What It’s Like To Be A ‘Girl’

When Girls first premiered, I told anyone who cared that I refused to watch it. How could I watch a show that was basically about my life? As a 24-year old living in New York City*, I was convinced the show was going to be a bizarro version of my own experience, which would make it “too weird” to watch. I can admit now, two years later, that I only said these things because I was jealous of Lena Dunham. She got to write a show about the kinds of things I was going through at that very moment. I wanted to be writing that show, but she was. But instead of sitting down and writing my own show or short stories or novel, all I did was complain about the things – my job, my lack of financial support, all of the choices I’d ever made up until that point – that I saw standing in my way.

However, I’m never one miss out on a pop culture moment. I eventually succumbed to the hype after two episodes had aired and “caught up.” I liked Girls. I became a regular viewer. There have always been some parts of the show that rubbed me the wrong way, but I’ve remained a fan and (mostly quiet) advocate of the show over the last two years.

Girls is now in its third season and for the first time, I feel compelled to write about it. This past week’s “Free Snacks,” the seasons’ sixth episode, struck a chord with me. Well, one storyline in particular did. For those of you who haven’t (or won’t) watch the episode, Hannah, whose ebook publication has been stalled for now, gets a job writing for an advertorial section in GQ. She quickly impresses her boss in a brainstorm, but pisses off at least one of her new teammates with her spot-on ideas. When she tells her colleagues that she doesn’t see herself doing this job for long because she wants to be a real writer, they reveal that they’re all writers – of varying degrees of New York-y successfulness – but pursue writing on the side as they’ve settled into the corporate comfort of their jobs. Joe, Hannah’s teammate who has sort of taken her under his wing, tells her that she just needs to write her own stuff on nights and weekends. It’s hard, but it what you have to do.

It’s been a few days since I watched the episode and there’s a lot of stuff I could write about Hannah’s character growth or the expansion of the show’s world, but I keep thinking about how Hannah’s new job storyline relates to my own life. As much as I’ve enjoyed watching Girls – even and maybe especially because of all the parts that have made me uncomfortable – during the past few years, I’ve never been able to confidently identify with any of the main characters. I can’t pinpoint which “Girl” I am because I don’t think I’m any of them.

Shoshanna is too much of the person I tried very hard not to be for me to relate to her, though I recognize what the writers have tried to make her character represent (sometimes). Jessa has always seemed a caricature of certain privileged people who have floated around the periphery of my life. I understand Marnie’s confusion about her identity and uptightness, but I’m not sure I would have made any of the choices she has.

And I’ve always known that I’m not “a Hannah.” Yes, Hannah is a not-yet-successful writer. But she is devoted to writing in ways that I’m not, is confident in her voice, and has made things happen for herself in a way that I’ve never been able to. I, on the other hand, dove right into a career without even the slightest clue that writing professionally was even an option for me. Once I did realize that I wanted to write, I also realized that I’m less willing to struggle than someone like Hannah. I’m afraid of losing my parents’ approval and having to deal with their anxieties about whether or not I’ll be able to support myself. And frankly, I like making enough money to get by, even if it means that I can’t spend all day working on my personal projects. As much as I fantasize about not working an office job, there is a definite comfort in being paid to go somewhere every weekday.

So, you know who I am? I’m Hannah’s new co-workers. Well, I’m a less successful version of Hannah’s new co-workers. Some of them have actually been published. I’ve never been published anywhere but on this blog and, so far, it’s been hard not to be deterred by rejection. But the more I write here, the more I understand my voice and the types of things I’m capable of writing. And this has enabled me to come up with new projects that I’m excited to be working on, even if nobody else is all that into them. It’s hard to keep motivated or maintain any sort of writing momentum while working full time but when I can, I try hard to write on those nights and weekends.

And then, sometimes, I don’t. There are nights I could use for writing when I end up doing something else instead. I like socializing, which often means drinking and dinners that last later into the night than I’d planned. Sometimes, I have to do laundry or cook. Watching TV, reading, reviewing for the class that I’m taking, these all take the time that I could use for writing. And work really does takes a lot of my energy. At the end of “Free Snacks,” when Hannah falls asleep on the couch after work, just after she’s proclaimed that she’ll spend the next three hours writing, I felt her. I liked the Hannah at the end of this episode, who has decided to stick it out at the new job and try to write on nights and weekends, I guess, because she’s become more like me.

Over a year ago, a colleague of my father’s who is also a reader of this blog told me that I should write about Girls. She said she thought I would have an interesting perspective on the show. I told her that I couldn’t possibly write about it. There were already so many people writing recaps and think pieces and garbage that who really cared what I thought about this show? This, of course, was bullshit. Another excuse to mask what I really thought. What I meant was that I didn’t think I could write about it. I wasn’t a critic. I wasn’t even a real writer. Just a person with a small, unfocused blog. Everyone else could write about it better than I ever could.

But here I am, writing about Girls. Or, I guess, writing about myself by writing about Girls. Which leads me to think that I’ve changed. I know I’m still not a critic or “real” – whatever that means – essayist or professional writer. But that doesn’t mean I can’t become one of these things eventually. I just have to write more critical pieces. Getting more serious about writing has been a consistent goal of mine since graduating from college. What I’ve needed more than anything in order to achieve this is confidence, which I feel that I’ve been gaining, slowly but surely. Maybe I’m becoming a little bit more like Hannah, a little less afraid of rejection and certainly more willing to write things that fail.

*I was then living in Manhattan, but months later moved to Greenpoint, where the show is set. I get my coffee at Cafe Grumpy every morning. Take what you will from these facts.

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Four Favorite Costume Drama Miniseries That Aren’t Pride & Prejudice

This is the time of year when, inevitably, I get sick and end up spending a weekend or two on the couch, with only a pile of dirty tissues for company. When I’m under the weather, there’s nothing more comforting than revisiting some of my favorite (British) costume drama miniseries. (Those of you who read this blog on the regular know that I’m a little obsessed.) So, in honor of the cold I’m nursing today, here are four of my favorites (that aren’t Pride & Prejudice – the 1995 version – because everyone has seen and love that). All of them are pretty recent and easy to find on Netflix and/or Amazon Instant Video.

 

 

Bleak House (2005)

Based on my favorite Dickens novel, this eight-episode series follows the many individuals involved in a decades-long case called Jarndyce v Jarndyce, in which the legality of several wills are being contested. Sound boring? I promise it’s not. This is Dickens’ most complex and impressive story. There are enough murders, orphans, sword fights, creepy old houses, and disfiguring illnesses to keep anyone entertained. The cast in this one is great – Gillian Anderson, Charles Dance, Anna Maxwell Martin and Carey Mulligan are a few of the wonderful actors – and I think that the dark mood of the series perfectly captures that of the novel.

 

 

Cranford (2007)

This five-episode miniseries is based on Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel and takes place in the mid-nineteenth century and follows the residents of Cranford as the modern world approaches their rural village on all fronts, most obviously in the form of the railway. You’ll probably recognize at least seven of the cast members – more if you frequently watch British films and television. Cranford is certainly sentimental, but it hits all of the right notes in terms of humor and drama.

 

 

Emma (2009)

There have been about a million versions of Jane Austen’s Emma at this point. I’m not saying this is the best one. I just like it a lot. Romola Garai stars as silly, scheming Emma Woodhouse. Opposite her is Jonny Lee Miller, who plays Mr. Knightley very nicely. For whatever reason, I’ve been happy to revisit the four episodes of this one a few times since it premiered in the US in 2010.

 

 

North & South (2004)

Another miniseries based on an Elizabeth Gaskell novel. This one is about a smart, serious daughter of a country parson from the south of England who moves to a northern city (modeled after Manchester) and butts heads with her father’s student, a textile manufacturer. Angst, longing, cotton mill union strikes, and a makeout scene that will bring you to tears ensue.

 

 

Lark Rise to Paradise

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A few years ago, feeling like I had watched every single British costume drama miniseries made since 1996, I embarked on a longer journey: Lark Rise to Candleford, a series which, at that point, was finished airing its four seasons. For those of you who are unfamiliar – and I imagine many of you are – Lark Rise to Candleford is based on Flora Thompson’s semi-autobiographical series of novels and is the story of Laura Timmins, a teenage girl who leaves the small Oxfordshire hamlet of Lark Rise for the neighboring market town of Candleford to assist her cousin, the capable postmistress Dorcas Lane (played by Julia Sawalha), as a letter carrier. Laura has difficulties reconciling her past as a poor – well, let’s say pastoral working class – girl with her new identity as an essential part of the bustling town’s economy. Over the course of the series, many other members of the two communities are introduced and developed in order to depict, in total, how both Lark Rise and Candleford are adapting to the changing landscape and rapid industrialization of the late nineteenth century.

When I first began watching the show, I was immediately charmed and comforted by its Cranford-like qualities: the eccentric characters, the easy humor, the quaint setting, and the earnest, wholesome life lessons embedded in every episode. However, after two and a half seasons, all of this became cloying and I took a long break. (I’ve just resumed watching the series almost two years after I started.) I think some of the reasons that Cranford worked so much better for me than Lark Rise to Candleford, besides its superior writing, is that the first series is five episodes and the “sequel”, which was certainly not as satisfying, is only two. Lark Rise to Candleford averages almost ten episodes per season. This leaves ample room for the viewer to become worn out by heavy-handedness, character quirks, earnestness, and that very particular English sense that things were better in the past.

This doesn’t mean I haven’t enjoyed watching the show. The break was necessary, but I’ve found that watching Lark Rise to Candleford is like snuggling up in bed with a nice cup of tea. I still get annoyed with little things here and there. One example I can think of is the character of Laura’s father, Robert Timmins, who is played by Brendan Coyle. (That’s Mr. Bates to all of you Downton Abbey fans out there.) He’s a skilled mason and as a dedicated socialist, is proudly working class. He takes any opportunity to comment on politics and the state of the English class system and sounds, often, like a poor George Orwell. (Yeah, I know that Orwell came later, but this is just an excuse for me to mention that I’ve read The Road to Wigan Pier and think everyone else should too.) He’s also just…too admirable and good.* It’s hard dealing with a character so one-dimensional over multiple seasons. I am finishing up the fourth season now and have found that I’m happy that Robert has been absent so far. (Coyle had already started working on Downton at that point, I believe.)
On the other hand, there are certain characters who have been a delight to watch grow over the course of the series. Laura (played by Olivia Hallinan), as the main character, has had an interesting journey from seeming child to young adult. Dorcas Lane’s coming to terms with being a single, professional woman in a patriarchal society has been similarly fascinating, though disappointing at times. However, I’ve particularly liked watching Minnie, Dorcas Lane’s housemaid, who first appears in season two. Minnie is a source of comic relief in a show that takes itself a little too seriously. She started out as a blundering know-nothing and, as of the middle of the fourth season, is becoming a mostly competent young woman who has managed to retain a sense of wonder and a palatable amount of silliness.
I’ve been watching another show, currently airing on PBS’s Masterpiece Theater, that reminds me a bit of Lark Rise to Candleford. First of all, The Paradise, which is for some reason based on Emile Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames though it is set in a vague, nameless northern English city in the late nineteenth century, was created by Bill Gallagher, who also created Lark Rise. There’s a similar feel to the dialogue and it deals with many of the same broader themes, naturally, because it is about a rapidly changing society. The Paradise of the show’s name is a booming department store, where the show’s protagonist, Denise (played by Joanna Vanderham), begins working after her uncle denies her a position in his small drapery shop, conveniently located across the street. We don’t see much outside of the department store and the street that it’s on, aside from when characters venture to a local wealthy landowner’s estate, but one gets the sense that times are changing for the small, family businesses that the people of the city had frequented in the past.
The Paradise is certainly nothing special. It’s soapy, mindless entertainment, but it satisfies my sweet tooth (for costume dramas). There is just the right amount of romance, treachery and cheeky humor to keep me coming back each week, and I can’t help but watch it while I’m snuggled up in bed with a cup of tea in hand.
*If you want to see Coyle playing a really similar, but awesome, version of this character, watch North and South, a miniseries based on Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel, which deals with industrialization and the idealization of the pastoral and the shifting British class system much more deftly.

Childish Things: Or, How I Learned to Love Adventure Time

OK, so,  Adventure Time is my favorite TV series currently on the air that I’m not totally caught up on. (I’m in the middle of watching Season 3 right now, though this isn’t really a show where watching all of the episodes totally matters.)  When I first told some friends about my new obsession, they were skeptical. I’m not a known cartoon fan and the animated shows I do watch – Archer and Bob’s Burgers – are meant for adults. Also, I guess, some people just grow up and forget that animated shows exist and/or can be great. Anyway, I don’t think I really believed just how much I was into Adventure Time when I first started watching it. I hadn’t even heard of the show until I saw two dudes dressed up as Finn and Jake at a Halloween party last year and I asked my friend what they were supposed to be. But I ended up blowing through the first season on Netflix shortly after it appeared there and now I’m addicted.

If you haven’t watched the show, here’s the deal: It’s about two adventuring best friends and brothers, Jake (the Dog) and Finn (the Human), who are hanging out and having adventures around the land of Ooo episode after episode. That sounds like it could get lame pretty fast, but I promise you that it doesn’t. The show has a wonderful mixture of gross/silly/weird/sometimes biting humor that keeps it fresh. (So far, I mean. It could get old by the time I start watching the fifth season, but somehow I doubt it?) As long as you’re not offended by fart jokes, I’d venture to say you’ll think it’s pretty funny.

The cast of characters is fantastic and well-rounded for a show primarily meant for children. While I think that anyone who’s a fan would agree that Jake is just the fucking coolest ever and that Princess Bubblegum is an awesome supernerd role model (girls can be smart and girly!), my favorite character is Finn. I like Finn because he’s not afraid to be sincere. He feels responsible for everyone around him, always wants to do the best he can, and wants his fellow Ooo-inhabitants to get along. But when he has trouble achieving his goals or senses injustice, he gets really, really pissed. (I relate to him a lot in this sense.) I love watching a kid character who is totally badass but also totally a kid still learning the way the world works. The show also has enough episodes that many of the quirky and hilarious recurring characters – try not to fall in love with Lumpy Space Princess or the main villain, the Ice King – feel fully fleshed out and not just good or evil or annoying.

Finn and Jake are also different from many questing characters I’ve encountered in my years of reading children’s or young adult books* in that it seems they’re adventuring because they like it and it’s an awesome way to spend time together, rather than out of a sense of duty to something or someone that is much, much greater than them. And I think that’s pretty cool.

Anyway, I meant for this to be a shorter “In Brief” post, so I’ll stop here. But I will say that when I was originally thinking about how to frame this post, I was going to talk about some of the “childish” things I enjoy, from my Hello Kitty calendar to reading (and re-reading and re-re-reading ) young adult novels. I need a little figure out how to write about that, but I hope to share something in longer form soon.

In the meantime, is there anything else out there that’s meant for kids that you, as an adult, are/were into? I want to hear about it!