That Lena Dunham commercial might have made a real contribution to enhancing the president’s turnout, for all I know. Certainly it was consistent with the Democratic convention’s insistent appeal to women’s rights, especially the rights of single women. But there’s at least one irony: Dunham is a genuine defender of women’s right to choose, but the girls she shows on Girls so rarely actually choose well. So we conservatives are tempted to say we have no reason to believe their voting behavior is better than, for example, their sexual behavior.

The girls on Girls—mostly graduates of elite liberal arts schools—have no idea who they are and what they’re supposed to do. They’ve been failed by their education and the whole way they’ve been brought up. Despite their privileged backgrounds, they have almost no manners and no morals. Well, the Dunham character—the most confused of them all—does manage to say thank you for any kindness or ambiguous compliment that comes her way. But she’s also just about never moved by generosity or charity or even ordinary self-restraint. The other girls have plenty of reason not to regard her as a good friend.

The Dunham character (Hana), a film studies major (who–studies show–don’t actually learn much in college; that’s true of majors ending in “studies” generally), comes to the big city to write, but she lacks the education, talent, and discipline. She, like many of her friends, has no marketable skills, no work ethic, and a rich sense of entitlement. So she sponges off her parents (until they—in their own narcissism—abruptly cut her off) and is a shameless parasite generally. The quality of relational life on the show is often abysmal—with the resulting visit to the abortion clinic, STDs, various pathetic hook ups, and whiny pretend marriages. It turns out that these girls, like us all, want meaningful work and personal love, but they have very little idea how to find them. We just know those girls would be happier if they were more about living for something more than themselves, for, for example, some principle or some family or their country or even God.

There are reasons for conservatives not to like or even to refuse to watch Girls. We could begin, of course, with the fact that we see way too much of Hana (Lena) way too often. From a merely artistic view, the show is oblivious to the sound principle than when it comes to nudity on the big screen, less is more. We could go on to get all indignant other disgusting incidents so casually displayed. But we have to admit that things that are really revolting from a moral or relational point of view are actually portrayed quite negatively. And we conservatives have to admit that the general message of the show is what’s wrong with these girls is that they lack character—and they are, to a point, victims of an easygoing world of privilege that deprives them of the experiences that allow them to develop character. And if you want a basically a conservative (or libertarian/productivity) indictment of what passes for “liberal education” these days, watch Girls.

Dunham herself would reject the solution of returning to the repression of traditional religion and morality. But true conservatives agree, after all, that there’s never any simple going back. We social scientists have to admire a show that so precisely defines social and relational problems while suggesting that there are no easy solutions. The hope the show gives us is the persistence of relational human nature: Hana really wants a boyfriend who loves her, and the guy she loves is turning out to be better than what he says (and so he is unexpectedly ready to do the relationship’s heavy lifting). So things may turn out well enough several seasons down the road. But it might also turn out that many or all of these girls are too wounded by their “wonder years” to become all they are meant to be.

Books on the topic discussed in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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10 replies to this post
  1. Most Assuredly agreed, John. However I might be inclined to watch a few bits if not an episode to stay relevant in the conversation.

  2. Professor Lawler: I am wondering if the conservative view of Girls is unfounded, in the sense that Dunham would not agree that her intention is to portray the sorry state of the hook-up culture and the characterless products of a modern education. Dunhams' advertisement for Obama, together with her liberal position on every political issue (e.g., gay marriage, abortion) suggests that, in her mind, she is portraying something much different than what conservatives view as the necessary result of an easy-going relativism that values nothing. What she is actually trying to say in the show is not clear; she is not, however, trying to suggest that our culture is a wasteland, for making that suggestion would be tantamount to attacking the world of modern liberalism. Does Dunham's intent matter? I think it does, because if we do not realize that the show, in the mind of its creators and probably most if its young fans, is not an attack on contemporary culture, we will convince ourselves that something positive is taking place, that someone is recognizing the impoverished condition in which the young grow up. We would then fail to understand what is so dark about Girls — that it demonstrates that we, or rather our cultural elites, can no longer see degradation even when it is put squarely before them.

  3. Actually, it is extremely easy to "go back" to a normal life. Part of the whiney liberal pretense is that modern life is so complicated, that it is so difficult to turn away from destructive habits, which are themselves often portrayed as existentialist acts rather than simple vices. Excessive drinking, and the whole clubbing lifestyle are often practiced as conscious acts of hedonism or existential despair in reaction to a godless universe where man is alone and alien to himself.

    Here in Warsaw, there was a very real life case of such "Girls" back in 05 or 06. There was a black man from some African country who was quite the ladies man and considered a fine catch amongst the educated ladies. However, whenever he managed to get a girl into bed, and the girl inquired whether he had a condomn, he would go into a rage, accussing the women of being… racists.

    His reasoning was simple: he would tell the women that they were subconsciously frightened of contracting AIDS, that if he were white, they would not ask to use a condomn. This line of argument convinced the girls, educated by the university to be sensitive to their intrinsic racism and tolerant of other cultures.

    Tragically, those women are now dying of AIDS. It turned out that the black man not only had AIDS, but knew about it, and was consciously infecting women with AIDS. Why? Because his tribal African culture believed that the best way to be cured of AIDS was to "give it away".

    He further harbored hatred towards whites for colonial wrongs. Naturally, it never occured to him that the Poles who gave him refuge, education and work never engaged in colonialism or slavery.

    Those women were killed by their politically correct university educations, which taught them to reject all virtue and common sense as merely provincial Catholic babble. They were so poisoned by political correctness that they were willing to have sex with a black man without a condomn as some kind of right of passage to appease the white guilt that the university had put into their minds.

    This is not, mind you, a story of a typical human vice, the roots of which are usually to be found in lust, jealousy or pride. It is a wholy new vice, one that people are educated in.

    To leave this kind of life, all that is required is an act of will, not unlike that portrayed in a film of an opposite character to Girls, namely Rocky. Rocky, as Mic puts it, had what it takes to become a great fighter, but instead became a bum. Rocky turns his life around and returns to the path of a man. Everyone can do this.

    And in the end, in spite of their pretences to sophistication, the politically correct gays and feminists who tread lightly over the virtues and excuse themselves by referencing Nietzsche or constructing hedonist philosophies become – in the long run – bums.

    This is because alcohol, over the long run, like cigarrettes, drugs and sleepless nights spent clubbing all take a toll on the body. When I look at my gay friends today, they are all the picture of unhappy drunk bums because unlike heterosexuals, the homosexuals never actually managed to settle down and experience the mature, calming love of a good woman. Thus the gay lifestyle combined with the clubbing lifestyle is the path of a bum in waiting. Those who do not become bums know that the trick is to always be seen with a wine glass or a shot of vodka, but never actually drink it.

    All of them, and all those who live like the 'Girls' can, in an instant, change their lives if they just made the choice. But, as Dr. Lawler writes, it is hard to choose when you don't know what your choices are because your education was lacking. Still, one needs only a bit of common sense to distinguish good from bad, and this is perhaps why the sophisticates do everything possible to equate common sense with our grandmothers, and grandmothers with a state of disease rather than the happy life of a once beautiful woman content with her earthly past and looking forward to her heavenly future.

  4. I think watching or being aware of (in case gratuitous nudity for some reason is not your thing) the products of popular culture is critically important. To set ourselves apart from that culture means we’ll never be able to speak to the people who are steeped and surrounded and swim in that culture every day. Personally I could care less about the intent of the creators. Every work of art in some way grows out of and reflects the culture and worldview of its day, but it also reflects the Imgo Dei (I can use Latin here at TIC, right?), and that no matter how hard they try to deny it, human beings reflect that image. We can obviously see both in Girls.

    I’ve only heard a couple interviews of Lena Dunham, and read some things here and there, but I think thoroughly post-modern people like her don’t really think through the implications of what they produce. For them, I think, it simply reflects the world they know, to one degree or another. And upper class young single New York City life probably looks something like what is portrayed in the show.

    The reason I appreciate a review like this, and a show like this, is that it illustrates and allows me to teach others how utterly vacuous life without God ultimately is. We know the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, but our secular cultural elites think they can find wisdom without God. Good luck with that.

  5. Who says that a man in marriage necessarily "experience(s) the mature, calming love of a good woman"? Ideally, that is what the man would like, but until it happens, one never knows….

  6. There have many shows on HBO and other premium channels now-a-days, Girls and The Sorpranos are examples par excellence, which depict various aspects of the true American life of the Northeast which have been ignored in the past my the Media. Girls is a bit exaggerated but the dynamics depicted this series are accurate.

  7. The issue isn't God or the lack thereof. I deem that a cheap shot. The issue is the lack of any sort of real social framework or conventions via which people can engage each other in issues of sex, desire, relationships etc.

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