… And J.D. Salinger, too, actually. Though I’m a little late to the party, on both accounts.
In case you missed it, Girls is a sitcom that premiered on HBO a little less than a year ago. Written by and starring Lena Dunham, and based on her own life, it follows a group of four twenty-something girls (and their male friends) as they navigate post-collegiate life in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Initially premiering to critical acclaim, the show, now in its second season, has garnered a polarized reputation. Some laud its realistic portrayal of the uncertainty that comes with newly self-governed youth, while others deride it for its supposed undertones of smugness and elitism. I myself was introduced to Girls by a male friend of mine, not long after the show came out. I was hesitant at first, wary of being alienated (i.e. emasculated) by the overtly feminine theme. The show is not though, as most newcomers assume, so much about being a “girl” as it is about being a young person, not yet ready to adopt a moniker of adulthood, be that woman or man. Certainly feminine themes are brought up, and I owe to Girls virtually my entire knowledge of female discourse and, unfortunately, the menstrual cycle. But as I see it, the show is about the youth experience as told by someone who happens to be female, and that provides a universal quality I find more than welcoming.
Girls is about girls being people, talking about things which concern everyone, and not just the various conniving shenanigans of the men in their lives (which I assume is what girls talk about in real life, too).
I wasn’t particularly concerned about expressing my opinion on Girls until very recently. I was happy that the show had sufficient viewership, and a sufficient number of people who liked it, presumably, to keep going for a very long time. I was content to watch this rather amusing debate over the apparent harmfulness of the show, and count myself firmly in the camp that enjoyed Girls more because it ruffled so many feathers.
What changed my mind though, strangely enough, was my recent reading of The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. Unlike most people, the book was not forced upon me by means of a high school English class. I escaped it somehow through an honors track system that assumed, perennially, that I must have read it in the previous class. I’m glad this turned out to be the case, because when I approached the book of my own accord a few months ago, it had quite a bit of meaning which I think would have far escaped me as a high school freshman.
In a lot of ways, Catcher in the Rye is the original Girls. Praised nearly universally for its prose style and technical skill, the book grew from being acclaimed to being battered back and forth in a weird game of moralistic badminton. Catcher ultimately won the battle, and it is now the most widely taught book in public schools in the United States. However, what amounts to widespread popularity for the work also amounts to widespread misinterpretation. I’m glad I never had to read Catcher as a high schooler. Holden Caulfield was sold to me as an angry degenerate society-hater, one whose arrogance clouded any possible tolerance from those who were not themselves also angry, disaffected youth. This was not the case, as it turned out. And it was also not the case, as my teachers thought, that I would accept Holden merely because he was young and angry like I was. His was not the vision I had for my youth.
Today’s young people — and the young people of all generations, I’d be willing to bet — are on the whole a lot less angry than people tend to believe. What we really are is independent, is innovative, is new; the manifestation of all those things as “angry” is an easy jump to make, I guess. But that’s not the generalization I find most annoying. That distinction of “angry” comes from the notion that we are not, as young people, self-aware. Because we are. Painfully so.
The real reason I love both Girls and the work of J.D. Salinger, and the reason they’ll both be enduring classics in my opinion, is because the stories’ characters are aware of their own naivety, their own pretentiousness, their own imperfection. It’s moments such as when Holden Caulfield opines “I’m a madman, I really am” or when Lena Dunham’s Hannah pronounces “No one could ever hate me as much as I hate myself” that I feel closest to these works. Self-awareness is an all-too-undervalued quality in our society, and in our art. And truly, it’s the bravery of both “Catcher” and “Girls”’s proclaiming that they have something worthwhile and valuable to say in spite of this imperfection that keeps me coming back for more.
Colin Smith is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences, and a weekly columnist for the Daily Free Press. He can be reached at email@example.com.