If anything, “sexual revolution” was rather a prim term for the lurid carnival actually taking place in the mightiest country on earth in the year 2000. … By 2000, an estimated 50 percent of all hits, or “log-ons,” were at Web sites purveying what was known as “adult material.” …. From age thirteen, American girls were under pressure to maintain a façade of sexual experience and sophistication. Among girls, “virgin” was a term of contempt…. The continuing vogue of feminism had made sexual life easier, even insouciant, for men. Women had been persuaded that they should be just as active as men when it came to sexual advances. Men were only too happy to accede to the new order, since it absolved them of all sense of responsibility, let alone chivalry.
“Each person,” Ashbery writes, “Has one big theory to explain the universe.” Mine involves the year 2000, and a series of little tilts that shifted the axis of things and shaped the Millennial Generation—a series of changes in television and technology and the self. The changes enabled the world to produce someone like Lena Dunham, and they gave her some fresh human-comedic material to work with.
The year 2000 was an election year, and it took a long time to declare a winner. MSNBC and Fox News flourished in the heat and wind of a toxic political climate and polluted that sphere further, fuelling narratives of civil conflict as a spectator sport.
James Gandolfini won an Emmy for his performance on the first season of The Sopranos. HBO, building on earlier successes, announced its ambition to do serious work.
In the year 2000, reality television got its hooks in. Survivor debuted on CBS, and 52 million people watched the season finale. Fox aired Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? Do you remember that one? It’s not on YouTube; I have it on VHS. Barring the network broadcast of snuff films, Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? is the reason that it is always incorrect to say, “Reality television has sunk to a new low.” It was a two-hour special where 50 bachelorettes put on beauty-pageant gowns—and, at one point, swimsuits—in vying for the heart of a supposed big shot hidden offstage. The winner would get a 3-carat ring and marry the stranger on the spot. Further prizes included an Isuzu Trooper.
In March of 2000, US magazine changed frequency, format, and brow height, and became the canny celebrity-tabloid Us Weekly. Shortly, the new magazine was a venue for performances for the type of starlet whose skill set includes the ability to walk from her car into Starbucks and back while wearing a carefully considered casual outfit.
In September of 2000, Paris Hilton—theretofore merely a coastal presence, an aimless heiress flashing her panties at “Page Six” and clubbing around L.A.—made her national debut in a Vanity Fair story by Nancy Jo Sales, a key chronicler of the make-moves, blow-up, get-paid scene of the late ‘90s. “It’s like all she wants to do is become famous,” one “friend” told Sales of Hilton, “to wipe out the past, to become somebody else.”
In 2000, Dave Eggers published A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which is not only a good book but a key text in the history of confessionalism, and an invitation to people like Hannah Horvath to start on their memoirs before they’ve started on anything else.
That summer, The New Yorker published a piece about sex by Lucinda Rosenfeld—an excerpt from a first novel pitched as higher chick lit. The excerpt, titled “The Male Gaze,” was greeted by literate New York in terms I have not heard used before or since to discuss New Yorker fiction. Everyone was chattering with her cubicle-mate, excited that someone had rounded up some fresh impressions of postmodern love as practiced in the late 1990s. The full title of the novel lists the names of the heroine’s lovers: What She Saw in Roger Mancuso, Gunter Hopstock, Jason Barry Gold, Spitty Clark, Jack Geezo, Humphrey Fung, Claude Duvet, Bruce Bledstone, Kevin McFeeley, Arnold Allen, Pablo Miles, Anonymous 1-4, Nobody 5-8, Neil Schmertz, and Bo Pierce.
Those are notes toward a theory about Lena Dunham’s generation and the year 2000. “Each person,” Ashbery writes, “Has one big theory to explain the universe./ But it doesn't tell the whole story.” Spoilers ahead.
* * *
One night in late December 2011, I was at home watching Girls for the first time and enjoying it very much. The pilot episode cleverly used images of food and hunger to explore what the characters want. It begins with Hannah Horvath—such schoolyard torture implied by that surname!—stuffing her face. Her parents are in town, and they are eating at the kind of place she would probably only go with her parents, at her age, in her position.
For two years, with her parents’ fiscal and moral support, Hannah has been interning at a publishing company. She is working on a memoir—tentatively titled Midnight Snack—but she is only two years out of college, so she has to live the rest before she can write it, which is a garden-variety idiocy on Hannah’s part and a structural cleverness on Dunham’s. So Hannah wants to be… Carrie? Sloane? Don’t you dare say Ms. Joan. No, she wants to be Hannah Horvath.
Hannah’s mother drops the hammer: “No. More. Money.” And Hannah tosses a soft tantrum about her tomorrow. She has work and a dinner party and then she's busy "trying to become who I am." This is, I think, the business and the busy-ness of life, trying to become who you are, trying to figure out what that might mean — much as the meaning of life lies in working out what you believe the meaning to be. I am pretty sure that Dunham knows that Hannah is paraphrasing a motto Nietzsche borrowed from Pindar. I am not sure that Hannah knows she is paraphrasing Pindar, and she is perhaps too young to know Juliana Hatfield, but perhaps she saw words to similar effect on the side of a box of chai tea. The pilot ends after Hannah wakes up alone in her parents’ hotel room, attempts to mooch a room-service breakfast, and steals the housekeeper’s tip.
In between, Hannah gluts on cupcakes in the most interesting treatment of baked-goods fetishism since Bridesmaids, where Kristen Wiig, at spiritual ebb, crafted herself a treat frosted with a floral design as elaborate in its folds as any in Georgia O’Keeffe’s body of work. There’s a bodega run, a futile request for bottled water, and the question of when Hannah, having talked herself out of her internship, should come crawling back to her boss (Chris Eigeman): when she is “hungry for the job” or “physically hungry”? There’s a dinner party in which Hannah drinks some opium tea, in a spirit of escape and also of adventure, like Alice down on her luck in Wonderland.
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