Girls Meets World: Lena Dunham’s Floating Generation Down Under

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In a Vanity Fair article published early last year, American author Joyce Carol Oates refers to 27-year-old Lena Dunham’s characters as the ‘floating generation.’ Or rather, writes Oates, ‘In Europe they are being called the “floating generation”: young people over-educated for the employment they can find, if they can find it, whose lives have stalled on the cusp of adulthood.’ Here, they might be called ‘the generation of Girls.’ For an Australian audience – one whose cultural identity is at once so derived and so geographically removed from Americana – the question begs asking: what name should we give to ours?

If last two years will be remembered for anything – at least by millennials and jaded television critics – it just might be for the debut of Dunham’s bewilderingly controversial Girls. In case you’ve been living under a rock, the HBO series centres around the lives of Hannah, Jessa, Marnie and Shoshanna: in their early to mid-twenties, and floundering in modern-day Brooklyn.

Girls kicked off in April 2012 in the United States and landed on our shores a month later via premium cable channel Showcase. Australian audiences were quick to respond. Even before its premiere, the stars of Girls were littering magazine covers, billboards and posters strung up in university cafeterias throughout Australia’s major cities. The hype hasn’t died down yet, with the latest season premiering to much fanfare both overseas and locally.

In a nation so transient, so reliant upon others for our own identity, to question the appeal of Girls to an audience largely geographically removed from the culture that it portrays may seem, at first, to be redundant. Gone are the days (oh so familiar to Dunham’s target audience: children of the 90s) of waiting months for local television channels to screen a show’s latest episodes. American culture is Australian culture, it became so without anyone noticing until suddenly one Halloween the nation realised that children were trick or treating on our doorsteps and we had nothing to give them.

However, despite globalisation, the fact remains that the Pacific seems determined to keep flowing between us. If Europe has the floating generation and America – or at least Brooklyn – has Girls, what hath the land down under?

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why Girls has had so much success capturing not only the American zeitgeist, but also that of Australia. Whether overseas or locally, it’s hard to escape the fact that the floating generation, and especially the women thereof, are being represented in a way that nobody has seen before. But how much can Australia’s own floating generation relate to America’s?

Thanks to globalisation and a world in which a twenty-something from Boston and a twenty-something from Adelaide can consume the same media simultaneously, to claim that this generation is a completely separate entity from its overseas counterparts would be imprudent. Yet to deny them each their own particular individualities would be equally so. Sure, maybe as an equally white, privileged Westerner, watching someone else trying to guilt their parents into paying for rent feels freeing. Maybe we’ve all been in at least one relationship with someone whose loving touch started to feel like a disease we couldn’t quite shake.

And, of course, I’m sure that across the globe women would agree there simply were not enough examples of female masturbation on television, even on HBO, prior to the 2010s (enough of us are doing it, statistically, that the oversight is worthy of recognition).

While ten years ago we may have been obsessed with ‘having it all,’ now it’s okay to show your cards. We’re still figuring it out, and it’s finally okay to say so. In fact, declaring otherwise would be, as Marnie sagely quips in the pilot, ‘not of this time.’ In these ways, Oates’ declaration that we have – assuming Oates will allow me to include Australia in this generalisation – become a generation of Girls seems inarguably astute.

Season one episode ‘The Return’, in which Hannah goes back to her home state of Michigan, may be one of the more startling relatable for an Australian audience. The dialogue between Hannah and her parents – funny if not slightly cringeworthy when watching with a peer – rapidly becomes almost unbearable when watching with our own mothers and fathers as home truths begin to sink in. We might not fully understand dorm culture and summer camp and, although a thorn in the side of Australia’s recent graduates, the prison cells known as ‘unpaid internships’ are not as firmly a part of our culture as they are overseas…but if our millennial generation shares anything with its Brooklyn counterpart it’s a complete disdain for our parents and the privileged sphere that we inhabit.

Eternally self-involved and plugged in and snapping at her mother and father for simply desiring her company during her brief stay, Dunham’s Hannah treads a line many of us have crossed before:

‘Oh honey, don’t text,’ Hannah’s mother implores.

Her dad weighs in, ‘You can text when the movie’s over.’

‘I don’t care about the movie,’ retorts Hannah.

‘Well, we do.’

‘Well, that’s your cross to bear now isn’t it?’

***

All shared values and virtues – or lack thereof – aside, the generational ties that make relating to Hannah, Marnie and co so easy for Australians (Twitter! Narcissism! Middle-class, post-grad ‘poverty’!) cannot wholly discount the power of cultural and geographical ones. Certainly, for local audiences and the Gen Y and so-called millennial girls in particular, the show hits a slightly different note. While for a US audience the show might be very ‘New York,’ not all of us in Oz have a realistic (read: non-pop culture based) context for what that might mean, or what moving interstate at eighteen as a matter of course might look like – and when it comes to parents funding our post-university years, a lot of Australian viewers (girls, boys and said parents alike) are left bemused.

If America is the land of the free rent and phone plan, why are we not all lining up at the airport? And if Australia remains a country of unpaid HECS debts, where a majority of students attend university in the same state and indeed city as the high school they graduated from and the house they grew up in, how relatable can these Girls be to ours?

With all generations so largely shaped by geography and economy, Australia’s own floating generation is both twin sister and distant cousin to the one inhabited by Dunham. Hannah might be as much Steve Jobs’s humble servant as this essay writer herself, but Hannah, it bears reminding, quite probably has no idea who Mr Squiggle or Alf Stewart are, probably did not have to wear a uniform to school, and calls Gumtree ‘Craigslist’. More importantly, for Hannah voting is not mandatory, as a New Yorker she would be free to marry Marnie or Jessa if she so chose, and when Hannah and Sandy (played by Donald Glover) discuss issues of black vs. white, it’s worth remembering that Australia’s own racial identities are not on par with America’s, Europe’s, or even our little sister New Zealand’s. We’re a monarchy, even though the Queen has nothing to do with anyone and nobody can really explain to anyone else what the point of all that is. Lena Dunham did not enter a high school – uniformed or no – in which gun culture was well and truly a thing of the past, a construct unimaginable to our floating generation as having belonged to Australia in the first place.

But how powerful are these cultural differences? How much credit should we give globalisation, or conversely, geography, in shaping a generation? And if Girls was an Australian institution rather than an international one, what might that show look like?

Take Hannah’s quote in the Girls pilot, in which she informs her parents (under the influence of legal opiates, whilst making them read over her memoir…) that she thinks she ‘might be the voice of my generation…or at least a voice of a generation.’ Due in part to the line’s prominence in promotional trailers, the quote has spread like wildfire, with almost every review and commentary piece (and there have been a lot of them) focusing on the assertion.

Is this really what the voice of this generation of twenty-somethings sounds like, people seem to be wondering, and are we all okay with that? Australians might instead wonder: if Hannah (or Dunham) is America’s voice – who is ours? Do we have one? Someone at Channel Ten seems to have designated Josh Thomas as our generation’s voice, but we can all probably agree that that doesn’t really count for much.

More relevant might be Marieke Hardy and the wonderfully frank and engaging ABC series Laid, which offered Australian audiences at least something in the way of honest Gen Y shiftlessness and sexuality. Older generations might have wondered at Laid protagonist Roo’s number of sexual partners (twenty-something, fittingly) and while probably a slight exaggeration for the sake of plot – and comedy – the floating generation aren’t so quick to scoff.

Still, while nobody can get enough of Girls, perhaps Australia wasn’t ready to embrace local depictions of female sexuality, with Laid sadly not renewed for a third season. If the fate of Girls rested on Australians it might have gone the same way (although, to be fair, Laid was not produced by HBO, and the slavish devotion of both Americans and Australians to HBO knows no bounds).

Perhaps it’s due to Australia’s geography – we are, literally, a nation separate from the rest of the world after all – that makes our culture seem so contained. Whereas we’re consuming the same globalised media, by no means are we producing it (okay, other than Neighboursyou’re welcome, world). We’re so used to the sound of someone else’s voice and the special effects of someone else’s production team that even when we produce quality Australian films, the cinemas are often confusingly sparse. Australia simply doesn’t have a direct answer to Girls, Dunham, or HBO for that matter and expecting otherwise might be considered a pointless pursuit.

***

So what should we call our own floating generation? I’m not sure that I’m up for the responsibility of giving us a title (maybe I’ll conduct a Twitter poll). More importantly, though, are we, at our core, any different from that of Europe, or the ‘generation of Girls’? Yes. And no. We have our own concerns and have been shaped by so much more than what has washed up on our shores.

Still, considering the rapid advance of technology it’s unavoidable that we’re a generation more involved with the goings-on of our Western sisters than any that have come before us. Maybe instead of Big Brother we’re the Little Sister generation, fascinated by everything that our bigger, more advanced siblings get up to (sorry Twitter, I don’t need your help after all). It stands to reason though that all little sisters must grow up and define themselves outside of the shadows of those who have gone before. We might be borrowing clothes from Lena Dunham’s Girls generation, but eventually we’ll take our own shape. Probably. Whatever.

Sian Campbell is a Brisbane-bred freelance writer, literature student and co-creator of online lit journal Scum Mag. The first chapter of her novel-in-progress was long-listed for the 2012 John Marsden Prize.

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