The debate about Lena Dunham's HBO comedy is more varied and sophisticated than cultural conversations of 20 years ago.
Lena Dunham's HBO show Girls—and the online conversation that has surrounded it since its April debut—calls to mind something Violent Femmes singer Gordon Gano told Details magazine back in 1993. Paraphrasing the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset, he noted how "the youth, because he is not yet anything determinate and irrevocable, is everything potentially. Herein lies his charm and his insolence. Feeling that he is everything potentially he supposes that he is everything actually." This keen blend of youthful charm and insolence has made Girls both a critical darling and a topic of intense debate about how the show represents (or fails to represent) one generation's experience of sex, gender, race, privilege, and potential.
For those of us who were Dunham's age in the pop-culture cycle of the early 1990s, there is something eerily familiar in the way Girls—which concludes its first season on Sunday—has set off a debate about who/what does/doesn't represent how young Americans think and live during a time of economic hardship. Twenty years ago, at the tail end of an economic recession—and in the wake of Slacker, Generation X, and Nevermind—critics were using similar language to argue the same youth-culture issues that Girls has come to represent in 2012. When an April 12 post at The Frisky defended Dunham against the notion that she should speak for all young people, it carried echoes of an April 16, 1992 Rolling Stone article distancing Kurt Cobain from similar generalizations. A June 1994 Newsweek article asserting that twentysomethings of that era were faced with "arguably the worst job market since World War II" sounded a lot like this Girls article from USNews.com; and when Newsweek went on to say, back in 1994, that pop-culture supposedly representative of Gen X "doesn't resonate much beyond the white middle class," it foreshadowed sentiments with this Girls commentary from the Huffington Post, written by a young black woman: "Girls doesn't represent me nor the women I know who have matured in NYC." When Dunham distanced herself from the "voice of a generation" label in April interviews with Salon and Time.com, she sounded a lot like Generation X author Douglas Coupland and Slacker director Richard Linklater taking pains to downplay "the hype around their generational voices" in a December 1994 Wired interview("everything's a cliché," quipped Linklater, "even to come out and say this generation doesn't want spokespeople").
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But while the discussion about being young in recession-era America carries strong echoes of the early '90s, the debate surrounding Girls illustrates how writers and commentators have become a lot more sophisticated, nuanced, and multi-polar in the way they discuss and deconstruct notions of generational zeitgeist. It also shows how the critique of "white privilege" surrounding Girls and its characters is redundant, since the whole "voice of a generation" conceit (a notion skewered by Dunham in the show's first episode) has always been an obsession of a largely white, overeducated chattering class.