The Upside to All the Online Chatter About 'Girls'

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; 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, 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").

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.

Unlike the "Millennial Generation" commentary and counter-commentary that saturated the Internet within days of Dunham's HBO debut, the media obsession with a young "Generation X" was a slow burn that began in the fall of 1991 and lasted roughly four years. TIME speculated about the era's "twentysomethings" as early as 1990, but youth-culture trend stories didn't hit critical mass until the following year, when the debut of Linklater's film and Coupland's novel coincided with the commercial success of Perry Farrell's Lollapalooza festival and heavy MTV rotation for the Nirvana single "Smells Like Teen Spirit." In a December 1991 Spin article, critic James Greer suggested that these events represented a "philosophy of rejection, a kind of non-violent opposition to the system of values transmitted to us through popular culture," adding: "We just don't want to participate anymore in the culture that's been handed to us."

Every incipient bogus trend story hinges on bogus conflict, and by 1992 and 1993 commentators were framing Greer's supposed "philosophy of rejection" as a cultural struggle between smug, entrenched Baby Boomers and pessimistic, nihilistic Gen Xers. The Economist ran a story about this newfound generation gap, as did magazines like Newsweek, Business Week, and Fortune. Reviewers began to pin the "voice of a generation" label on any artist who happened to be young, promising, and vaguely angsty—not just Linklater, Coupland, and Cobain, but Trent Reznor, Janeane Garofalo, Eddie Vedder, and Quentin Tarantino.

Had social media been around in the early 1990s, the rhetoric surrounding Generation X might have been tempered in real time by the diverse and contradictory voices of everyday Gen Xers. As this was still the age of centralized media, however, the closest approximation to a collective response came in the form of tomes like the Gen X Reader, which was edited by Douglas Rushkoff and published by Ballantine in April of 1994. Excerpts from Slacker and Generation X were included in its pages, as were political manifestos like "Lead or Leave," and perspectives from the likes of Katie Roiphe, Walter Kirn, and Pagan Kennedy.

Eighteen years after its publication, Rushkoff's anthology is a yellowing relic of a time when generational voices were a curated phenomenon. The book gave token nods toward diversity (an interview with rapper Ice Cube, an excerpt from a novel called Negrophobia), but for the most part the voices in the Gen X Reader belonged to hyper-educated young white folks based in New York or California (including, by my cursory inventory, at least 5 Yale grads, 4 Harvard grads, 2 Princeton grads, 2 Swarthmore grads, and a sprinkling of Wesleyan, McGill, and Evergreen State alums). Many of the essays were self-consciously glum and defensive, perhaps none more so than Rushkoff's introduction, an anti-Boomer diatribe so rich in breathless generalizations and collective pronouns that it reads like parody. "GenX college grads settle for temp jobs to pay the rent or move back in with Mom and Dad, then spend our real time making community access shows and countercultural 'zines," he wrote. "Our apparent and oft-condemned apathy is actually a carefully modulated distancing from cues and signals of the Boomers' consumer culture."

The fact that people with expensive liberal arts degrees dominated the "Gen X" media discussion of the early 1990s is telling. Sure, brand-name university credentials had a way of opening doors for many young culture-pundits in the age of traditional media—but this was less significant than the fact that people with liberal arts degrees have long been inordinately fixated on notions of generational zeitgeist. Indeed, any discussion that involves the phrase "voice of a generation" is invariably referring to a rarefied, hypothetical slice of that generation. Country albums like Ropin' the Wind and Some Gave All were popular among young listeners in the early '90s—outselling Nirvana's Nevermind in 1991 and 1992, respectively—yet no critics thought to mention Garth Brooks or Billy Ray Cyrus alongside the word "zeitgeist." In 1993, when rap artists were on their way to racking up $800 million in record sales, few social pundits included the hip-hop demographic in their profiles of "Generation X." As rapper Dr. Dre told Newsweek in 1994, "I haven't heard anyone in my 'hood talking about it. The only X I know is Malcolm X.''

Nearly two decades later, a similar conversation has surrounded the show Girls, but the multifarious, online nature of the discussion makes it far more relevant, far more satisfying, than it was in 1994. When Dunham's Hannah character, stoned on opium tea, declares to her parents in the pilot episode that she thinks she might be "the voice of my generation," the show doesn't just lampoon the hubris of self-involved young liberal arts graduates—it invites a real-time debate about the inherent limitations of the phrase itself. That debate has played out not just in feature stories by (and the reader-comment sections of) mainstream media outlets, but on Twitter and Facebook, in blogs and on message boards.

Some of the most engaging commentary has come from women who share both Dunham's age and educational background—people like Nona Willis Aronowitz, Emily Bracken, and Meghan O'Keefe, who offered up incisive, real-time analysis the week Girls debuted. Writing in the Huffington Post, Bracken commended Girls for its strong point of view, while astutely noting how "saying Lena Dunham is the voice of her generation is like saying Woody Allen spoke for men of the 1970s." O'Keefe's satirical commentary, also in the Huffington Post, took a deliciously meta turn, noting that while Dunhan's Hannah character "may never embody the zeitgeist of the entire nation, she does exhibit all of the same attributes as 90 percent of the writers who will have to write about Girls for minor pittance for Internet publications." Aronowitz alluded to the far-ranging nature of the online Girls conversation in a Good article, observing how "the more art purports to represent our reality, the more we end up scrutinizing it, pinning all our hopes on it. It's easier to love a magical world like True Blood." Follow the embedded links in Aronowitz's article (or just Google "Lena Dunham," "voice of a generation," and "April"), and you'll see an online feedback loop that contained more relevant youth-culture insights in one week of discussion than the three-plus years of 1990s commentary collected and anthologized in The Gen X Reader.

Within that Girls feedback loop, voices from outside the post-liberal-arts bubble have leavened the conversation with more diverse perspectives than one found in the old-media dialogue two decades ago. Unsurprisingly, this has made diversity itself a part of the discussion, as many on the Internet have complained that, by focusing on four privileged young white women, Girls doesn't reflect Brooklyn's rich racial mix. In a Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross, Dunham addressed the criticism, managing to sound both articulate and inadvertently comical as she employed Oberlin-flavored phrases like "network tokenism," "engage in a dialogue," and "specificity to experience." Her answer packed 540 words into two minutes of air time, but it can be summarized as follows: "Like me, the Hannah character is a liberal arts graduate, and liberal arts grads spend far more time worrying about the idea of diversity than actually experiencing it. In time, the show will address that." Given Dunham's talents at turning Hannah into a hilariously awkward version of herself, this is certainly something to look forward to.

Moreover, in letting online discussions about Girls influence the second season of the show, Dunham is creating an opportunity to both address the question of diversity and tweak certain absurdities at the heart of the question itself. Skin color notwithstanding, what kind of character would represent true social variegation in Girls' youthful, Brooklyn-centered universe? A Republican? A person who doesn't own a smartphone? A non-ironic aficionado of mainstream country music? With the confirmed second-season appearance of nerd-culture icon Donald Glover (and the well-publicized casting call for "Hipster Types: All ethnicities"), it seems likely that the comedy will result not from the broad strokes of actual diversity, but from the split hairs of perceived difference.

The best moment in the pilot episode of Girls comes one beat after Dunham's Hannah character has suggested to her parents that she might be the voice of her generation. "Or at least a voice," she says, "of a generation." This observation is funny in its bet-hedging simplicity—but it also because it's true. As was the case with "Generation X" two decades ago, most talk about the "Millennials" of today isn't about a "generation" in the broad demographic sense; it's a whimsical inquiry into what it's like to be young and uncertain (and urban, and college-educated, and nominally resistant to mass culture) in the midst of a moribund economy.

Of course Lena Dunham is a voice of a generation. So is everyone who has responded to her show online. The resulting dialogue provides fewer easy conclusions than it did 20 years ago—and that's a sure sign that the conversation has become more meaningful.