You’ve Got Mail is the film that made me want to visit New York. The scene where Tom Hanks abandons his date with Meg Ryan in the coffee shop intoxicated me with a biscuitty warmth which sincerely appealed to my position as a biscuit-loving nine-year old who desperately wanted to be grown up. Stuff photos of the Ramones giving a flip outside CBGBs or reruns of Sex and the City; YGM was the only New York companion I wanted.
The above paragraph’s opening rips off Lena Dunham’s lovely tribute to Nora Ephron, published in the New Yorker following the You’ve Got Mail director’s death. In the last year and a half of her life, Ephron acted as a no-messin’ mentor to the young artist who called This is My Life the “movie that made me want to make movies.” Dunham’s retelling of Ephron’s shrewd advice made me realize the gross contradiction in my attitude towards the two women’s work— notably YGM and Girls— for which Ephron may have had a pithy word or two.
When Girls started, everyone was talking about representation and identification, this gross need for group female experience that made me want to opt out nearly as hard as I did for the hour I spent staring at the floor during our Year 9 visit from “Mrs Tampax”. I started watching with the urge to flounce, “You don’t represent me— and I don’t want you to!” as if I’d darted Dunham herself trying to stick me with a big pin that said, “I AM A GIRL LIKE THEM ONES ON THE TELLY.” An ugly, ill-willed urge towards disassociation, which Dunham partially dumped all over with that zinging “I am not the ladies” line from the second episode, and concluded by making an incredibly strong debut series.
I don’t believe in the frightened idea of a blindly supportive and impersonal modern sisterhood, but I realise that wanting Girls to fail from the off is entirely unhelpful. Particularly so given that I’d defend a distinctly un-feminist film about a woman falling for the man who destroys the business she inherited from her dead mother, and who secretly manipulates her into starting a relationship on his terms. (Fact: in The Shop Around the Corner, the film on which YGM is based, it’s the man who loses his job because of a new female employee. It’s also set in Budapest. Who knew!)
Perversely, Girls had HBO on its lapels and seemed smart, whereas I had never watched YGM assuming it to be intelligent, or even the work of an intelligent director, making me as much of a disagreeable cake-eater and haver as Tom Hanks in that film. It seems wrong to find escapism in the willful suppression of a woman’s livelihood, whilst also believing it to be silly and watching from some position of assumed superiority. After Ephron’s death, I felt extra stupid for having never bothered to read anything about this clearly wonderful woman during her lifetime.
After three weeks of leaving this document open on my desktop, I am no closer to finding a good explanation for this ridiculous impulse. But here are a couple of things that did not inform this position:
1) Jealousy. Dunham portrays her worldview and smarts magnificently on Girls, gently dropping truth bombs into casual conversation like diamonds in a sandbox full of turds. I did not watch Girls scoffing, “Tchuh, I could do this way better.” Rather, “I love this show and you know what I think we could be bessfrens if you wanna.”
2) Technology has progressed so quickly that Meg Ryan bobbing her head as she waits for the dial-up connection in YGM now looks positively Amish. I remember the advent of the consumer internet, iPods, and being able to use Paypal to order Dominos, so it’s probably greedy to envy older generations for whom technological advances brought about more real social and cultural change than I imagine we can expect going forward (I have a subscription to Wired, alright? And just fyi I understand approx. 12% of each issue). In spite of this, I wasn’t watching Girls thinking, “Jeez, this show really needs more Grindr/shots of nerds planning the new technological revolution in the corner of Café Grumpy.”
Once I relaxed into the show, my main instinct towards the central characters was, “Please don’t fuck up,” or, “Please don’t fuck up again.” Even though I wasn’t watching in order to coo, “Oh, I’m such a Shoshanna!” it’s pretty obvious that Girls would be perceived as some kind of watermark for its portrayal of young women. TV and film too often shows “women in their early 20s” as shallow, romantically haphazard dependents who either fail constantly or temper their moderate successes by acting so docile they make Hello Kitty look like a sexual predator. There’s nothing wrong with portraying vulnerability or imperfection, but when that comes to define some vague notion of a generation, resistance feels sane. Dunham had the chance to either redefine or cement these images, and I’m not sure what was a more nightmarish thought initially: that she might get it wrong, or actually do young womanhood a solid.
Given the way I am now rolling around in it in this totally undignified fashion, I think she achieved the latter. One of the most quoted Ephron phrases following her death was: “Be the heroine of your own life; not the victim.” Heroines are meant to be good-hearted, and setting yourself up in opposition to a popular and smart phenomenon now strikes me as a ridiculous form of self-victimization. Ephron was the kind of woman from whom other women would take their cues. There seems no reason for that to stop just because she died.