Skip to main content

Why HBO's 'Girls' is appealing

By Porochista Khakpour, Special to CNN
updated 7:14 PM EDT, Sat April 14, 2012
From left to right: Allison Williams, Jemima Kirke, Lena Dunham and Zosia Mamet star in HBO's
From left to right: Allison Williams, Jemima Kirke, Lena Dunham and Zosia Mamet star in HBO's "Girls."
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • HBO's new series, "Girls," is premiering on Sunday
  • Porochista Khakpour: The show may seems too downtown NYC and insider
  • But the show's aesthetic realism makes it appealing
  • Khakpour: "Girls" is not perfect and that's part of the beauty

Editor's note: Porochista Khakpour, a writer, is the author of the novel, "Sons and Other Flammable Objects" (Grove/Atlantic).

(CNN) -- I was in college when "Sex and the City" first premiered. Much to my chagrin, in my resolutely artsy college nobody was willing to have their dorm room harbor that object of common people — the television — so it took some time until I saw it.

When I ducked into the real world in 2000, I watched it at the prompting of a boyfriend, the first of several obsessed with it. My reaction disappointed them: I could not for the life of me understand it.

For one thing, I could not get past certain surfaces: they were all so poofy, so adorned, so posh, so glittery and glossy. Their real heart and soul was buried under so many buzzy and blingy distractions: designer everything and $14-apple-martinis and man-chasing fiascos only women of a certain mindset and privilege could afford to drown in. They were like women in drag. They felt like women written by women reared on women as men saw women, not the women I knew. Maybe it was just a generational issue, though, I told myself.

Porochista Khakpour
Porochista Khakpour

Years later, as a creative writing professor in several liberal arts colleges, I again had that experience as my sorority girls came marching in. These women, born in the '90s or awfully close, seemed thoroughly airbrushed inside and out, wrapped snugly in artificially tanned and manicured molds.

They were not the women I knew and my first instinct was to feel sorry for them; they didn't know what dating and courtship was, they could not imagine a pre-Internet world or a time before electronic communication, and they learned about sex through online porn sites. And yet, they felt sorry for me. One student told me she could not imagine the life I had chosen, because I was in my 30s and single.

Their eyes were stuck on seeming prizes: earn money and be married and make babies pronto. I tried to rationalize that they were much younger than I during 9/11 and that this was typical. But it was hard not to see them purely as the perfect offspring of "Sex and the City."

Behind all these women, I am sure there is somewhere a "Girls"-woman, either just lying dormant and in denial or hiding in a cold sweat.

What first hit home with HBO's new series, "Girls," is that it has a certain Gen X-ery to it. Its creator, writer and star, Lena Dunham -- whom my millennial counterparts might accuse me of having a "girl-crush" on — has clearly been reared on the stuff of a half-generation before her. The show's language, after all, is equal parts downtown-NYC and Internetese. Its biggest danger is not making sense to those outside that world.

The pilot will of course draw sighs and groans, something for some to file under "first-world problems" and dismiss. The premise is not for everyone, of course: a young writer gets cut off from her parents and spends meaningless hours with her various shades of hipster-NYCettes. It's sometimes hard to know what's local color and what's product placement — Smart Water cameos juxtaposed with a brilliantly frayed "Sex and the City" poster. But one thing is clear: If you're not an insider, then you'll either have to approach it as an exercise in anthropological-insights-reaping or move on.

Because what is most delightful about "Girls" is not the premise, but rather, the smart writing and the surface details. Behold the spectacle of everyday pimples and bad tattoos and unshaven skin and some fat and really awkward sex — what you see in your real life but rarely mirrored back in any pop cultural depiction. The "ugly," the "grit" and "dirt" give the show its aesthetic realism and provide a public service by being an antidote to The Hills and various other disturbingly surreal "reality" shows.

And so the world discovers the big secret, that we women are funny and smart and, without a ton of makeup and couture, we actually have appeal. One can't help but ask, who helmed such a slow discovery? Not to out anyone, but we've been wisecracking, passive-aggressing, jabbing, jiving and looking tremendous in your crappy flannels and boxers for years.

After all, while at first the feminist in me was irked by the fact that it took a man to deliver a show like this to the masses--Judd Apatow, recent patron saint of complicated funny girls--I can now see this will do more for Apatow by being the one of best feathers in his cap yet.

"Girls" is not perfect and that's part of the beauty. But it deserves the attention it has been getting because it's going for the one way to survive the mess we've made of good loving and living in a world of economic adversity and electronic overstimulation: acknowledging the daunting hardship, but refusing to let it crush one's spirit. It has all that true gooey angst of life but wrapped in the gold foil of good and sometimes even bad humor. Its true edge does not come from the vapidly quirky "mumblecore" branding it's already being underestimated with. If you're really paying attention, its edge comes from the simple presentation of raw vulnerability as the force of real strength in this world. Just the stuff of all the girls I know and love.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Porochista Khakpour.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT