In the middle of "Vagina Panic," Hannah flirts her way out of the job offer by twisting the banter—which had been merely inappropriate, casual and light—into the danger zone with an offhand riff casting her interviewer as a date rapist. It was meant to be enticing. It is the most disturbing moment in an episode that’s fairly raw in its treatment of sex and power, so that is why I was thinking of Katie Roiphe when sketching this out on Saturday, and wondering, about Hannah in that moment, What is the poor dear thing thinking?
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When Candace Bushnell was Girls-aged, she was filing party reports from Studio 54, and then she was writing for women’s magazines, and in 1994, she began a column called “Sex and the City” in the New York Observer, a weekly friskily covering the local elite. You can read the eponymous collection of columns in a book that Barnes & Noble shelves, correctly, under “Social Sciences.”
Many of the pieces concern the new mating rituals of the professional class—people in their 30s and early 40s, though Skipper Johnson is said to be a 25-year-old entertainment lawyer who “personifies the Gen X dogged disbelief in Love.” “Who needs it?” Skipper asks. “Who needs all these potential problems like disease and pregnancy? ... Why not just be with your friends and have real conversations and a good time?”
These people had yet to figure out the rules of the social games they were playing—how to strike a balance between social advancement and romantic security. “It’s Friday night at the Bowery Bar,” Bushnell writes in the column’s very first installment:
There’s Francis Ford Coppola at a table with his wife. There’s an empty chair at Francis Ford Coppola’s table. It’s not just empty: It’s alluringly, temptingly, tauntingly, provocatively empty. It’s so empty that it’s more full than any other chair in the place. And then, just when the chair’s emptiness threatens to cause a scene, Donovan Leitch sits down for a chat. Everyone in the room is immediately jealous. Pissed off. The energy of the room lurches violently. This is romance in New York.
And now that vision is, in turn, part of the romance of New York, as reflected in the funhouse of entertainment and the cold mirror of art—the same romance reflected in Rhoda on Hulu and in The Age of Innocence in paperback and so on.
In 1998, HBO adapted “Sex and the City” as a comedy starring Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw—a journalist morphed into a diarist, a reporter working the beat of herself—and featuring an entourage comprising a ruffled uptown swan, a brazen hussy, and a lawyer in love. Sex and the City is unavoidably in the background of Girls, as an influence on the characters’ underdeveloped consciousnesses and on the show’s reception in the press.
The column, unlike the show, was most interested in the anthropology of sex—not in the mess of the psychology or the motion of the act. Indeed, I once took Candace Bushnell out to lunch for a story—a meal during which she compared her talents favorably to those of Flaubert—and she got tense about the subject, asking, “What book that’s really literature has a lot of sex scenes in it?” I pointed to the work of Philip Roth. She said, “Philip Roth, OK. But why do I want to hear what some man has to say about sex?”
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When I was Girls-aged, Diana Spencer had just died beneath the Seine, and the Queen of England was made to emote for the screens of the world, and the axis on which popular ideas of privacy and publicity spin tilted just a bit. The Spice Girls were on the cover of Vogue, and I preferred Posh. Leonardo DiCaprio starred in James Cameron’s Titanic, and his nightlife began to include a “pussy posse” of womanizers, and the attendant entertainment press began to hammer out the avatar of Leo, a media character and enfant terrible, and DiCaprio then did a riff on that Leo in Woody Allen’s Celebrity. Chloë Sevigny starred in Whit Stillman’s Last Days of Disco, a comedy of manners about the New York nightlives of burgeoning yuppies; the finishing-school patter that filled their mouths variously had me wondering at Stillman’s ear for artful mannerism and checking my tiny apartment in what would be “Grown-Up Brooklyn” for bugs.
Because it was the late ‘90s, and there was money, and there were open bars every night just to celebrate synergy, and we had no one to go home to, we all went out a lot. There was a tiny little global stock market crash, and when the Dow rebounded, I found myself joining a pack of finance guys at Webster Hall for an occasion hastily and happily rebranded Back to the Bull Party. One night in 1999, I watched an axis on which the elite world spins tilt millimetrically. Brooks Brothers opened a new store in a glass box on Fifth Avenue at 53rd Street. “The feeling was to say that Brooks is beginning to appeal to a younger clientele,” the architect told the Times. There was a party for the opening, and the line for the gift bags with the free shirts was not a line. Nor was it even a mob. At least in a rugby scrum, or a Fishbone moshpit, people observe a sense of decorum.
Girls, essentially a social comedy, is excellent at catching the rush of being a young person in a big city—the possibilities and the constraints, the walks of shame in the blue pre-dawn, the joy and the fear of independence.
The style and the sound mix have a lot to with this, accurately depicting the mood of the sort of dinner party one throws and is thrown into at Girls-age—the sort of dinner party where the social event underway less closely resembles “entertaining guests” than “playing house.”
* * *
I don’t believe that I’ve met Ms. Dunham, and I was certainly too shy to introduce myself when I saw her last week. On Wednesday, HBO threw her a party that felt less like a premiere that a debut. For what is her Autumn De Wilde cover shot for New York magazine if not a debutante photo?—like Brenda Frazier’s, but done as an ironic pastoral, and with the photo subject possessed of a very smart mouth? Oh, yes, wow, considered purely as a celebrity, Lena Dunham is the girl of the year at the end the world. She seems intimate and direct in her interviews, and canny in her virtual self-promotion. She projects unguardedness while seeming to protect a secret, which is one definition of charisma.
I don’t know Lena Dunham, but I know her type. Her type meaning Manhattan chicks, with their native vanity and sure quickness. Her type meaning, also, very specifically, the kids she went to school with. In 2001, I placed a long essay about the Tom Wolfe collection Hooking Up in The Saint Ann’s Review, a little magazine published by way of her bohemian prep school. I was on about Wolfe’s idea that we have moved from a vision of the self based on Freud to one based on brain chemistry. “From 1990 to 1995,” Wolfe wrote,
CIBA-Geneva’s sales of Ritalin rose 600 percent… because an entire generation of American boys, from the best private schools of the Northeast to the worst sludge-trap public schools of Los Angeles and San Diego, was now strung out on methylphenidate, diligently doled out to them every day by their connection, the school nurse.
I quoted at length from Wolfe’s title essay, which found wondering whether what followed from the sexual revolution might by some lights resemble a reign of terror:
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