A millennial has an idea. It always begins with a cigarette, and usually a coffee shop, too. The narrator ponders his existence. There’s a plot twist with a manic pixie dream girl, and then there’s a resolution. And then the writer – a character like Gossip Girl’s Dan Humphrey – sends the manuscript to a major press. Great news! Dan Humphrey is forthcoming in The New Yorker. As an NYU freshman, his novel is a New York Times best seller. Pulitzer Prize, here he comes…right?
At the foundation of any TV show is its writers. But TV writers tend to not be too great at depicting their own profession, which is why Girls’ escape to the Iowa Writers Workshop, the most prestigious MFA program in the country, is so intriguing. Though the focal point of Girls is Hannah (Lena Dunham) and her friends’ attempts to navigate their lives as adults, there has always been a subplot following Hannah’s less-than-satisfactory writing career. Hannah faces the same challenges that up-and-coming writers face in the real world: a book turned e-book, a job writing sponsored content, and impossible deadlines for the most intimidating editor imaginable. So when Hannah travels to Iowa, the question arises: can Girls portray a writer’s culture in an accurate way?
Last year, the noted independent publisher n + 1 released a collection of essays called MFA vs. NYC, in which various esteemed writers shared their opinions about whether academic programs (MFA) or life experiences (NYC) are a better professor of writing. In what we’ve seen so far of Girls’ fourth season, Hannah faces her very own MFA vs. NYC struggle.
Hannah’s workshop opens with her classmates speaking in wild hyperbole as they rave over another writer’s piece. “Gut wrenching, and not asking to wrench our guts…” says a woman with a shaggy black bob and heavy eyeliner. “Just… wrenching them.” A stone-faced blonde says that this may be the best piece she’s read in workshop, which is a huge compliment because she’s a second year. But when Hannah reads her story – prefaced by a lengthy introduction that’s even more awkward than her sex scenes – her classmates viciously criticize her writing for being too autobiographical. When Hannah rejects this critique, a classmate retorts that her story is obviously about herself, because its main character is “a girl with a lot of tattoos named Anna.”
“I was laughing hard during the entire workshop scene,” says Michelle Taransky, alumnus of the Iowa Writers Workshop and critical writing professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “Though it may seem to be a satire, it was very accurate.” Taransky adds that many other aspects of Iowa life were portrayed truthfully, including everything from the bat in Hannah’s house (which cost only a fraction of her Brooklyn rent) to The Fox Head, a real bar that Iowa writers frequent after class.
The precision with which Dunham and the writers of Girls portray the Iowa Writers Workshop only follows the show’s precedent – Girls seeks to demystify the lives of mid-twenties college graduates in NYC, giving no mercy to the most cringe-worthy of moments.
The awkwardness and misdirection that Girls’ central quartet experience over each season is far more realistic than the lavish lives of characters from Gossip Girl or Sex in the City. Girls receives criticism for focusing solely on the upper-middle class, white demographic – and on a show dominated by white characters that can afford to live in one of America’s most expensive neighborhoods, these critiques are valid. But as she astutely points out in an interview with NPR, Dunham wrote the majority of Girls’ first season alone, and as a “half-Jew, half-WASP,” she wrote the main characters as “two Jews and two WASPs.” As the show’s only writer at the time, Dunham felt that if she had attempted to deeply investigate the lives of women of color, she would have misrepresented what it’s like to be a racial minority. “There has to be specificity to that experience [that] I wasn’t able to speak to,” Dunham says.
“Girls is definitely criticized for Hannah (and/or Dunham’s) privilege,” says Taransky. “And this is one thing that people critique about Iowa – that ‘everyone’ who goes there is a rich white kid from Harvard.” Taransky remembers her non-white peers being encouraged to write “ethnic fiction” in their workshops.
When Hannah’s classmates insist that all of her writing is directly based on her life, it’s as though Dunham is inserting criticism of Girls right into the show’s script. Dunham isn’t just self-aware – she’s hyper-conscious of the way the media perceives her show, but she refuses to sacrifice her vision to please the public.
Brutally honest writers like Lena Dunham are some of the best things that TV has to offer right now – we’ll take a Hannah Horvath over a Serena van der Woodsen any day. This newfound honesty may force us to sit through some pretty disturbing sex scenes, but let’s take this one step at a time.