Millennials are often described as self-obsessed, but what if they are actually self-aware? Amid the dismissal of this generation as lazy and entitled, we might be missing the fact that they have actually turned navel-gazing into an art, marking one of the most significant cultural transformations of the 2000s.
To understand the elusive habitus of entire generations, cultural critics are increasingly turning towards TV shows. Most notably, Lena Dunham and the characters of her HBO series Girls are becoming generational stand-ins in the media. The pilot episode of Girls pays a tribute to Sex and the City, and critics have honed in on this comparison; but a Friends/Girls examination also merits discussion by allowing us to see Generation X and the Millennials side by side.
“It’s about sex, love, relationships, careers, and a time in your life when everything’s possible. And it’s about friendship because when you’re single and in the city, your friends are your family,” stated the original pitch for the show that would become known as Friends. It sounds like a more optimistic, naïve version of what could have been a pitch for Girls. Both shows take place in New York City’s gentrified neighborhoods, tracing the paths of educated young people a couple of years out of college trying to make it in the big city (Rachel and Monica are 24 in the first episode; Hannah and Marnie are about the same age). Joey and Adam are both aspiring actors. And just as 1994 was a good time to launch a sitcom about hip young people living in the West Village, by 2012 that trope had shed its excess denim and relocated across the river to Brooklyn.
In the opening episode of both shows, a protagonist gets cut off from her parents’ money. Rachel has a fight with her father on the phone about walking out on her own wedding, and her newfound friends see to it that she cuts up her parents’ credit cards in an effort to take control of her own life. Girls opens with Hannah’s parents cutting her off financially, and immediately she faces the new reality of needing to turn her unpaid internship into a paying job, and possibly putting off her plan to finish writing a book as she struggles to stay afloat in expensive New York.
“So, like, you guys all have jobs?” asks Rachel as she gets to know the gang. “Yeah, we all have jobs. See, that’s how we buy stuff,” clarifies Monica sensibly. The reality for the characters of Girls is very different. “Do you know how crazy the economy is right now? I mean, all my friends get help from their parents,” Hannah protests her parents’ decision at dinner. In the economy of Friends, finding a job is depicted as a technical matter, and possibly a lifestyle choice (Rachel reveals in the first episode that she planned to wean herself off her parent’s money by becoming a trophy wife). While Rachel comforts her unemployed self by buying new boots, the striving feminists of Girls struggle from season to season with finding fulfilling jobs and rarely succumb to materialistic consolations. The discourse of “they’re my new ‘I don’t need a job, I don’t need my parents, I’ve got great boots’ boots!” is virtually absent from Dunham’s show.
By a similar token, for the characters of Girls, finding a job is never about being able to “buy stuff.” At dire moments, it’s about making rent. But most of the time, it’s about finding yourself, and trying to do so in a stagnant economy. “I’m going to find you a job worthy of your talents,” declares Hannah’s friend Jessa upon hearing the news of Hannah’s newly enforced financial independence – a kind of encouragement we never hear from Rachel’s friend Monica.
Friendship and romance are different between the two shows. Firstly, there’s the colossal technological shift. As Marnie and Hannah walk down the street, Marnie instructs her friend on the romantic totem of chat: “the lowest – that would be Facebook. Followed by G-chat, then texting, then E-mail, then phone. Face-to-face would be ideal, but it’s not of this time.” In the pilot of Friends, we witness a long scene starring Rachel trying to reach the man she was supposed to marry by phone (landline, no less). The answering machine keeps cutting her off as she rants about how they aren’t meant for each other. But in subsequent episodes, most of the communication in Friends takes place in their apartments or at Central Perk. Owing to all the new possibilities of the “totem of chat” in the 2010s, the characters of Girls don’t hang out together as much as those of Friends do. We rarely see the four protagonists of Girls in one scene together, but we do see a lot of vigorous texting, blank stares into smartphone screens, and the occasional Skype call.
The characters of Friends and Girls seem to be at entirely different stages in their romantic lives, despite proximity in age. While Girls is about growing up, Friends seems to be about growing older. Friends launched with Ross in the middle of a traumatic divorce with a woman he had been with for four years, since he was 22. Rachel, at 24, walks out on her own wedding. Monica, also 24, is on a date with a man who claims to have gotten divorced two years ago. In the outset Girls, Marnie is still in a relationship with her college boyfriend – she finds him increasingly tedious and they have boring sex. Jessa comes back from a chaotic trip to Europe with an accidental pregnancy and with plans for an abortion. And Hannah tries to navigate the inner workings of a casual involvement with an aspiring actor who lives off money his grandmother sends him. When viewers firs meet the Girls characters, the topic of marriage seems very far off, and it remains that way for a full season, until Jessa’s surprise wedding (the relationship would barely outlast the honeymoon). The girls try to prioritize discovering who they are and what they want, albeit not without getting into messy romantic entanglements along the way.
While the plot of Friends revolves around precisely what the title of the show implies, the topic of friendship is conspicuously absent from the script. Rachel, Monica, Ross, Chandler, Phoebe and Joey act out their friendships on the screen, but they don’t spend a lot of time reflecting on that act. Girls takes a drastically different approach, as the protagonists constantly grapple with what is “the friendish thing to do,” who is a good friend and who is “the wound,” when it’s time to fess up that you’ve slept with a friend’s ex, and whether friends should take friends out of rehab. As Jessa sits on the toilet in her first appearance on the show, she mocks Marnie for mothering Hannah and claiming to be her best friend: “you know, we don’t own anybody,” Jessa says. “Maybe you don’t respect what a best friendship means because you’ve never stayed in one place long enough to have one!” snaps Marnie. Later in the season (episode 8), Marnie and Jessa bond over their disdain for Hannah’s flakiness as a friend, share doubts about Hannah’s new relationship, and giggle about Hannah’s “teensy” breasts. The next episode ends with a screaming fight between Hannah and Marnie, during which Marnie tries to insult Hannah by saying “you are so selfish! This is why you have no friends from preschool!” Hannah retorts by telling Marnie that it’s obvious she wishes the superficial yet successful Tally Shiffrin were her best friend, “so you can tell everyone to tune in and hear your best friend on Fresh Air!” The girls systematically devalue each other’s characters, using friendship as a currency.
This constant self-analysis of Girls marks the show’s most striking difference to the oblivious optimism of the Clinton-era Friends. The reflection goes beyond the topic of friendship: in what is likely to become one of Lena Dunham’s most famous lines, the character she plays in the show says “I think I may be the voice of my generation… Or a voice. Of a generation.” The sweeping statement and sheepish afterthought perfectly encapsulate a Millennial mix of self-righteousness and self-doubt. Intense self-reflection would follow these words, as the media reacted to the claim and Dunham reacted to the media.
The integration of the media and the show is another entirely new cultural phenomenon. Lena Dunham both writes the show and plays the main character, Hannah Horvath. There is a lively online conversation about both Lena Dunham and Hannah Horvath, locking them into a tight media loop. Dunham responds to viewers’ commentaries not only in her interviews, but also, in a bold artistic move, in the show itself. In season 4, Hannah is grilled by her peers at the Iowa writer’s workshop in much the same way that Dunham is grilled online by the show’s viewers. The show inspires think pieces, and think pieces catalyze the show. This kind of meta dialog is a striking innovation.
While the token TV show of Generation X was about feeling good and taking opportunities, Millennial cultural artifacts take us beyond that comfort zone. Contemporary culture among the educated urban class is one of obsessive self-awareness. Hipsters take selfies, ironically buy T-shirts, and take pains to find out how their coffee was grown, produced and roasted. People who don’t realize they are mainstream are dubbed as “basic.” And we hate the characters of Girls because they are so oblivious, despite all their efforts to master the art of introspection (and then tweet about it).
This raises questions we never asked about Friends. For example, did the fictional character Hannah Horvath say she was the “voice of a generation,” or are we free to think of Lena Dunham trying on this title? Ultimately, the polemics surrounding Lena Dunham and her show boil down to the question of whether she is self-aware and how reflexively she creates characters. If she is not self-aware, we hate her. If she is, then and only then is she the voice of the Millennials.
 Habitus refers to the acquired lifestyle, values, tastes and dispositions of particular groups of people, as determined by their cultural socialization. See Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction: A Social Critique on the Judgment of Taste (1984). The introduction to this book can be accessed here: http://www.mit.edu/~allanmc/bourdieu1.pdf
 Obvious problems come with generalizing Lena Dunham’s experiences or her show Girls to an entire cohort. In this article, I speak of a group of educated 20-to30-year-olds living in big cities and struggling with problems like student debt and a challenging job market. Many people in this cohort, however, find themselves in a very different kind of crisis, struggling with structural inequalities exacerbated by the economic crisis. See this article on a misunderstood generation: http://www.salon.com/2014/03/22/this_is_not_a_typical_millennial_the_dark_truth_about_a_misunderstood_generation/?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=socialflow