Working Girls

Sarah Kessler

“A friendship between college girls is grander and more dramatic than any romance,” writes Hannah Horvath (played by show creator Lena Dunham) in the final episode of the second season of the HBO series Girls. This literary gem is the first, and only, sentence of an ebook for which Hannah has already received and spent an advance, and which she has only a day left to write. Mired in post-collegiate angst, racked by Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and thwarted by her sensible Midwestern parents’ refusal to subsidize their under- and unemployed offspring, Hannah recedes into her Brooklyn apartment, gorging herself on whipped cream and writing, deleting, and rewriting opening salvos like the one above.

Artsy types like Hannah often find themselves adrift after college, struggling to transform their creativity into capital so that they might attain creative-class status and exemption from lowlier forms of labor. In Hannah’s case, however, capital precedes creativity, not only in the form of the unlikely cash advance she receives for her unwritten volume, but also in the many other “advances” she scores thanks to various forms of structural inequality. She can’t hold down a job, her love life is a mess, and her writing is suffering, and yet her two-bedroom apartment miraculously continues to function as a site of refuge, despite and indeed precisely because of the invisibility of the rent that retains it.

 In her world, it’s experience—sex, drugs, love, parties, and the dramas that ensue from these activities—that’s the real work of the writer.

While making rent is one of Hannah’s chief preoccupations from Girls’ pilot episode onward, labor rarely surfaces as a potential solution to the problem. Like the “working girl” of the Mary Tyler Moore era, Hannah wants to make it big in the big city. She simply wishes to do so without working—at least in the traditional sense. She aims to be paid to have a life worth writing about, so that she may, at some future point, commit her existence to paper. In her world, it’s experience—sex, drugs, love, parties, and the dramas that ensue from these activities—that’s the real work of the writer. Writing itself is secondary. And, it turns out, virtually impossible.

Accordingly, Girls appears to have little to do with work and a lot to do with leisure. Some commentators on the show have decried its protagonists’ privileged idleness; others have celebrated their sexual and creative liberation. What both of these perspectives fail to grasp is the centrality of work to Girls’ narrative, even as no work seems to be getting done. Girls documents, and sometimes critiques, a world in which young bourgeois white women undertake the “work” of becoming themselves—a task viewed as paramount, superior to all other forms of labor. At the same time, the show reminds us that no matter how hard they “work” at growing, its main characters will always be “girls.” Their infantilization is not optional, but part and parcel of their bourgeois white heterosexual femininity.

Thinking about Girls through the lens of work necessitates a brief backward glance at the Mary Tyler Moore Show, that urtext of “working girl” television. Not for nothing did the very first episode of Girls allude to Hannah and her roommate Marnie watching the older show, which highlights key distinctions between the figures of the aspirational young white woman then and now. Mary Tyler Moore recalls a cultural moment in which white-collar work was imagined as a way to liberate bourgeois white women. Rejecting this second wave feminist claim, Girls’ millennials seek freedom and worldliness through personal experience in place of work. Unfortunately, they remain blind to the ways that the racial, sexual, and economic uniformity of their world make them not so worldly after all. Their tunnel vision smacks less of bad ethics than it does of ignorance, which ironically reinforces the girls’ pronounced lack of sophistication.

 

Lena Dunham, <i>Girls</i>, Season 2, Episode 2

 

In 1970, some four decades before Hannah Horvath’s landing in New York, native Minnesotan Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore) relocated not to the Big Apple but to Minneapolis, with the goal of making it on her own. Mary was 30 to Hannah’s 24—the woman to Hannah’s “girl”—and fresh out of a failed relationship, whose collapse, rather than confirming her abjection, empowered her to work towards her own American Dream for seven seasons. Initially seeking a secretarial position, she ended up an associate producer at WJM-TV. And while her white middle-class privilege certainly gave her the steam to leave the nest jobless, one thing was sure about Mary: she had a “work ethic” and wasn’t afraid to use it. Her white-collar job embedded her in a broader cultural economy, giving her the fulfillment of meaningful, paid, nonreproductive labor. Through work, Mary Richards emancipated herself from the traditional women’s roles of fiancée, wife, and mother.

One other thing was sure about Mary: we didn’t see her having sex, although she was on the pill and CBS did let her spend the night—once—with a boyfriend. Lena Dunham’s Hannah, by contrast, has lots of sex with lots of men. To some this is progress and to others this is regress, but both sides are missing the point. For Mary, work, not sex, was the hallmark of feminine independence. Sex was sacrificed when work took center stage; the two activities were, to a large extent, mutually incompatible. For Hannah, sex is work, and not in the sense of sex work. Sex is an experience, sometimes pleasurable and sometimes not, that gives her material for the future narration of her life’s story. In itself, sex is not liberatory. It is instrumental—a mere means to the (impossible) freedom of becoming oneself.

For Mary, work, not sex, was the hallmark of feminine independence.

If Hannah and Marnie’s attraction to Mary Tyler Moore is in part fueled by the older show’s vision of sexual freedom as freedom from sex, it is equally stimulated by the vintage program’s picture of seamless—if occasionally problematic—feminine employment. Where Mary was “making it” in the creative sector, Hannah is failing, which enhances her nostalgia for Mary Tyler Moore’s wish-fulfillment dream of immediate promotion upon entry into the metropolitan working world. Overall, Mary Tyler Moore’s vision of pre-“post-feminist,” punchy-yet-demure, professional white femininity appeals to these young women, who are supposed to have the world at their feet but who feel inexplicably constrained by their apparent liberation. For when life itself, including sex, is the most crucial work to be done, how does one get paid, much less take a vacation? When sex is work, but not sex work, how does one tally one’s billable hours?

Girls frames a world in which prostitution—or “cash[ing] in on [one’s] sexuality,” in Hannah’s words—is unilaterally construed as both opportunistic and lazy. Because a positive or emancipatory notion of sex work—much less of sex, or of work—does not exist, it is difficult to conceive of women’s labor in this world as anything but whoredom. “[Y]ou’re just a whore with no work ethic!” exclaims Thomas-John (Chris O’Dowd), Jessa’s soon-to-be-ex-husband in Season 2’s Episode 4, before buying her out of their failed marriage. Needless to say, Thomas-John’s use of the slur “whore” indicates that he does not hold sex workers in high regard. Still, he suggests, even a whore usually has a work ethic. Jessa, Thomas-John intimates, simply lies on her back and expects the money to keep on trickling in.

Jessa is blessed with the mobility to flee an uncomfortable marriage, and just about everything else, in search of her true calling. 

Thomas-John is not completely wrong—at least about the work ethic part. Jessa is blessed with the mobility to flee an uncomfortable marriage, and just about everything else, in search of her true calling. When her ill-fated union with Thomas-John finally collapses, she does just that, bailing on Hannah at the end of Episode 7 for greener pastures to be revealed in Season 3. She’s got at least $11,500 and a half thousand dollars in the bank from her divorce, but she would have taken off anyway, with or without the money. After all, the “trust” in trustafarianism doesn’t just signal the funds behind the lifestyle; it also indicates the privileged person’s enviable conviction that everything will always be okay, no matter what happens.

Thomas-John isn’t wrong about Jessa, who is an unemployed hipster basking in the comforts of his sparkling Williamsburg condo. But he is wrong to turn his angry dismissal of her into an occasion for self-aggrandizement: “I’m a miracle. I’m a unicorn. I’m a fucking needle in a haystack. And you’re just some fucking dumb hipster who’s munching my hay.” In fact, Thomas-John is not a unicorn, even metaphorically speaking. He is an affluent straight white man working in finance and a misogynistic creep, and those dudes are a dime a dozen.

Thomas-John’s outburst resonates with some of the more vociferous critiques of the girls’ class privilege that emerged in the wake of Girls’ first season. Jessa’s Season 2 disappearance represents the privileged person’s frequent response to critique, however subtle or vitriolic: take the money and run. Season 2 also quickly attempted to silence the critiques of the show’s racial uniformity and depiction of white privilege that dogged Season 1 by bringing Sandy (Donald Glover) on board as Hannah’s new African American boyfriend only to boot him off in Episode 2 when he breaks up with Hannah due to her white girl’s ignorance. Race becomes merely more fodder for an ironic hipster humor that perpetuates the racism it claims to parody. And Girls returns to business as usual—the business of not working, that is.

In the first episode of Season 2, Marnie loses her job at the art gallery. Her father, we later learn, has also lost his job, which greatly decreases Marnie’s likelihood of receiving parental aid in her time of trouble. Marnie’s loss of potential familial support mirrors Hannah’s financial abandonment by her own parents in the opening episode of Season 1. But where Hannah’s parents continue to have money (though not for their daughter), Marnie’s father is himself tapped out.

Marnie’s loss of potential familial support mirrors Hannah’s financial abandonment by her own parents in the opening episode of Season 1.

Thus, while Jessa enjoys the short-lived financial security of her new, soon-to-be-broken marriage, Marnie—the only one of the show’s four central characters intent on making a living for herself—struggles to find a paid creative-class position comparable to her previous one. When this fails, she enters the world of club hostessing, dressing like a sexy bellhop so that lecherous old businessmen may ogle and lightly pet her in exchange for much greater sums than the gallery was willing to pay.

Marnie’s new choice of work is, of course, disparaged by Hannah, who accuses Marnie of cashing in on her sexuality by taking a “pretty-person job” while she, Hannah, occupies the moral high ground of working in a coffee shop for $40 a day (10 times less than what Marnie now makes) and a clean conscience. Marnie’s new position is also denigrated by Booth Jonathan (Jorma Taccone), a smarmy, successful young artist who dickishly tells her it’s “fucking depressing” that she’s taken this job, adding, “I love when young people are passionate about something, and then they just give up the second that they have to struggle.” Instead of repelling her, this insult lures Marnie into Jonathan’s bed, where she lets him awkwardly ream her in exchange for proximity to the cultural capital her non–art world job lacks.

As it turns out, Jonathan views Marnie as more of an intern than a lover; in Episode 6, he asks her to cohost a party with him and then crushes her naive dreams of power-coupledom when he says he can only pay her $500 for her labor. When abstract cultural capital transforms into dollars, and when “liberated” sex morphs into non-consensual sex work, the abjection of compulsory heterosexuality becomes newly palpable. The irony is, of course, that Marnie was a tool well before actual money entered the equation.

Hannah wants to be recognized as an artist, per creative-class criteria, but she also wants the “stuff” that buys happiness—the stuff money pays for.

In its most gratifying and disturbing moments, Girls’ second season pictures the myriad forms of privilege that sustain the lives of its central characters directly alongside the sad pitfalls of a social system engineered to devalue women’s labor, sexual or otherwise. This is why Hannah’s narcissistic efforts to accumulate sexual experiences for her writing appear pathetic, even though she explicitly refers to them as “work.” When she mauls the ex-junkie who lives in her building for a story, her goal is creative yet her awkward kisses reek of desperation. When she accosts a bourgeois divorcé and becomes his weekend sex pal, her self-possession crumbles. In a tearful monologue, she relates how exhausting it is to accumulate experiences, and how, having seen this man’s gorgeous Brooklyn brownstone with “the fruit in the bowl and the fridge with the stuff,” she has realized that she “just want[s] to be happy.”

Hannah wants to be recognized as an artist, per creative-class criteria, and so scorns Marnie’s service labor, but she also wants the “stuff” that buys happiness—the stuff money pays for. Her hysteria, greeted with detached discomfort by the older man, seems triggered by the epiphany that she can’t have both, or that she doesn’t—at least not yet. What she does have, however, is a cushion for her failed sexploits: the advance given her for the book she can’t write, and, when that’s spent, another tearful appeal to Daddy. So far, he hasn’t agreed to give her any fresh funding, but perhaps he’ll come around in Season 3.

By the end of Season 2, Hannah has also acquired one more crucial component of the “stuff” of happiness—a boyfriend. And not just any old boyfriend (think here of the disposable Sandy), but an abusive ex reborn as a knight in shining armor, come to save the day in Hannah’s hour of financial, emotional, and artistic need.

In its final episodes, The Show's second season swerved from its discomfiting focus on the snares of sex work to take the path more traveled: romantic resolution.

In its final episodes, Girls’ second season swerved from its discomfiting focus on the snares of sex work to take the path more traveled: romantic resolution. Not for all the characters: Jessa, as we have already seen, opts out, ostensibly joining the experimental jet set for another stretch, and Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) calls it quits with Ray (Alex Karpovsky), whose choice to work in a coffee shop rather than strive towards a white-collar career emasculates him in her eyes. This leaves both Hannah and Marnie, vulnerable as they are, to crawl back to their exes. For who better to soothe their shattered spirits and broken dreams than the young men they previously rejected, whose professional and romantic successes have lent them new auras of stability and desirability?

Marnie thus gets back together with Charlie, who has made it big after selling an app, and who houses his newly formed company in a CB2-furnished loft staffed by waifish American Apparel–model types. Charlie was just a nice guy before, but now that he has the “stuff,” he’s husband material, and Marnie is—in one of the season’s strangest turns of phrase—ready to pop out his “little brown babies.” While she claims not to love him for his money, she’s clearly inspired by the realization that he now has a lot of it. After all, Marnie is still grappling with the difficult business of self-sufficiency, and a rich partner could really help her out with that.


Allison Williams and Christopher Abbott, <i>Girls</i>, Season 2, Episode 2


Hannah, whose OCD has resurfaced due to her recent stresses, is gallantly rescued from the abyss by Adam (Adam Driver), a misogynist and rapist who is also, appropriately, an “artist” supported by family money. The thing is, Adam loves her, and in his words, “when you love someone you don’t have to be nice all the time.” So, in keeping with the “love trumps niceness” thesis, the season’s final scene finds Hannah baby-like in Adam’s arms, scored by soft indie instrumentals. Unlike Charlie, Adam can’t offer his girlfriend financial support. He can, however, shepherd her through the highs and lows of urban artmaking from his own seasoned position as an independently subsidized creative. One can only hope that this ridiculously trademark rom-com close is revealed as satire, and that Dunham ended Season 2 by throwing her more credulous viewers a bone that Season 3 will quickly snatch away.

But one might still wonder: from what do these girls really need rescuing, if the cushion of white bourgeois privilege is always there to catch them when they fall? In the cases of Hannah and Marnie, the answer is, of course, that these young women must be rescued from themselves, by young men whose privilege eclipses their own. When aspirational white girls of the Mary Tyler Moore variety fail to “make it,” Girls tells us, there’s another option: partnership with an aspirational white man more likely to succeed.