“For however inhospitable the wind, from this vantage point Manhattan was simply so improbable, so wonderful, so obviously full of promise – that you wanted to approach it for the rest of your life without ever quite arriving.”
― Amor Towles, The Rules of Civility
I’ve been thinking over the past few weeks how strange it is that places we’ve never stepped foot in can become important and significant to us. There’s one city in the world that everyone has opinion on, has an understanding of, feels they know – because how could they not? New York is everywhere.
I’ve never been… and yet, and yet… although it’s trite, I devoured so much Friends and Gossip Girl and waded through so much Salinger, Wharton and Fitzgerald in my most formative years, I almost feel like a part of me grew up there. The steps of the Met, the New York Public Library, Radio City Music Hall, Bendels, the Boathouse in Central Park — all these places mean something to me, and yet I can’t legitimately lay claim to any of them.
Now in my early twenties, it is to New York that I must travel to find something in literature or in popular culture that in any way reflects my experience of this particular moment in my life. It seems that artistically at least, there is no other place in the world capable of providing an adequate backdrop for a storyline about young ambitious women in a big city. That sure sounds like the plot of a musical — and admittedly, 42nd Street was set in NYC — but it’s merely the bare bones of a shared experience, around which are fleshed out countless variations of real life.
As eighteen-year-old girls we had Sex and the City of course – and however you feel about it, it’s important not to dismiss its influence, on either its viewers or as part of the postmodern American canon. It taught us, so we thought at the time, everything we needed to know about life as women, particularly about men and how to work out which ones were no good for us. We learnt lots of real, genuinely helpful stuff too, but it undeniably warped our understanding of feminism in a way that would set us back years.
Eventually the characters proved too trope-like for us to fully recognise in them the nuanced personalities of the real women that surrounded us every day. Belief in the idealised version of the yuppie life we thought we might inherit post-university crumbled when it became apparent that we writers can only ever dream of owning Carrie’s studio apartment. Our friends in PR are overworked and underpaid, our friends with history of art degrees are forever slogging their guts out in galleries for free and we never see our lawyer friends because they sleep at the office most nights.
In reality, this — written by Rona Jaffe in the 1950s (even though you wouldn’t be surprised if I told you it had been written today) — resonates much more pertinently: “They’re all college girls with good educational backgrounds and no experience and they’re willing to work for practically nothing.”
Jaffe’s The Best of Everything was a book I indulgently read back-to-back with The Rules of Civility by Amor Towles. Both recount similar tales of young, attractive, educated women in who are living in New York and quietly proving themselves smarter than those around them, while forging successful careers in the publishing industry.
I loved them both, but what they taught me is that so many things haven’t changed, and may never change. That isn’t to say of course that feminism hasn’t had a dramatic impact over the course of the last 60 years. But there are so many aspects to the experience of being a young working woman that aren’t generational: the timeless things that will always weigh on women’s’ hearts and minds as they continue to pioneer their own path in a world that wasn’t created by them or for them.
And now there is Girls.
I’ll concede that it’s possible if you’re not, or haven’t at some point been, a woman in your early twenties, you might find it difficult to get on with Girls. In short, this HBO series focuses on the lives of four women at exactly my stage in life who have moved to New York to make a go of it.
It’s impossible to consider Girls outside of the context of Sex and the City; it’s produced by the same network, mimics the character formula and even references it in a dismissive, but non-snarky, kind of way. That’s where the similarities end however.
Even though the girls in Girls are different combinations of cool and smart and pretty, the show is not afraid to portray them at their most ugly. They make mistakes and do really thoughtless, self-involved and sometimes mean stuff, but there’s no redemptive monologue to fix the viewer’s opinion of them at the end of each episode, a la Carrie’s columns. Girls is unapologetic about the fact that the characters are not always likeable, and definitely aren’t the people they wish they were – and what’s more real than that?
The show’s been criticised for being too white and middle class. I don’t know about the ‘too’ bit, but it is both of those things — all very first-world problems. Made in Chelsea it is not though, and the fact that the characters fall slightly on the wrong side of privileged for the show to be considered entirely gritty doesn’t detract from its artistic merit, nor from its authenticity. There is grit, plenty of it in fact thanks to Lena Dunham’s masterful lack of vanity in both her own appearance and her fearless use of her own experiences. There is glamour too, even if it is a thing mainly promised and hinted at, before being dispelled by a bathos usually sparked by some seedy incident, or a character’s own emotional or social incompetence at a crucial moment.
Nowhere to be seen here is the glossy New York of Sex and the City, and boy is that refreshing. For Manhattan is not where young women like myself are in life, or even necessarily where we end up. We are broke, not in the way people who have always lived and been broke in the city are, but in a way that means we live two lives. We may work in Manhattan — or the equivalent — and decorate its bars and restaurants late into the night, but we live in some other less glamorous borough, where we patch together our homes and personal relationships using any imagination and energy we can muster out of thin air at the end of the day.
In Girls, gone too is the ‘labels and love’ mantra. A spat Dunham’s character Hannah has with her parents exposes the SATC culture of entitlement (the divine right to designer shoes, our parents’ money and unconditional support, the ‘perfect’ husband/boyfriend, happiness) to be exactly as repulsive as it really is.
There are times when I’ve been watching Girls or reading Jaffe or Towles and I feel a character’s situation or emotions run uncannily close to my own, but I don’t necessarily need to see something that’s a mirror image of my own life. The lovely and important thing is that I’m able to recognise something that’s authentic and honest about women in a kind of timeless and universal way. In the way that the boarding house from The Rules of Civility where, “Learning dance steps was the sorry Saturday night pursuit of every […] girl in America,” becomes the dingy apartment in which Hannah and Marnie wrap their arms around each other and cavort to Robyn.
In the forward to the Best of Everything, Rona Jaffe describes how bemused she was initially by women loving and treasuring her book. She had researched it as if it was a social document and saw it as a cautionary tale, but she later realised it would never be read as such because: “an exciting life, even if very difficult, is better than a dull one, even if it changes you forever.”
For the same reason, it doesn’t matter how hard on women’s purses or hearts New York has been in the past. It will continue to be the location of our post-education adventures and misadventures – even though we know we won’t be tripping down streets paved with gold all trussed up in furs and Manolo Blahniks.
This then is a love letter to a city I’ve never visited, and to all the adventurous women who over the decades have spilled out of Manhattan’s offices at five-oh-one and stayed out eating steak in darkened booths, drinking gin with dangerous men, falling in and out of love, and making in equal measure many exciting decisions and mistakes.
Despite my obvious longing to get to know New York for real, I’m quite happy to reside solely the city I know from literature and TV and film for now. After all, as Towles writes: “the problem with living in New York [is that] you’ve got no New York to run away to.”
Girls premieres in the UK on Monday 22 October at 10pm on Sky Atlantic.