction of celebrity titled I’m Still Here (2010), anticipated James Franco’s act; Nelly, outspoken in his commitment to removing one’s clothes in the event of hotness and a fine agent of cultural miscegenation; Ryan Adams, who “whatever”; Rosemarie DeWitt, who played the other Rachel; and one Ms. Chloë Sevigny.

Chloë Sevigny began her career in 1992, at the age 17, as a muse and intern at Sassy, a magazine standing as the cool aunt of pop post-feminism. She made her movie debut in Kids (1995), directed by Larry Clark (born 1943) from a screenplay by Harmony Korine (born 1973). The film was exciting and alarmist, pulsing with AIDS fear, druggy in motion. Sevigny looked vulnerable especially for being a natural, unactorly, undefended by the Method or anything, and you got to feeling protective.

Chloë Sevigny in Kids.

Courtesy of Lionsgate.

Like any promising voice-of-a-generation text, Kids concerned itself with sexual intercourse and chemical intoxication. It described a decadent terminal end of Gen-X anomie, and it coursed with teen energy. I don’t know that I’d want to see it again, but whatever its faults, perhaps because of its faults, it brought a kind of news. Here is Janet Maslin bringing it in for interrogation:

Is Mr. Clark, the still photographer whose celebrated images capture such stark and frightening behavioral extremes, merely recording the urban teen-age life he has seen? Or is this a lurid and cynical exaggeration? ... Think of this not as cinema verite but as a new strain of post-apocalyptic science fiction, using hyperbole to magnify a kernel of terrible, undeniable truth.

And where are the kids of Kids today? The characters would be a bit above 30, if everything worked out all right? Things are all right? Right?

* * *

I am sketching on Saturday afternoon an idea about Katie Roiphe (born 1968). On Tuesday, when I click open her Slate piece on Girls, a question mark will light up above my graying head. Her complaint about the show—which treats sex, sometimes, as a sadomasochistic self-experiment and which, in that treatment, reminds Emily Nussbaum (born 1966) of Mary Gaitskill (born 1954)—will take the form of an observation that its sex scenes constitute “stylized celebrations of awkwardness.” She will fault these scenes for leaving out “the fun parts” of immature people trying not to seem immature while pushing their lusts together, and I will think that my pal Katie is forgetting herself.

Katie Roiphe.
Katie Roiphe

Deborah Copaken Kogan/Little, Brown.

In 1993, when Roiphe was roughly the age of Lena Dunham—and of Dunham’s Girls character, an aspiring writer named Hannah Horvath—she launched herself with The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism, and so you would think that she would know as well as anyone that the sex that the women on Girls are having, in their early 20s with guys in their early 20s, who are never exactly going to be a picnic, sorry, is not all that bad. Yes, on the show, there is a lot of sex, and not a lot of little death, but still there is a lot of sex, and that is, perhaps, a good sign.


On Saturday, I am sketching an idea about what it was like to go to college at the time described in Roiphe’s book, in the middle of the 1990s, a uniquely nonthrilling time to go to college. Oh, we got by, but one way to understand a generation or a mini-generation is to understand its approach to sex and drugs, and the middle of 1990s was not too tumultuous in that respect. Perhaps the mini-generation has its early encounters with Nancy Reagan to credit for this, and also the counterexamples of Magic Johnson and Len Bias, and in some way also the influence of Marc Jacobs and the lesser designers of grunge chic, who induced young men and women to wear acres of shapeless flannel, apparel standing in vicious contrast to the mode of today.

It happens that Roiphe was a graduate student at Princeton when I was an undergrad. I raised myself on the very campus where she saw 70-odd blue-light phones glowing under the elms—supposedly safety devices, possibly placebos—and watched them “signal reassurance and warning at the same time.” Caroming off Joan Didion, she wrote, persuasively, “The movement against date rape is a symptom of a more general anxiety about sex….. The crisis is not a rape crisis, but a crisis in sexual identity.” I think that Roiphe had a strong point back then. It is unclear to me what she is saying, now, in lamenting the awkward sex of Girls. She is lamenting human nature? She is disappointed that non-marital sex still had yet to achieve zipless perfection?

But on Saturday I was just sketching an idea departing from a moment in the second episode of Girls, titled “Vagina Panic.” Lena Dunham has a fine knack for framing, in both cinematographic terms (her director of photography is Jody Lee Lipes) and narrative ones. "Vagina Panic" begins with Hannah on her back with her legs spread, submitting to the dominating fantasies of her booty call, who  ejaculating on her fair skin, says, “I’m gonna make the fucking continent of Africa on your arm.” It ends with Hannah on her back with her legs spread, submitting to a gynecological exam and worrying beyond reason—fretting operatically, offensively—about AIDS as the doctor applies the speculum (from the Latin, speculum, mirror).

In between, in the middle of “Vagina Panic,” Hannah flirts her way near a job offer, talking about on-line dating profiles with a potential boss who lives in “Grown-Up Brooklyn”—as opposed to the youthful precincts she and peers inhabit—and this phrase intensified my attention. In the show’s terms, “Grown-Up Brooklyn” encompasses the neighborhood where I’d settled in the late 1990s, when I was 22 and a grown-up only according to law. Because it used to be affordable, I moved into a room in an apartment down the street from a 99-cent store. Here was Katie Roiphe, last fall, writing accurately about what "Grown-Up Brooklyn" is like: “side streets with $2 million houses, side streets with coffee shops that sell $4.50 iced lattes made from something called 'Intelligentsia coffee'...." And here I am, last fall, pushing a baby stroller down these side streets, which is the kind of thing to make you think seriously about generational inheritances, and running into Katie, who is also behind a stroller, and chatting for a bit. The 99-cent store is a Starbucks. Katie is strolling to Barneys. I'm just describing the lens through which I'm forced to look at the show.