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Actually, Zooey Deschanel Is the Voice of My Generation

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Though the Sex and the City prequel is in the works, our proto-Carrie might just be out-ingenued by Girls, which premiered Sunday on HBO. Girls presents itself as a kind of Sex and the City antiprequel—an antidote to SJP’s serialized fashion show with a more existential soul and less high-fivey dirty talk, plus downmarket footwear and the actual desperation that accompanies the task of trying to make it as a writer in New York. Girls follows Hannah—played by quarterlife auteur Lena Dunham, who also writes and directs—and three friends as they undertake the project of so many liberal arts graduates before them: navigating life in the (relative!) poverty of young urbanites with grandiose dreams. (Hannah, in a much-quoted scene from the pilot, announces that she may be “the voice of my generation” before backpedaling self-consciously with, “or at least a voice of a generation.”)
 
Definite articles aside, the voice of the show certainly feels more authentic than the randy, alliterative quips that ruled at Carrie’s brunch table. As Jemima Kirke, who plays Hannah’s friend Jessa on Girls, described SATC in the New York Times, “That’s four gay men sitting around talking.” Girls, by contrast, has such a fix on its core demographic that when Hannah and Marnie rank different social media by significance in a “totem” of chat, their exchange reproduced exactly the inane conversation that this writer and her friend had just been having. Are we all FIGMENTS OF LENA DUNHAM’S MIND? If I start picking up on bits of narration in the background of my life, I’ll know it’s just the voiceover of my generation!
 
So yes, Girls takes on Sex and the City. Four women, a decade younger than the originals, have varying levels of sex with varying levels of success while their relationship as a group is the real thread of the show. They sleep together, bathe together, and delicately unspool toilet paper for each other while having it out in the can. (The bathroom seems to be shorthand for a certain raw-edged sisterhood.) So it’s in the tub with Marnie—and not teetering on Manolos on Bleecker Street—where Hannah devours the requisite cupcake.
 
After Hannah’s parents, whose post-college financial support has stretched into a ludicrous two years, decide to cut their daughter off, she asks her boss at her publishing internship for a job. When he fires her instead, Hannah rebounds to her parents and petitions them for a book advance. She visits them at their hotel, semi-high, to ask them to bankroll the as-yet-unlived chapters of her memoir. (Yes, hilariously presumptuous! But also there’s no plainer metaphor for extended childhood, which is what our bereft adultalescent is essentially asking for.)
 
The lovely part about Girls is that it captures the ennui of early adulthood in New York or, as someone on the Internet put it less kindly, the audacity of 24-year-olds who think they have something to say. People stop handing you money just for being you. You make an ass of yourself trying to get other people to clear a path for you as a writer. You let the asshole you’re sleeping with say awful things to you because you’re afraid that if you object he’ll stop sleeping with you.
 
As the lives of the Girls characters play out over the years, a Sex and the City–style denoument in which Hannah files just one column a week and somehow affords an endless supply of cosmos, egg-white omelettes, and trips to Dior (or the Brooklyn equivalents thereof) is obviously unlikely. But there is a television analogue for future Hannah and her real-life surrogates. If Hannah plays her cards right, in five years she will 1) figure out that the guy she's convinced she's meant to be with is an asshole, 2) have a job that suits her skill set, and 3) keep up with at least one best friend after the tragic but inevitable dispersal of her friend group—and she can still make all the dramatic outbursts she likes! Also, Future Hannah will need some high-waisted shorts, because IT’S JESS!
 
OK, backing up. Zooey Deschanel’s character on New Girl is, yes, polarizing. Whether Jess is too daffy and beribboned to be taken seriously is a question we’ve considered before. And there’s Deschanel herself, who created a website called HelloGiggles, tweets about kittens, and is both adored and maligned as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl incarnate.
 
In Hannah and Jess, respectively, we have ages 24 versus 32 (OK, discounting Deschanel’s real age, Jess is in her “late 20s”), New York versus LA, neurotic self-awareness versus oddball spazziness. Jess’s world is smaller and more domestic than Hannah’s. Jess just wants to find love and maybe have her life make sense, whereas Hannah has set herself up for the gigantic (and somewhat theoretical) task of “winning” New York and snatching a piece of some advertised as-yet-uncontacted creative bohemian life (“like Flaubert! In a garrett!” she moans while lolling, toddlerlike, on the floor of her parents’ hotel room).
 
As far as indie archetypes go, Hannah and Jess seem like opposites. But just for a second consider that Hannah’s “raw” and “sexually uncommited” (a.k.a. Urban Outfitters) is but the little sister of Jess’s “whimsical sometimes-ten-year-old-sometimes-granny” (Anthropologie).
 
The voices of the two characters, and their settings, are wildly different, but the little confessional outbursts are the same. Here’s Hannah explaining to the aforementioned asshole how she came by her elaborate arm and back tattoos high school (which, incidentally, are a very Jess Day–type choice: children’s book illustrations!):  
 
“Truthfully? I gained a bunch of weight very quickly and I just felt very out of control of my body, and it was just this riot grrrl idea, like, ‘I’m taking control of my own shape!’”
 
Add all caps, an awkwardly suggestive wink, and Deschanel’s signature Kermity vocal trill, and you have a classic Jess confessional.
 
What is Hannah, after all, but a manic pixie realish girl? Without a job? And still lusting after the asshole?
 
Which is to say: Jess is a basically functional adult in a sparkly childish package, and Hannah is a semigrown child with adult-level self-awareness. And if one of these types is allegedly bad for feminism, I’m not sure it’s New Girl (or Girls, for that matter), and I’m not convinced feminism’s even the central factor at work here. To talk about TV is essentially to talk about demographics. Not everyone shops at Anthropologie! And just because Zooey Deschanel does, and some men (and women) equate a girly presentation with weakness, that doesn’t have any bearing on the contents of Deschanel’s, or her character’s, brain, etc

Both shows are worth watching, and we’re really dealing with a pretty narrow slice of life here (24 versus “29”! LA versus New York! Understatement versus overstatement!) to which real grown-ups have earned full mocking rights. But without making pretenses (or pretending to make pretenses via a semi-autobiographical character, ugh) to embodying the voice of a generation, Jess is going to work every day, and she is defeating bullies with guitar music, and she is running 10Ks with bows in her hair. So yes, I choose Anthropologie over Urban Outfitters, which I’ve never really felt comfortable in anyway. I HEREBY CLAIM JESS DAY AS THE VOICE OF MY GENERATION, or at least my 30s—until it's time to move to the suburbs and become a Real Housewife.

Photo: Jojo Whilden

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