'Girls,' the Show That Artfully Skewers the So-called First World Problems

This U.S. series is about riches - richness of privilege, of time, of complexes. But not about economic riches.

You can learn a lot about a cultural artifact by listening with half an ear to the criticism it generates. Direct consumption has already become an outmoded interaction, an inferior form of time wasting. After all, no one reads the classics, and that is precisely their importance: They are already part of the culture. They are us. The opposite is also true: Significant works do not need direct exposure. They splash about contentedly in the pond of our cultural genes.

Who has time, anyway? We are all bored to death but don’t have a minute to breathe; busy up to our necks but getting nothing done. In the first few weeks after “Girls” began on HBO, the Internet was seething. Even before the second episode aired, sharply worded opinion pieces appeared, along with biting posts in hipster sanctuaries like Gawker and New York magazine, and myriad tweets ranging from ecstasy to abomination.

At times “Girls” became a discussion about “Girls,” and that discourse seemed to have more participants than the program has viewers. ‏(The show is broadcast here by Yes Oh.‏) The show embedded itself in the cultural landscape and became a classic before our eyes, in real time, in a media blitz, in the course of the implosion of a long-term process into our fearful present.

Even before finishing its first interlude, “Girls” proved itself to be good television by occurring in the viewer, not just on the screen; by mediating its concrete milieu, not the imagined, flickering nature it embodies. Out of nowhere, the characters of “Girls” flooded us with what we had long since identified within ourselves: excessive ambition and excessive laziness; narcissism sprinkled with self-hatred. And all of it going on simultaneously, densely, intolerably. Abundance showed its loathsome face.

“Girls” is a series about riches − richness of privilege, richness of time, richness of complexes − and about how this shapes the realms of the psyche, imagined as a beautiful botanical garden where all the flowers are made of plastic. It’s not economic riches: The show’s protagonists are the richest of the poor. Like most of those who constitute the “creative class” ‏(writers, designers, high-tech workers, many of last year’s social-justice protest demonstrators‏), these young people can barely pay the rent but spend every summer in a holiday apartment in Berlin. In other words, wealth is no longer a matter of money. And to be precise, money is no longer a matter of money.

Graver than the fact that the “trust fund girls” who are the stars of the series do not have to work is that their bank balance is immaterial. “No more money,” Hannah’s mother asserts in the scene that opens the series. Their wealth is privilege as such: Jessa’s unrestrained libido; Shoshanna’s schizophrenic conservatism; Marnie’s missing femininity; and, of course, the router of it all − and the series’ heroine − Hannah.

This is the dark, chaotic and psychotic side of surplus. Wealth is presented in its most deviant manner, when it successfully detaches from the material plane and builds a Las Vegas in the soul itself.

In this sense, “Girls” is cruising in television waters similar to those of “The Wire.” In fact, it complements the earlier HBO series. Portraying all the others − the excluded and the oppressed − with painful realism, and splashing life-moments like tableaux across the capitalist canvas, “The Wire” is everything that is happening outside the frame of “Girls.” “The Wire” is the mirror image of “Girls” − “the part of those who have no part,” in the words of the French thinker and historian Jacques Ranciere.

Layer of guilt

This, in fact, was also the main complaint in the reams of critical texts being written about “Girls.” Where is the Other? Why is its point of departure restricted to what’s known as “First World Problems”?

It would be useful here to dwell briefly on this oft-used term − FWP for short − both as a phenomenon and in regard to “Girls.” Its origin can be dated to the rise of the social networks and the universal convergence upon optical fibers; as the writer Thomas L. Friedman put it, “The world is flat.” We are all assembled beneath the meta-nation of Facebook, which this August is expected to attain a population of one billion users, thereby becoming the world’s third biggest “state,” exceeded only by China and India.

One of the first signs of the phenomenon was the popular blog Stuff White People Like, which was launched in January 2008 and afterward became a best-selling book. The blog, which was of course written by a white hipster from Toronto, ironically assailed the hipster culture ‏(which originated in New York‏) and sketched the image − refined, fashionable, left-liberal − of the new white person.

The FWP moment is also the moment at which the West develops self-awareness. The First World suddenly encounters the other worlds and this proximity makes further disavowal impossible. The worlds converge, and the white man is burdened by a thick and oily layer of guilt: Who cleans the homes of the inhabitants of the global village? Who inhabits the favelas around that village? But even though for many this self-awareness seems amusing, even empathic, it is actually another way for the white man to perpetuate his superiority, by deriving a surfeit of enjoyment from the little setbacks in life: “The maid’s vacuum cleaner is really noisy”; “I’m tired of eating in the same restaurants all the time”; “The hot water ran out in the middle of the shower,” etc.

All these moments accumulate, are celebrated and are reexperienced as pleasant “First World Problems.” The awareness becomes condescension, the compassion self-indulgence, the guilt feelings self-enjoyment. A way has been found to increase emotional capital. Like charity, the principal addressee of these declarations is not the needy but the speaker, who ups the interest on pleasure in his bank of feelings.

To critique “Girls” in this way − as a cultural artifact − is in truth a form of self-critique. When the critics wonder where the black/immigrant/outcast is, they are ignoring the fact that equal rights is not a zero-sum game and identity politics is not algebra. They are in fact aiming this question at themselves. Is “Girls” an FWP in itself, or is the problem us?

The series takes a revolutionary approach to this conflict. It embodies the idea that money no longer needs itself in order to exist. Money has finished its work in the exterior world, the shaping of the cultural geology of the planet, and has moved to a higher, metaphysical plane of existence. It is now incubating in interior, human nature. It no longer needs paper or credit in order to survive. Like a virus, it has taken up total residence within our biology, as a sophisticated organism that developed a form of self-awareness by itself. The money is with the money, with those vilified one percent, who are constantly diminishing to the point of total erasure.

“No more money,” then, is a key term for comprehending the new reality that the series represents. It’s the post-2008 economic crisis, and there is no more money. We are ineluctably abandoning the collective pretense, the false thinking according to which the game of rustling paper bears meaning. We got what we wanted: a world without money, without an economy, without a gray-haired father figure. Only, instead of an economy, the money is trading in us: in feelings, experiences, obsessions, in our information. We are not the clients, the new cliche goes, we are the product that is being traded. Instead of a utopian socialism, we have an emotional apocalypse.

In a reality in which money is no longer a matter of money, there is no First World that is separate from the rest and situated at the top of the hierarchy. Instead, there is a multiplicity of worlds that coexist within themselves. They appear and disappear alternately, meet and are erased, exchange roles. There is no one voice but a digital cacophony. There is no dichotomous division into Generation X and Generation Y, but a multiplicity of generations.

In what is likely to become a defining moment, Hannah tells her parents in the first episode: “I think that I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least, a voice of a generation.” Herein lies the greatness of “Girls.” It does not aspire to become the voice of a generation but does the impossible and expresses a single voice of a generation. Of some kind.
 

HBO