A Brooklyn Habitus: The Image of Gentrification in HBO’s Girls
Creator-writer Lena Dunham plays Hannah Horvath in the HBO comedy Girls (2012–2017), a series about four women in their early twenties living in post-2008 New York City. More specifically, Hannah and most of her friends actually live and spend their time in Brooklyn, and while the show has generated much acclaim, criticism, and popular buzz regarding its refreshingly realistic depictions of gender, sex, and friendship, its representations of gentrifying Brooklyn have not yet been explored. Given how often the media has, as New York Times columnist Frank Bruni put it, “accorded [Dunham] a voice-of-her-generation status,” the portrayal of how the characters experience Brooklyn’s gentrification has implications for the discourse on contemporary television and urban culture (Bruni). As critics have pointed out, the privileges of white college-educated backgrounds fairly conspicuously condition the story of Girls. The show is not oblivious to that, but it is important to note that Girls does not display any of the social and economic consequences for the displaced. Dunham’s series paints a particular, privileged experience of Brooklyn that limits the image of gentrification to the lives of gentrifiers, yet by satirizing that experience demonstrates self-awareness and offers a more complex construction of urban reality.
Sarah Schulman in The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination argues the gentrification of New York in the 1980s as involving more than just “replacement by more homogenized groups” in urban communities, but additionally “a gentrification of the mind, an internal replacement that alienated people from the concrete process of social and artistic change,” specifically queer artists who died in the AIDS epidemic (Schulman 14). Under Schulman’s line of thinking, gentrification and its consequences constitute, yield, or somehow co-exist with a certain homogenizing consciousness, way of thinking, or just set of experiences in the urban cultural landscape.
The idea that gentrification changes a place’s culture or has a distinct urban lifestyle is not new. Indeed, multiple scholars have developed the cultural consciousness of gentrification. Sharon Zukin explained how capital incorporated culture with the mechanism of ‘loft living,’ which popularized the idea of the artistic SoHo loft and lifestyle (Zukin). Gary Bridge reinvented Bourdieu’s concept of ‘habitus’ for gentrifiers, arguing “gentrification as an example of class habitus…that involves conscious rational coordination of class agents on a new aesthetic ‘focal point’” (Bridge 205). The urban gentrifying middle class has a self-conscious, reflexive aesthetic (e.g., social performing in certain bars, renovating of interiors in a uniform good taste) and the ability to reorder the time and space of the city (symbolically set against working class history and suburbia) to distinguish its class power (Bridge 213). Tim Butler found that the ‘metropolitan habitus’ in certain London neighborhoods valued diversity and social integration but in reality practiced exclusivity, so that “gentrification has not so much displaced the working class as simply blanked out those who are not like themselves: they do not socialize with them, eat with them or send their children to school with them” (Butler 2484).
In the case of Girls, the images of the characters’ gentrified lifestyles fit many of these descriptions. The series shows gentrification in the form of young artists seeking the diversity and creativity Brooklyn has to offer as well as the presence of wealthier yuppies in the city. Rather than having an urban identity or community that asserts itself onto the girls’ experiences, this version of Brooklyn instead exists as a set of spaces occupied by one demographic, the white middle to upper class of gentrifiers, while other experiences and working class spaces are largely left out. This is not to say that Dunham seeks to exclude groups or that television must be representative of populations, but that this representation is arguably consistent with the project of gentrification by repackaging Brooklyn on the screen for the privileged — an argument Brendan Kredell makes in a similar analysis of Wes Anderson’s films. Kredell claims that Anderson’s representations of the city reduce it to abstract urban-ness in a “cinema of gentrification,” which erases a city of its history until it is merely aesthetic.
While Girls mainly presents the gentrifier side of the city experience, Dunham does not go so far as to displace social reality because of the show’s multifaceted comedy. The series occasionally points out privilege — often by making a joke about it — and manages to compose however fractionally its own version of Brooklyn’s gentrified habitus. From within the bubble of Hannah and her friends, the viewer sees the artist-hipster culture that leads to gentrification and the loft living aesthetics and behaviors that come from it.
It is no secret that most of New York City has undergone some form of gentrification, a term that generally refers to “the production of urban space for progressively affluent users” (Hackworth 815). The process began in the 1980s for major Brooklyn neighborhoods like Williamsburg, which recently became known as the “granddaddy of neighborhoods with hipster cachet” for its young bohemian artistic scene (Freeman and Braconi 44; Rosenblum). In Girls, a Brooklyn habitus most clearly manifests itself in creative and alternative culture, particularly in the neighborhood of Bushwick (the new Williamsburg), and in northwest Brooklyn’s wealthier loft living-tenants. The latter is seen in one character who epitomizes self-conscious taste and one who epitomizes the reordering of time and space, as Bridge theorizes. The former is fairly salient because for the recently graduated (one almost graduated) aspiring creatives, Brooklyn is where they can satisfy their hipster-cultural appetites while determining and attempting their artistic dreams. Specifically, Hannah is a twenty-four year old Oberlin graduate and aspiring writer living in Greenpoint; her roommate Marnie starts out working at a gallery then later tries songwriting; Hannah’s love interest Adam is a “triple-threat actor-writer-woodworker” living in Prospect Heights; Marnie’s boyfriend Charlie (who eventually founds a start-up) has a band that often plays in Bushwick; their British college friend Jessa bounces between temp jobs but also paints; and Jessa’s cousin Shoshanna is studying at NYU to become a business woman (pilot episode).
While the show does not specify whether all the characters have moved to New York from elsewhere, it does make it clear how most of them are financially supported by middle to upper class families — Hannah’s parents (both professors) had been paying her rent for two years, Adam’s grandmother sends him money each month, and Shoshanna’s family opted to pay for an off-campus apartment (as opposed to a normal dorm room). As developing artists, they were attracted to and now as residents contribute to the city’s ‘hipster gentrification,’ embodying the creative class described by urban economist Richard Florida. They particularly fit the mold because they are trying to be what Florida considers the “super-creative core” — writers, artists, actors — and “creative professionals” — high-tech and business management (Florida 8). According to Florida, postmodern cities compete globally by having strong creative economies and thus must change to be the types of places artists wish to live.
The Brooklyn seen in the show would seem to have successfully acquired creative capital, seeing as just about all the characters fit the college-educated artistic type. On the other hand, Florida “concedes that the crowding of creatives into gentrifying neighborhoods might generate inflationary housing-market pressures, that not only run the risk of eroding the diversity that the Class craves but, worse still, could smother the fragile ecology of creativity itself” (Peck 746). This would imply that the creative culture that attracted young artists like Hannah also attracts additional gentrifiers that could homogenize the city’s creativity and diversity. The characters of the show, then, if not the gentrifiers themselves given their white middle-class college-educated backgrounds, theoretically further the city’s economic growth and homogenization. In this sense, the show does contain a subtext of gentrification not only by virtue of taking place in gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhoods, but also by representing it with artistic gentrifiers.
The most revealing episode of how the characters experience Brooklyn’s edgy offerings is fittingly titled “Welcome to Bushwick a.k.a the Crackcident.” The girls attend what Jessa insists will be “the best party ever” in a warehouse in the neighborhood of Bushwick, a party so cool and enormous that “all of Brooklyn and two-thirds of Manhattan will be here.” In this graffiti-ridden warehouse, Shoshanna accidentally smokes crack (hence ‘crackcident’); Adam is with a group of lesbian friends; Elijah defends his homosexuality to Marnie; and the attendance includes topless feminists, old punk rock bikers, and perhaps more racial and ethnic diversity than in any other episode. This grungy diverse social event is the starkest example in the series of the type of alternative nightlife “often leading to ‘hipster gentrification’” (Hae 3449). Laam Hae, in an article on New York nightlife’s role in gentrification, calls attention to the way in which this counter-culture open to all ethnicities and sexual orientations both attracts creative professionals and contributes to a process of gentrification that eventually pushes such culture out (Hae 3461). The BGLTQ representation supports Florida’s idea of a necessary environment of tolerance in a creative city, but queers in particular have been designated “canaries of the creative economy,” effectively drawing in redevelopment (Florida and Gates 131). Girls understands the appeal of alternative nightlife: the cultural diversity makes for interesting social events and spaces, which makes for a cool place — which attracts more creatives like Hannah and eventually gentrifying processes.
But the series does not tell the after effects. The warehouse could soon be sold to a clubbing company, or a chain restaurant may open across the street, or a middle class family could arrive and complain about noise. But all the viewer sees of the ‘hipster gentrification’ is the hipster part, the fun part, essentially because that is the function of Brooklyn’s gentrification for the characters. So while the show portrays Bushwick’s appeal in ways signaling the coming urban regeneration, the semi-gentrifiers do not experience the neighborhood’s changes once the party is over.
At the same time, Dunham occasionally pokes through the veneer of fun: the shots of the streets outside the party show an industrial urban landscape — which Hannah exaggerates in frustration to be “like a fucking heap of trash somewhere.” Not yet regenerated city space is not often seen in white female comedies and indicates that in the show Bushwick is a real place, with a landscape beyond its parties. When Jessa calls a couple of presumably old punk rockers “crusty,” they give a comically intellectual response, “Crusty? Really? You’re going to reduce us to a subculture then not accurately name the subculture?” The seemingly less sophisticated may actually be more highbrow than their fellow hipster party-goers. The episode does welcome creatives to Bushwick with a wild party yet does not completely forget that it is actually set in Bushwick or that counter-culture attendees could be gentrifiers too.
In addition to the ‘fun’ that precedes gentrification, the characters also witness the influx of wealthier tenants that urban regeneration policies target. There are two archetypal upmarket residences in the show, each exhibiting aspects of the yuppie habitus and aesthetic. In the first season, Jessa and Marnie go to the Williamsburg high-riser apartment of a 30-something venture capitalist named Thomas-John. Thomas-John is the model suit-wearing yuppie (young urban professional or young upwardly-mobile professional) often identified with gentrification and higher-class consumption (Smith). His living room with a view of the New York skyline is lavishly furnished and decorated, including a ten thousand dollar rug, and he shows the girls his ‘mash-up’ DJ hobby on shiny turn-tables hooked up to two laptops. It is not just his wealth or profession that demonstrates his gentrifier habitus according to Bridge’s definition. That he chooses to live in cool Williamsburg and shows off expensive but tasteful possessions demonstrates Zukin’s loft living aesthetic as well as Bridge’s self-conscious aesthetic, which uses “forms of consumption as social performance” (Bridge 212).
The viewer gets a sense of the gentrified Williamsburg yuppie, then, as more than just a businessman with a higher-income, but one that conforms to a certain set of tastes displayed through consumption, some of those tastes originating in the popularized loft ideal. Girls actually makes fun of this with how obviously affluent but desperate for inclusion Thomas-John seems to Jessa and Marnie. The viewer is invited to laugh at him, his failed attempt to seduce them, his ridiculous fury over a rug stain, and his enraged speech to be “included in the group.” His social performance through expensive possessions fails to work: Thomas-John feels it is “not fair” that he is rejected, as though his hospitality deserves inclusion. In the character and residence of Thomas-John, the show demonstrates how consumption is part of gentrification’s cultural program, but also social intelligence does not consumption make.
Another very clear instance of Brooklyn’s new gentry comes in the second season, when Hannah has a fling with a forty-two year old separated doctor named Joshua. Joshua has renovated a huge Greenpoint brownstone into what Hannah calls an “unbelievable,” “Nancy Meyers movie” house with possessions that are “very nice, like everything you appear to have.” His home perfectly fits Sharon Zukin’s description of the postmodern yuppie movement “to renovate and occupy dilapidated housing in commercial, industrial and working-class neighborhoods,” especially glamorizing “brownstone townhouses with their original paneling and wood-burning fireplaces” — two structural features Joshua explicitly mentions to Hannah (Zukin “Urban Lifestyles” 831). It also applies under Bridge’s model of the gentrification habitus in that renovation using a tasteful balancing of old and modern aesthetics allows for favorable resale (Bridge 212).
Bridge additionally theorizes that the middle class applies a strategy of reordering time and space, specifically in returning from suburbia to renew historic housing in postmodern urban space Joshua does, in order to define its class power in society. Joshua admits he’s “the oldest guy in this neighborhood by, like, twenty-five years” as the viewer gets a shot of the hipsters next door having a small get-together on the other side of the fence. It is one of the only times in the entire series when the representation of gentrification visually juxtaposes urban classes, and this idea of the new urban middle class asserting its presence comes through in the dialogue and story as well. In the scene, Joshua complains about the young hipsters, “It’s like having a frat house next door”; Hannah makes fun of him “Is that really the neighbor you are? Shaking your fist ‘Why I oughtta!’” Indeed, Joshua represents an older generation’s authority or outlook: the only reason Hannah meets Joshua in the episode is because he goes into the coffee shop where she works to criticize them for dumping trash in his cans. The show makes it clear that Joshua represents a different older urban class with possibly a different mode of thinking.
Girls draws a fairly complex image of middle class gentrifiers as displaying certain renovation tastes and differentiating themselves as a class, but further shows gentrification as potentially insulating or domesticizing. Given that the entire episode takes place in the interior of his home for several days, this middle class separated man seems like a very isolated city-dweller. The brownstone literally isolates Joshua and Hannah, for better or worse, from the urban world to a degree that the episode’s sense of time is distinct relative to the series. Brooklyn is just outside, but he has everything a middle-class man needs inside, except company to enjoy his amenities, until Hannah comes along. His situation, if representative of Brooklyn’s new urban class or at least of gentrification as represented in Girls, does not imply that gentrification breeds remoteness. But it could suggest that rather than social mixing gentrification may produce self-segregation among different types of households within a given neighborhood. Joshua lives alone in a big, renovated house and does not really seem to like his neighborhood, unambiguously expressing his aversion to both the coffee shop and his “awful” younger neighbors. In Tim Butler’s study of the ‘metropolitan habitus’ of a London neighborhood, the fact that gentrifying families do not interact with native working class families suggests that mixed class situations “lead to an increasingly polarized social structure” which is “unlikely to lead to greater social cohesion” (Butler 2469). Perhaps just coincidentally, when Hannah asks about his separation, he says his wife had found the city was not right for her. This episode may seem to just tout a beautiful brownstone but reveals in its very time, space, and situation how a gentrified household isolates itself in the midst of a city neighborhood.
Dunham’s writing is not at all oblivious to the changes currently happening to Brooklyn: during Hannah’s meeting with a book publisher in a café, the publisher spots a business acquaintance and reacts with, “What the fuck is a money man doing in Brooklyn? I don’t know what’s going on anymore…Who chose this restaurant? I don’t think it was here last week.” The gentrification of Brooklyn is very present in the series, taking on a certain habitus of creative alternative culture and yuppie aesthetics that communicates many nuances of urban regeneration. What does it mean that a young women’s comedy on HBO shows gentrification this way? It points to the everyday ways in which urban regeneration shows itself: the demographics at parties, retail consumption, or engagement with neighbors. The ways in which that can be funny and resonate with the generation currently in their 20s, including Dunham herself, possibly reflect current beliefs about urban life. It could also mean that there is no Girls without gentrification culture, because its manifestations like creative careers, Bushwick, Thomas-John, and Joshua actually make up this particular story of women living in the city.
At the same time, one can argue that this television show, in presenting Brooklyn based on the experience of gentrifiers rather than everyone, ends up covering up realities with hip culture and fancy apartments. But that is not the case, because Girls does not reduce Brooklyn. Unlike Kredell’s case with Wes Anderson’s city films, a cinema of gentrification does not wipe out the city space, for the viewer is often reminded of Brooklyn’s changes. The series may very well largely focus on experiences of privilege, but it succeeds in setting this particular perspective against a real social context. Girls has something to offer in its representation of Brooklyn’s gentrification, and that representation also says something about Girls. That the show makes a comedy out of gentrified culture through the lens of white upper middle class girls attests to Dunham’s creativity. That it achieves to some degree a portrayal of Brooklyn’s gentrification in accordance with current theories of gentrified lifestyle attests to the show’s ability to relate to contemporary reality.