The Zombie Girls of Brooklyn

The Zombie Girls of Brooklyn

By Heather Wilhelm - January 22, 2013

What is it like to live in a world where nothing matters? If you’ve ever watched HBO’s cult series “Girls,” you know the answer.

If you’re not familiar with the show, which follows the largely depressing, sex-fueled lives of four self-centered, fresh-out-of-college Brooklyn women, rest assured: The national media are working industriously to make sure you soon will be very familiar with it, and its importance.

In fact, the year-old “Girls” may have already earned more fevered, deeply analytical reviews than it has viewers. The premiere of the show’s second season, which aired the Sunday before last, earned 866,000 sets of eyeballs, which is rather ho-hum in TV land. By comparison, PBS’s “Downton Abbey,” which apparently features a few scowling British people shuffling about their dusty manor, recently earned a whopping 7.9 million viewers for its third-season premiere.

Pay no attention, however, to that man behind the curtain! “Girls,” which features multiple forms of human degradation in almost every scene (awkward sex, binge eating, mindless drug use, a “funny” abortion, endless f-words, and eyeball-charring, floppy nudity) is, according to New York magazine, “a bold defense (and a searing critique) of the so-called Millennial Generation.” It is “courageous,” asserts the Los Angeles Times. The New York Times calls it is “fresh,” “original,” and “a phenomenon.” It is full of “artistry,” according to a recent Atlantic blog post.

Lest you think that this is some kind of conspiracy -- and I do, but more on that later -- “Girls” also managed to take home two Golden Globe awards last week. This included a prize for “best comedy,” which makes me think that the Golden Globes might be the Western world’s most elaborate working satire since Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” This is because “Girls” is sad, not funny. Indeed, it is a reintroduction to our old, tired, overworked friend “Sex and the City,” only dusted off, tossed into Brooklyn, and dipped into a grungy, plastic kiddie pool filled with floating bugs, self-referential "meta" humor, and ennui.

There is a certain irony, I realize, in writing about a show while complaining that it doesn’t deserve the attention it already gets. But the real story, it turns out, isn’t even about the show. It’s about how the national media and chattering classes slowly, effectively shape American culture, transmitting social mores and nihilism from a bubble that doesn’t represent most of the real world -- yet.

The more one learns about “Girls,” in fact, the more one begins to suspect that it is an elaborate hoax foisted upon an unsuspecting, docile populace. Take the show’s creator, for instance. It stars and is written and directed by twenty-something media sensation Lena Dunham, who was born in New York, made a few videos about herself at Oberlin, and recently appeared in an Obama ad comparing voting for the first time to losing your virginity. (“You want to do it with the right guy!”) All of Dunham’s work is exhibitionist (for no particular reason, she is stark naked in multiple episodes of “Girls”) and autobiographical (Dunham’s character, “Hannah,” is a struggling writer convinced of her own brilliance). Dunham’s real-world mother, according to the UK Independent, is “a photographer who arranges dolls and dolls’ house furniture to create disquieting domestic tableaux.” Her father, meanwhile, is “a WASP painter of overtly sexualized pop art.”

I’ll pause for a moment so we can all soak that in.

“Girls” also stars three other actresses who are complete outsiders when it comes to the New York/Los Angeles media-entertainment machine, and by “complete outsiders,” I mean “born in the belly of the beast”: the daughter of “NBC Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams, the daughter of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet, and, perhaps most awesomely, the daughter of the former drummer of Bad Company, a fantastically awful ’70s rock band.

To be clear, a person -- or a person’s work -- should not be discounted based on their parents, whether those parents are rich, poor, or somewhere in between. But when you put the pieces together, this plugged-in lineage does help explain why a bunch of Brooklyn hipsters wandering around like the zombies from “I Am Legend” is presented as important “art.” It also helps explain why Dunham has been heralded as “the voice of her generation” and named among The Atlantic’s “Brave Thinkers” of 2012. And it certainly helps explain why Dunham, who appears to have the moral sense of a mountain goat, just got a $3 million book deal to share her “advice” with a world that I sincerely hope is taking cover.

Media veteran Larry King once recalled his reaction to hearing the f-word at a Friars Club roast back in the early ’60s: “I thought I’d die.” Fast-forward to 2012, and we have no one left to shock -- but many inside the secular media bubble didn’t get the memo. This is why “Girls,” a showcase of vulgarity for vulgarity’s sake, is praised as “bold,” and why a solipsistic life, unmoored from morals or meaning, is presented as “normal” and “representative.” Unfortunately, many young people might buy it.

When you think about it, we should all thank Lena Dunham. If you doubt the power of the media to create an alternate universe or push an agenda, witness “Girls.” With its self-referential feedback loop, casual nihilism, and refusal to take anything of value seriously, the show perfectly packages and delivers the secular, “no rules” worldview that many in the media want to sell.

Because of this, all of the hullabaloo -- the fawning reviews, the media attention, the Internet hype, the book deal, and even the criticism -- in the end isn’t really about Lena Dunham. It’s about a broader, self-reinforcing worldview. Given that Dunham built her career on her own navel gazing, it’s a classic, delicious irony -- one that even she couldn’t cook up. 

Heather Wilhelm is a writer based in Austin,Texas. Her work can be found at and her Twitter handle is @heatherwilhelm.

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