“Girls” Is Our Post-Industrial Future

I am kind of obsessed with Girls. I was excited to watch the first season purely because it was set (and actually shot) in Greenpoint, where I used to live. I ended up loving it at least in part because it offers a compelling picture of the economic turmoil into which our generation has emerged. The three characters of Hannah, Marnie, and Charlie are parables for the myths we grew up with, and the harsh reality of the digital economy. Ignore the stuff about drugs and bad sex and OCD — it’s really a story about human capital.

Hannah Horvath has emerged from college to find out that her human capital investment was badly misplaced. Hannah is a writer — but crucially, an old media writer. The show begins with her asking for pay at her long-time unpaid internship and being fired for her trouble. The magazine business is dying and she doesn’t realize it. She writes essays and attempts to get them in front of publishers, who don’t care. She doesn’t have a blog or engage with the new media landscape in any way. Part of this is that productivity, the currency of new media, isn’t her strong suit (nor is quality, it is strongly implied). When she finally lands an interested publisher, all he’ll offer her is an e-book. Poor Hannah doesn’t understand the new economics of writing, and is floundering.

Her friend Marnie has similarly misallocated her human capital. She studied art and has curatorial ambitions — because those who cannot do, curate, I suppose. She is fired and rather rudely informed by prospective employers that the curatorial career path is dead. Her time spent studying art was a complete waste, and Marnie finds herself adrift in a world with no use for her skills. She can only trade on her looks as she begins working as a hostess.

Both Marnie and Hannah have been cruelly misinformed about the path to success in the post-industrial economy — Hannah is fixated on working through a dying and desolate sales channel, whereas Marnie has been cut out of a contracting supply chain.

In noted contrast to them is Marnie’s ex-boyfriend Charlie, who developed and sold an app company to great success. Inspired by his bad breakup, the app prevents you from calling your exes. Charlie is the anti-Hannah. Hannah is focused on the markers of creation, a book deal, being called “a writer.” She doesn’t produce or create, but endlessly discusses creating. Charlie is modest and shy about his creation, but he seized the bull by the horns and made something. Whereas Hannah turns her personal experiences into essays that other characters have trouble relating too, Charlie universalized his experience into a product that had demand.

Girls isn’t just about the dislocation of our 20s, it’s about the disorientation of our generation emerging into the workforce to discover that “careers” are dead. Among our peers, there is neither glory nor fortune for the operators, who are rapidly discovering that the boring, “stable” careers are melting away. It’s not just creatives in turmoil — the last few years have seen plenty of layoffs in publishing and investment banking alike. We were all told that if you go to college and pay your dues, you’ll be safe. And then we got into the world and found out we’d been lied to. The only career path we can rely on is staying a step ahead.

The titular girls are not taking it well.

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